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Cities that Love Trees

Trees and a bench in a restful spot in Boise, Idaho
Trees in Boise, Idaho

In the fall of 2013, my husband, son and I spent several days in Boise, Idaho while attending a barbershop singing event. They love singing barbershop songs.

 

When I was purchasing items at the cash register of a large store there, the cashier told me a little bit about Boise. "Boise means the city of trees," she told me. She was proud of her city.

 

I could tell that trees mean a lot to people who live in Boise. Almost everywhere we went there were trees. They were well taken care of. Idaho residents have valued trees for a very long time.

 

Idaho received its statehood in 1890, but long before that pioneers decided to improve the community's appearance by planting many trees. They provided cool shade in a desert frontier. The wise efforts of early Idaho residents continue to play an important role in the city of Boise. Community members love and respect their trees, which help to improve the city's quality.

 

Boise Community Forestry helps with that effort. The organization was created to educate citizens and the city government about the aesthetic benefits of trees. They help to improve the economy, the environment, and the psychological well-being of people who live in and visit the city. Boise Community Forestry is a branch of Parks and Recreation. It helps the city, citizen groups and volunteers plant trees and keep them healthy.

 

There is even a tree selection guide to help people plant and cultivate the right kinds of trees for different areas. It is estimated that trees create a benefit of over $9 million each year by helping to provide clean air and clean water. They also reduce energy use, enhance property values and provide many human health benefits.

 

Boise is not the only city that focuses on trees. An annual recognition program called Tree Cities of the World helps cities to focus on excellent urban forest practices and management. The program was created in 2018 in a partnership between the Arbor Day Foundation and the United Nation's Food and Agricultural Organization.

 

It has been quite effective. Already there are 120 cities in 23 countries that are recognized as Tree Cities of the World. Trees make a subtle but incredible difference when they are valued and managed well.

 

I remember walking from our hotel to a grocery store in Boise and noticing how many trees grew around the store's parking lot. It almost seemed like the trees knew how much they were valued. It felt good to be around so many well cared for trees.

 

I will never forget the pride of that cashier in her city when she told me about how much Boise

loves its trees. It helped to make my visit there memorable.

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How the Shea Tree Saved a Village

A development expert helps a Ugandan village come back to life with shea trees
With the help of a Ugandan development expert, the shea tree saved a war ruined Uganda village.

Arbor Day is this Friday, April 30. It's a day to celebrate trees. That made me think about how I can celebrate trees. What I love to do is tell the trees in my front and back yards hello every time I walk near them. I thank them for being in my yard and for all the things they do to help make the space they occupy a better place.

 

During this week, I also enjoy reading about the special role some trees play in their community. There's a wonderful article in the March 12, 2021 The Guardian Weekly about how a man named Ojok Okello helped his Ugandan village of Okere Mom-Kok revive and thrive after more than a decade of war left it in ruins. He is doing it with the help of shea trees that grow in and around the village. The project is a social enterprise, and villagers work together to make their own decisions about the enterprise.

 

Okello told The Guardian Weekly, "I looked at the shea tree and realized that we have this important natural resource, and we were not harnessing it." The inspiration for using shea trees came to him from the Marvel block-buster movie, Black Panther. He was sitting under a shea tree outside his house one afternoon in early 2020 when the idea began to materialize. "I thought about Wakanda and Black Panther. They had vibranium. This shea tree could be our vibranium," he said. He decided to invest everything within his means to tap the resource of the shea trees, protect them, and use them to help his village come back to life and prosper.

 

The villagers make Okere Shea Butter and sell it in the capital, Kampala. Shea butter is made from a fatty substance that comes from nuts that grow in shea trees. It is often used in cosmetic skin preparations.

 

Shea trees are classed as an endangered species, which is threatened by extinction. Okello advocates for the protection and regeneration of the trees. Already the shea butter is catching on in Kampala, and Okere Mom-Kok is becoming a thriving and sustainable town of 4,000 people. Villagers have renamed their now thriving town Okere City.

 

Okello is the mover and shaker behind the plans that resulted in Okere City, which began in January 2019. Its 200 hectares, slightly over 494 acres, include a school, health clinic, a bank, and a community hall that also serves as a cinema, church and nightclub. The town even has a boxing team.

