Without question, many of the superlatives in the previous list are seen in the tree. Their variety seems endless, with new species and sub-species continually being discovered. For those of us who live in the temperate zones, it seems unlikely that new tree varieties are still being found. In the US there are about 850 tree species— and there are more species in the Appalachian Mountains of the US than in all of Europe. However, there are more varieties of trees in a few acres of a Malaysian rainforest than in the entire United States! In the temperate forests of North America there are about 400 tree species, but on the island of Madagascar alone there are more than 2,000.
Trees are not only impressive in their variety, they are the tallest, largest, and oldest living things on the planet. A eucalyptus tree at Watts River in Victoria, Australia, was close to 500 feet before it fell in the late 1800s. The tallest living tree known today is a coast redwood near Ukiah, California. Known as the “Mendocino Tree,” it measures 367.5 feet. Its diameter is almost 11 feet and its age is over 1,000 years. A bristlecone pine tree in California’s White Mountains is thought to be the oldest tree at 4,600 years. To think that something lives today that was alive when the Egyptians were building the pyramids is still hard for us to grasp. No wonder that the tree is a virtually universal symbol for long life.
The tree is also unmatched in its size. The largest known tree living today is the “General Sherman” sequoia tree in California’s Sequoia National Park. It stands 275 feet tall, has a diameter of 28 feet, has a volume of 52,500 cubic feet, and weighs an estimated 2.7 million pounds. Clearly the General Sherman tree could provide comfortable quarters for several Swiss Family Robinsons!
While these superlatives about a few rare individual trees are impressive, perhaps more impressive is the work that all trees accomplish and the benefits they provide for the remainder of the earth’s biosphere (the realm in which the living things of the earth exist).
Understanding how important trees are to all of life, we may decide to reject the old adage that a dog is man’s best friend. Here’s a list of some of the things trees do for us:
• Provide oxygen
• Moderate temperature
• Enhance rainfall
• Collect and absorb dust and other atmospheric pollutants
• Protect the earth from rapid climate change
• Produce and protect healthy soil
• Provide food
• Provide shelter and/or cover for many animals and birds
• Provide protection for thousands of species of sun-sensitive plants
• Provide healing products
• Provide building products
• Provide paper products
• Provide wood
• Provide fuel
• Provide sensory stimulation and the experience of beauty
• Provide living fences that hold back drifting sand and snow
• Reduce light intensity from the sun
• Provide privacy
• Protect watersheds for communities
• Produce a sense of rootedness and community
One of the joys of examining the book of God’s Works is discovering the evidence of the Creator’s unmatched intelligence and incredible ingenuity. When one examines the miracle of the tree and its function, it’s hard to believe there are scientists who deny the existence of a Creator.
The first amazing fact about the tree’s physiology is its critical part in the carbon cycle. In essence, the tree takes in sunlight, gases from the air, and water, and it produces wood, leaves, fruit, and other elements critical for all life on earth. This process is called “photosynthesis,” a scientific term from Latin, which means “to put together with light.” And that’s exactly what happens in trees. They’re put together with light!
A greatly simplified description of the process is this: Tree leaves are green because they contain a vital substance called chlorophyll. This chlorophyll receives sunlight and mixes it with carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and water that has been drawn up from the ground through the roots, trunk, branches, and stems. This mix is turned into the carbohydrate glucose, a simple sugar. This sugar becomes the food for the tree, which through its God-given mechanisms manufactures all its critical structures—mostly wood and leaves. In the process of doing all this work, the living factory happens to produce atmospheric oxygen as a byproduct. Blessed be the tree!
So as we putter through each day breathing out carbon dioxide and flooding the air with it from our motorized vehicles, factories, and stoves, the trees and other green plants are“breathing” it in and then “exhaling” oxygen. In a sense, trees and you and I are a team that, through give and take, support each other in our work—work that can give praise to our Creator.
Trees also demonstrate God’s lavish provision. Not only do they build their own structure and give all living things oxygen, they also produce a surplus of carbohydrates in the form of sweet sap, healing leaves and oils, and nourishing fruit, nuts, and seeds. The wood we use for our homes, our furniture, our fireplaces, our paper, and thousands of other products is the result of the work of this amazing living machine. According to Encarta, these gifts from the tree and other photosynthesizing organisms are so abundant that about 170 billion metric tons of extra carbohydrates are produced each year. That’s a total of 30 metric tons for every person on earth! Included in this is the approximately 100 billion cubic feet of wood harvested annually from the world’s forests.