I noticed the sign when we trundled into town. Tree City USA. I had heard that title before. A fellow member of my city's green task force wanted our city to earn the distinction as well. Awarded by the charmingly old-fashioned Arbor Day Foundation, qualifying cities received some sort of benefits - free trees or a boost in image or something like that. I'd never thought much about trees. They're great and all but Tree City USA?
The next morning, with the temperature climbing quickly, my husband and I decided to bike down to the local park. We'd let the boys burn off energy before this summer's record heat forced everyone inside.
We climbed onto our bikes and wheeled out of the driveway. Instead of turning left toward the park, my husband gestured right - up the hill. We'd biked there last night - with the sun setting and my parents watching our sleeping children. It narrowed to a one lane country road, bordered by blackberry bushes and rustling with unseen lizards and deer.
It was beautiful. It was also uphill . . . and hot.
Because my boys had never nibbled berries from wild brambles and because my husband was already a block ahead, I decided to suck it up. I turned right and, towing my three year old in a bike trailer, pumped into the hills.
Halfway to the blackberries, I caught up with my husband and oldest son. A breeze sifted through the towering oaks and shook the clambering vines. "It's downright cool back here," my husband looked back at me. Gazing up, into a forest of lichen-coated oaks, I realized he was right. I had not broken a sweat and it had nothing to do with the sort of shape I'm in. The trees shaded the road, the bikes, us, and, best of all, the blackberry bushes.
That afternoon, the thermometer staggered toward the 105 mark. Sitting in the cool shade of my parents' persimmon tree as my oldest monkeyed up their ancient fig tree, I thought about trees.
Tree provide shade. They make a hot day more bearable, magically sucking up the sun's heat and offering a leaf-strewn canopy instead. Trees also supply habitat for birds, insects and small mammals. For humans, they offer beauty and dimension to a landscape and, if of the right variety, more fruit than one family can possibly consume. They remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, store carbon in their trunks and soil and release oxygen into the atmosphere. "Trees fight soil erosion, conserve rainwater, and reduce water runoff and sediment deposit after storms." Viewed in that light, trees are the true environmental superheroes.
Long lauded as an antidote to climate change, recent studies have shown that planting trees in the Northern Hemisphere will not slow down global warming. However, with an ice free Arctic possible this summer, we must think about adapting to climate change - not just abating it. On a hotter planet, where wildlife struggles to find a home, where rainfall dwindles and food becomes scare, we'd all be better off with another tree or two. We'd all be better off in a Tree City USA.
* photograph courtesy of Arbor Day Foundation.