 

Electricity generated from solar energy is available to everyone, and the village now has clean water from a borehole, a deep, narrow hole made in the ground to locate water or oil. School is not free. Pupils pay cash for half of their school fees. The remainder they pay in maize, beans, sugar and firewood. Residents pay their clinic bills in installments.

 

The project would not have become successful if Okello had not initially funded it from his own pocket. Last year, the cost was about $54,000. Okello is a London School of Economics graduate who has worked as a development expert for several international charities and non-government organizations. He saw many projects fail because communities were not involved in decisionsabout their own future. That disillusioned him.

 

Okello was only a baby when he left the village of Okere Mom-Kok after his father was killed in the bush wars of the 1980s. After finding success as a development expert, he left that career and returned to the village, hoping to meet his extended family there. He wanted to use his extensive skills to create a project that was truly led by the villagers of Okere Mom-Kok.

 

He succeeded so well that now the village generates revenue. All of the projects, from the school and clinic to the local bar, all fund themselves. That's because the project Okello developed is not built as a charity but as a social enterprise in which every villager has a say in how the project is shaped now and into the future.

 

Villagers have a weekly investment club meeting in the community hall. Most of the more than 100 club members are women, many of them farmers. A few run small businesses. One woman got a loan from the club to buy shea seeds. She sold them at a profit, and she repaid her loan. Members make financial contributions before the money is redistributed as loans for members. Once they repay their loan, the money recycles back into the club so more members can get loans.

 

The shea tree played a vital role in this success story. Okello used his skills, the enthusiasm of the villagers, and the resource of shea trees to help his village resurrect itself from ruin to vibrant revival. Without the shea tree, that success might never have happened.

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Noticing the Sights and Sounds of Nature

Purple flowers begin to show themselves through the leaves of a grape hyacinth
Grape hyacinth starting to bloom

I was standing in my front yard on Easter Sunday, looking up at the large juniper tree beside my driveway. Birds bounced from branch to branch, singing their trilling songs. I watched the birds, intrigued by how easily they hopped through the tree. I listened to their intricate melodies.

 

All the little and big things that had been vying for attention in my mind took a back seat to the tree and the birds. Through the branches, I could see the neighbors across the street. They were having an Easter egg hunt in their front yard. The father lifted his toddler up to peer into the fork of a tall tree. The child's hand reached out and grasped an egg hidden there for him to find.

 

I listened to the excited voices of the children as they found treasures in the grass, behind rocks, and tucked next to the driveway. It was an idyllic scene. I came away from it, feeling refreshed after being around trees, birds, and a young family on an Easter egg hunt.

 

Taking time to enjoy the trees and the bird sounds in my own yard is a great way to de-stress. I don't spend much time doing that, but I may try to enjoy nature in my yard more than I have been. It has such a calming effect and puts things into better perspective.

 

The things I often stress over don't seem quite as stressful when I take time to listen to the sounds of nature around me and watch trees sway in a gentle wind.

 

Why don't we take more time to do things like that? Listening to nature's sounds are known to be good for our health because of the calming effect they have on us. For me, part of it is that I get so busy I don't think I have time to stop for a few minutes to listen to sounds around me and see the beauty of nature.

 

I did take a few minutes this morning to look at the plants starting to green up in the flower bed by my side door. A grape hyacinth was pushing up its purple blossoms. A rose bush sprouted new green leaves. A tulip lifted tall green blades toward the sky. And birds sang as they flitted in a spruce tree in my back yard.

 

When I went back inside after spending just a few minutes enjoying nature, I had more energy to tackle the tasks that awaited me. Everything seemed a little easier to do. Those few minutes spent paying attention to the beauty of nature around me weren't wasted time. I accomplished more in less time – just because I took a few moments to relax and notice, really notice, the loveliness around me.

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Signs of Spring

Swelling lilac buds on lilac bush branches
Swelling lilac buds

Swelling lilac buds tell me that purple, fragrant flowers are almost ready to blossom in my yard. Now that spring has come, the promise of blooming fruit trees and colorful bushes are not far away.

 

Someone will till my small garden plot in the corner of my backyard soon. I wonder how the rescue dog I adopted almost five months ago will react to all the scents and textures of spring. She leaps in the air out of pure joy, charges after neighborhood cats who dare to venture into the backyard, and delights in eating certain sprouting weeds.

