Connect with your Favorite Tree

by Caroline Eliot, CREA Executive Director

Trees are my favorite things in nature. They are majestic, with their canopies up in the sky, yet gentle, soothing us with shade on a warm day or the quiet rustling of leaves on a day when we need respite from the world.  And they are generous, providing an abundance of food and shelter to countless birds, mammals, insects and more. Recent findings that they share resources with each other through underground connections (mycorrhizae) – across tree species – only reinforces their wonderfulness.

Trees perform all sorts of magic that benefits us humans. They remove carbon dioxide and pollution from the air (with proven benefits to human health), reduce storm water runoff and flooding, improve water quality, provide natural cooling in summer, and so much more. By taking up carbon dioxide, trees help to mitigate climate change. Not to mention the fact that native trees function as giant bird feeders, providing food (caterpillars, insects…) AND shelter to our favorite feathered friends. Trees have a pretty high cool factor, in my book.

I recently discovered a resource – MyTree – that allows you to explore the  benefits provided by individual trees in your neighborhood. I was captivated by this short video of a few Bostonians talking about their trees. I was delighted to learn that city dwellers value their trees as much as this country dweller.

MyTree is part of a larger cooperative effort (called i-Tree) between the USDA Forest Service, Davey Tree Expert Company, The Arbor Day Foundation, Society of Municipal Arborists, International Society of Arboriculture, Casey Trees, and SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

The goal of i-Tree is to inform forest management and support forest advocacy by pulling together citizen-gathered data on forests and their environmental benefits. While there’s plenty to explore in i-Tree, my interest starts with one of its offshoots – MyTree – because it taps into our personal experience of trees. In a nutshell, it gives us a tool for wrapping our brains around how individual trees make our lives better. Perhaps, as we get to know and appreciate some of the individual trees in our lives, that appreciation will inspire us to action – to protect all the trees in our lives, and other people’s lives.

I started with a large sugar maple behind my house, one of a pair. (It’s one of two trees right behind the house in the above pic.) We know it’s around one hundred years old, because while large, it’s not visible in a photo of our house that was taken in the 1890s. Sugar maples are my favorite trees – for their syrup, the pleasing shape of their leaves, the gorgeous hues they turn in autumn, their deeply furrowed grey bark, and their helicopter seeds (aka ‘whirligigs’ or more technically, samaras) which we peeled apart and stuck on our noses as children.

I love these two trees because they are our air conditioning in the summer. Without the shade they provide, we would bake inside our old, thinly insulated house. And, when my boys were infants, I’d park them underneath their shade and watch them stare up at the intricate pattern of the leaf canopy in fascination. Perhaps it’s no surprise that almost thirty years later, both work in jobs that involve caretaking trees!

I measured my maple’s circumference (104 inches, which translates to 33 inches in diameter), assessed its condition, and entered the information into MyTree. The app generated a handy little table that tells me my tree has stored almost 21,000 pounds of carbon over its lifetime. It gives additional info on how much air pollution it removes annually, how much energy it ‘saves’ in summer cooling costs (if we had A/C, which we don’t, because we have the trees), how much rainfall it intercepts and stormwater runoff it avoids. The numbers are all estimates, but they give voice to all the good this tree is doing as it stands patiently, weathering sun, rain, wind, and all the human-generated challenges we throw at it.

I also measured a sugar maple we planted in front of our house 25 years ago. Recognizing the value of the two trees behind the house for summer cooling, we hoped to cool our kitchen (in the shed attached to the main house) which warmed quickly in summer with its easterly orientation. We hacked a spindly six-foot maple out of the understory of a nearby grove, cutting some of the larger roots along the way. We figured if it didn’t survive, we could always replace it with a nursery tree.

Serendipitously, we planted it in the fall which, unbeknownst to us at the time, is a good time to plant trees. Lots of available moisture in the next 6-8 months to establish roots. We had modest expectations and it didn’t do much the first few years. But lo and behold, that tree is now 40 feet high (taller than our house), 14 inches in diameter, and providing valuable cooling shade to our kitchen. You know that saying about planting trees under whose shade we will never sit? Turns out that even in Maine, you CAN benefit from the shade of a tree you plant, if you stay in one place long enough!

Still in its teens (in tree life), my 25 year-old tree has already sequestered 3,237.26 pounds of carbon. When I first looked at the numbers I thought, ‘Geez, that’s not that much…’ but that thought was followed by, ‘That’s just ONE tree!’

With the climate already in flux, we have to take the long game, in addition to doing everything we can in the near term to reduce our carbon footprints. Trees can be great allies in mitigating the impacts of climate change – taking carbon out of the air, reducing flooding, improving air quality, and supporting native flora and fauna.

Find a favorite tree and learn what it is doing to make our world better. It might be an inspiration to plant some young upstarts!