I’ve always respected and admired trees, and the green foliage of spring is an annual reminder of their value. Possibly my admiration comes from growing up in the Texas Panhandle. The High Plains country is an endless sea of rolling grasslands that survive without much water. It is a fitting environment to raise livestock and grow a variety of crops suited to dry land and irrigation. Trees, however, are not abundant.
As a young adult I left the Panhandle and moved 700 miles southeast to Houston. East Texas is a dense forest of trees and thickets, and I’d drive into this lush countryside called the Big Thicket just to marvel at the trees, even though gasoline was a “pricey” 25 cents per gallon.
My letters home told more about the trees lining Houston streets than about me. I didn’t know then that trees are far more important than just their beauty, or the shade and the protection they supply. I’ve learned since that trees are nature’s air and water filters.
Planting a grove of trees is one of the cheapest and most effective means of reducing carbon dioxide levels polluting our atmosphere. Trees store carbon in their roots and trunk and release oxygen into the air through their leaves. For example, Los Angeles is using trees to fight air pollution. The city plans to grow one million trees that will soak up carbon generated by all those cars clogging the LA freeways. In one year these pollution-fighting trees could absorb enough carbon dioxide to equal the amount of C02 produced by driving a car 26,000 miles. I wonder—how many trees would it take to harmlessly slowdown those maniacal California drivers?
Besides reducing carbon in our atmosphere, poplar and willow trees absorb toxic chemicals. They harbor helpful fungi and bacteria that grow in the tangled masses of roots digging deep into the ground, sucking out waste and the harmful chemicals buried there. These contaminants are biodegraded and then released as vapors into the air. Now that’s truly going green!
This process of using trees to resolve environmental pollution is called phytoremediation, so it seems to me this makes trees phytoremediators—like an Incredible Hulk sprouting leaves and branches. These plant or phyto superheroes can remediate or remedy some of our most dangerous contaminants such as mercury. For example, one tree can pump more than 15 gallons of water daily. Municipalities and corporations can plant fast-growing trees on top of a toxic waste dump full of mercury or other deadly chemicals, and let their roots go to work.
Maryland has its own famous tree. Although a violent June thunderstorm in 2002 felled the mighty Wye Oak, state nurserymen had been growing seedlings from its acorns. This champion white oak tree lives on through its offspring that thrive in Maryland and across the United States. Drive down Route 662 sometime to the remains of the old Wye Oak; you’ll see a descendant standing tall in its former trunk.
No wonder the ancient Druids and Native Americans revered trees, and today many groups vigorously fight to protect the forests that are left and to stop deforestation. Plant a tree, and it will cool down the Earth or remove toxic waste—what a simple way to confront some of our complex environmental problems!