 

She has the enthusiasm of a three-year-old dog, and I remind myself often that she's like a 21-year-old young lady full of youthful vigor. She races around the two spruce trees and cavorts across the dormant grass with delight every time I step out into the backyard.

 

She balances along a cement block wall that rims two sides of the yard, helping to hold dirt for raised flower beds. Last year, they grew dianthus, marigolds, petunias, pansies and zinnias. The dianthus will sprout in a few weeks – if they survive the dog.

 

I will spend more time in the yard, getting exercise, losing pounds gained during the cold winter months that kept me inside. One news report said that during the year of greater isolation due to the Covid-19 virus, some people gained up to 1.8 pounds a month. Taking walks outside or even just puttering in the yard will help to trim us down a little bit, or maybe a lot.

 

So many things to look forward to this spring! But, for the moment, what I look forward to most are watching those lovely lilacs bloom. And, of course, delighting in a dog who finds such joy in my company.

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Trees Recognize Their Offspring

Trees talk to each other and recognize their offspring. That's the title of an interesting article by Derek Markham updated January 11, 2021 on treehugger.com.

 

In it, Markham wrote that after large tracts of land left treeless from clearcutting are replanted, many people think that replanting is successful. But when one tree is replanted to replace another that has been cut down, it doesn't take into consideration an important reality. Trees form families, and mothers take special care of their tree offspring.

 

The article quoted forest ecologist Suzanne Simard, who spoke at TEDSummit 2016. She has spent three decades researching trees in Canada's forests. Simard told the listeners that trees are much more than a collection of plants independent of each other.

 

She began to wonder if trees could recognize their own kin like parents recognize their children and mother grizzlies know their own cubs. So she and others began an experiment in which they grew mother trees with both their kin and with strangers' seedlings. Among the measurements they used was isotope tracing. With it, they traced carbon and other defense signals "moving from an injured mother tree down her trunk into the mycorrhizal network and into her neighboring seedlings." A mycorrhizal network is made up of underground networks created by mycorrhizal fungi that eventually result in mushrooms. Those fungi connect individual plants together. They transfer water, carbon, nitrogen, and other nutrients and minerals.

 

The experiment revealed that mother trees really do recognize their own kin. They do many things to help their seedlings prosper. Mother trees send their own seedlings "more carbon below ground," Simard said. "They even reduce their own root competition to make elbow room for their kids. When mother trees are injured or dying, they also send messages of wisdom on to the next generation of seedlings."

 

Without any visible proof except my own experience, I've noticed if you spend enough time around certain trees with a respectful attitude, they come to trust you. In a way I don't understand, they let other trees know they can trust you too. If you think that couldn't be, try experimenting with the idea. Spend time around trees you enjoy. Express gratitude for them. Meditate near them. Listen with your heart to sense if they need something from you.

 

Once you establish a trusting connection with one or more trees, when you travel somewhere else you may sense that trees you don't know want your attention. Somehow they have learned you're someone to be trusted. If you get to know trees, don't be surprised if other trees want your attention as well.

 

Our world is more connected that we often realize. Just as trees communicate with their own seedlings, they can develop a relationship with us as well. Those connections are beneficial to us if we take the time to cultivate an appreciation for trees.

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Trees Anticipate the Coming of Spring

When trees such as Russian olives sprout new leaves in spring, they provide safe nesting places for birds and other animals.
Leaves sprout on Russian olive tree, providing shelter for animals.

During warmer days of late winter, a taste of spring hangs in the air. I notice it sometimes when I walk near a tree. There is a sense of anticipation, almost like an awakening that comes from the trees.

 

Most of nature rests during winter months. With the approach of spring, there is the hint of new growth and sunny weather that wraps trees, bushes and plants of all kinds in expectant energy. Fruit trees collect that warmth to know when it's time to blossom into colorful flowers with a promise of fruit later on – if cold, frosty weather doesn't return.

 

Anticipation of the spring to come carries bumps along the way. Among those bumps for trees are below freezing weather late in the season and harsh winds.

 

Life is like that. There are cracks and barriers on our pathways. Sometimes they seem overwhelming, especially when several problems show up close together. They appear one right after the other before we've even had time to recover from the last one.  But, like the approach of spring, there are more good days than challenging ones.

 

As you walk near trees during this late winter season, absorb their confidence that spring is coming. Remind yourself that good days ahead will outnumber unpleasant ones. Absorb that knowing from the trees. It brings hope. And hope helps us to keep going even during the worst of days.

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What Helps You Know Spring Is Coming?

Almond tree blooms in spring with pink flowers
Blooming almond tree

As I trimmed a rose bush in my back yard this week so it will be ready for warmer spring weather, I looked at other plants outside my house. Were buds starting to swell yet? No, it still isn't time for bushes and trees to start blooming in the area where I live. But as the weeks progress and the weather slowly starts to warm, they will sense that warming up time. When their intricate inner mechanisms tell them that blooming season has arrived, it will be time for buds to swell, for fruit trees to start the blooming process, for grass to green up, and for the neighborhood to sparkle with color.

 

If trees and bushes and other plants can tell when it's time for spring, how do we know that spring is coming? Do we also have an inner clock? Does something tell us warmer weather is on the way even while we still bundle up in our sweaters and jackets?

 

I imagine that we each have our own ways of telling when spring is on its way. Not only can we see that the thermometer is slowly climbing into higher digits, but we notice it doesn't take quite so many layers of clothing to stay warm outside.

 

Perhaps, like the plants, we have an inner mechanism that tell us when spring is coming too. Do we start to feel a little more excited? Now that January is finally over, does it seem like spring is less far away?  Do we feel the anticipation of warmer weather, of working in the garden, of playing with friends outside in weather that doesn't make our cheeks turn red with cold?

 

Here's a thought. If you could draw a picture of what your inner mechanism of spring's approach looks like inside of you, what would you draw? Would you draw a hidden away switch somewhere between your heart and your brain? Or would you draw something you can see outside of yourself? Would you draw yourself standing beside a bush surrounded by snow that holds its head high with the hope of spring? Would you draw a picture of your dog rolling joyfully on its back in grass still yellow with winter's sleep?

 

If you do decide to draw such a picture, once you're done, talk about it with your family. Ask how they sense that spring is coming. Hang your picture up in your room or on the refrigerator, or show it to your friends and ask them what their inner spring sensor looks like. You all will likely have different ideas to share. Have fun!

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Take a Rest to Be Productive

Cottonwood tree has no leaves in winter
Cottonwood tree in winter

On these cold days, sometimes I look at trees with leafless branches and think that they are taking a well-deserved rest.

 

A rest is something that could benefit all of us. There are times, if we can find them, when we need quiet, restful moments to help us refuel before more active, busy times. Trees, like nature, instinctively understand the value of slowing down and taking time to rest.

 

Sometimes we're so busy and so focused on the next thing that needs to be done that we can't imagine taking a little time off. We think if we take a break, the competition will overtake us. Or we'll never catch up. Or we'll miss important things that are taking place.

 

There are often extra tasks to do when we get back to work. But something else often happens. Because we feel more rested, ideas flow better. Ways to tackle tough problems are easier to access. We have a better connection to wisdom that helps us make quality decisions.

 

There's something to be said for giving ourselves time to rest. Creativity blossoms, enthusiasm bubbles up, sound choices reveal themselves.

 

When I walk through my neighborhood and see trees with leafless branches, I take comfort in knowing that the leaves will flourish again this spring. And I know I too can take a break. I can give myself time to rest so I will flow with ideas, better ones than I would have had if I hadn't taken a break.

 

Take a tip from the trees. You need to rest. You're more productive when you give yourself time to relax.

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How to find peace of mind

People walk among trees near river
Walking among trees near the Animas River in Farmington, NM

As we faced on January 6 perhaps the most dangerous challenge to our country we had ever experienced, when domestic terrorists tried to stop the United States Congress from certifying the Electoral College votes that confirmed the victory of President-Elect Joe Biden, we found ourselves in different locations, different frames of mind, and different levels of emotion.

 

How do we get past that? How do we become a united country again? How do we continue to function with some peace of mind?

 

The people lawfully appointed to handle justice will determine what happens to those domestic terrorists, but how do we carry on? How do we find the peace of mind to perform our daily tasks?

 

Those of us who have developed some proficiency with prayer and/or meditation can turn to that. But not all of us are very adept at prayer or meditation.

 

In those times of agitation, fear, anger, or confusion, it can be helpful to find a place nearby where there are quite a few trees. Take a walk among those trees. As you walk, try to calm yourself by noticing details about the trees – the texture of their bark, the shape of their leaves, how tall they grow, how wide they spread their branches.

 

When you notice such things, you are starting to take your mind off of other things. One of the first steps to practicing prayer or meditation is to take your focus off of those other things and place them on getting into a state of quiet contemplation.

 

That first step can be so hard it may seem impossible. But persevere. See the trees as allies in your efforts to gain a sense of calm. As you keep at it, you may notice that your breathing slows and your mind quits churning quite so much.

 

Give yourself enough time as you walk among the trees to sense that you are calming down. You are beginning to find a sense of peace.

 

Though walking among trees is not the only way to find a calmer, more peaceful frame of mind, it can be quite effective. Whatever works best for you, see if you can practice it a little bit every day. When you do, you will find that peace and calmness stay with you longer, even when you find yourself in difficult circumstances.

 

May you find the way that works best for you and keep practicing it. The more people who do that, the more our efforts will help to expand calm and peace all around the world. Then, when we face dangerous challenges, negative emotions and attitudes will have less of an impact.

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Keeping Hope Alive

Cottonwood tree shelters a tent
Tent under a cottonwood tree in Simon Canyon, northwest New Mexico

As we venture into 2021, coming out of 2020 full of grief, worry, frustration and a boatload of other emotions, it can be hard to feel hopeful.

 

Even so, there are reasons to keep our hope alive and to look forward to positive change. When I worry that more people I know could get very sick with Covid-19 and its emerging virus strains, I think about trees.

 

What could trees teach us? They have weathered all kinds of challenges, from invasive beetles to the possibility of being cut down, and they've faced a whole host of other threats from many different sources. What keeps them going?

 

They are rooted to one spot. They can't run away from danger. But they can draw on strengths. They change their behavior as needed to stay healthy.

 

In the winter, trees go dormant. As some animals hibernate during the winter, trees slow down their metabolism. That helps them to conserve the food they have stored. They want it to last since they don't make food in the winter. That's the season when they slow down their energy consumption and growth. Many trees shed their leaves in the winter because they don't need the leaves to help them form simple sugar, their kind of food, in the presence of sunlight, a process called photosynthesis. That sugar helps to give them energy, but in winter they take a rest.

 

Just as trees go into a dormant state during the winter, in this time of Covid-19, we need to slow down our activities by staying indoors more, not gathering in large groups, and shopping in stores only for essentials. If we wear masks, keep at least six feet from other people, and wash our hands frequently, we also reduce the chance of getting the virus. Those are all activities that slow us down and make us practice different behavior than we normally would. It can be frustrating and downright maddening to have to change our behaviors. But it gives us and others a better chance to remain healthy.

 

Trees know how to be dormant. They do it naturally. They slow their activity level to stay healthy during the winter. If trees can adjust their behavior during winter to keep themselves safe, perhaps it doesn't seem quite so limiting to adjust our behavior too.

 

Trees also do something called respiration. In this process, they convert energy stored in the form of glucose, the sugar that leaves and sunlight produce during photosynthesis. That energy is needed to carry out the tree's metabolic reactions, which occur even in winter. During respiration, carbon dioxide oozes through the trees' pores. Carbon dioxide is essential to create the energy trees need to keep themselves healthy. They get a lot of that carbon dioxide from animals, including humans, when we breathe out that gas. In return, trees give off oxygen, which is toxic to them, but we would die without enough of it.

 

No matter how challenging life may be for them at times, trees continue to create the carbon

dioxide they need and to get rid of the oxygen that we need. If they didn't keep doing what they need to do to survive, we wouldn't be able to survive ourselves.

 

When I look at trees, I don't often think about the chemical reactions that happen within them. I just enjoy their beauty, the shade their provide, and the habitat they offer for birds and other critters.

 

I'm glad trees remain committed to doing what comes naturally to survive. It helps me think that, even though it's not easy to wear a mask, social distance, and wash my hands often, it is helping to give me and others a better chance to stay healthy. That gives me hope.

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