One Tree Singing

What Does a Tree Do All Day?

One tree performs many functions

Every day a tree goes to work. It flexes and grows, repairs and renews. It draws nutrients to the top, distributes water to the leaves, and when the season is right, it flowers and fruits. Lucky for humanity, the fruit is just the cherry on top. Let’s celebrate how forests serve to keep humanity happy.

Undercover, the roots help collect nutrients, keep a grip on soil and rocks, search for new territory, negotiate pathways, and often exchange benefits with other roots and fungi. The roots even whisper to other like-minded tree roots.

Up above, the treetops are busy attracting pollinators and friendly fertilisers (birds and mammals), deflecting damaging wind, keeping warm, and sheltering their young saplings. Impressively, a tree can regulate the temperature around itself by regulating the moisture content in its trunk. This is an additional feat on top of the great thermal mass quality of wood.

photo taken at australian tropical foods nursery QLD https://www.capetribfarm.com.au/
Tropical fruits capetribfarm

A tree is a busy organism but it is never alone. Every tree belongs to a community of forest organisms. Even in death, the tree decomposes and recomposes itself through its relationship with forest organisms.

Oblivious of their importance to humanity, the tree absorbs CO2 and releases life-giving Oxygen. But surprisingly, recent research shows that many trees, worldwide have hit their limit and are now shouting a warning.

Specialist Trees

Dartmoor forest

There are some highly specialised. ‘Super-trees‘ powers ranged from diesel nuts, leaves that can burn whilst wet, abundant fruit, or communities of creatures. Occasionally a tree can be big enough to shelter a family, provide timber that never rots, live for thousands of years, support kilometers of fungi underground, or hold steep slopes of mighty mountains. Many trees communicate for miles underground.

There are at least 10 types of trees that humanity depends upon. The yield is potentially limitless due to the capacity for the exponential growth of a forest. They provide fuel, food, oils, forage, structural, conservation, carbon sequestration, soil management, animal barriers, and fungal & microbial habitat.

Energy from trees

a Chinese kang uses small twigs to cook food and heat the bed.
Chinese Kang uses small windfall twigs to cook food and heat the bed

Fuel from trees comes in many forms. You can choose from solid fuel (wood) and flammable leaves, bark, oil and ‘diesel’ nuts. Solid fuel comes from windfalls (cones from nut pines, fallen wood) or harvest cuts (thinning, or felling). David Holmgren writes that solid fuels are the most useful energy resource globally because: we can plan for their harvest, they are easy to cut, require little training to use, convert easily to energy, hard to steal or vandalise, and renew themselves. Some timber ie. Eucalyptus leaves will even burn wet. Diesel and Petroleum treesburn like candles.

The Brazilian tropical rainforest tree Copaifera langsdorffii commonly known as Capaiba (Tupi Indian word cupa-yba), a legume, is called the diesel treeThe tree is tapped sustainably like maple syrup. More powerful n-Heptane is distilled from the oil of Pittosporum resiniferum.
Another form of fuel is BioGas from coppiced tree material via composting for methane collection.

Food and Alcohol on Tap

dancing ferments

More than 80% of the world’s food species came from the rainforest. The permaculture food forest diversifies the yeild. It usually mixes fruit and nut trees. Because, unlike the commercial orchard, the permaculture fruits do not all have to ripen at once to go to market. In fact, it is handy to have a longer period of harvest. This extend the season and avoid gluts. In addition, the food forest trees have a variety of roles. Strong food trees support vine crops. Whereas short-lived trees act as nurse young canopy trees. Tall evergreens huddle as wind-breaks. While a deciduous pear gently shades the balcony.

Oils from Forests

There is a myriad of herbal, medicinal, culinary, and cosmetic oils from trees. Most famously Frankincense and Myrrh. Common oils today include Pine, Eucalyptus, Olive, Teatree, and Neem.

Out on the Forest Farm

Forests for animal forage and fodder are all but forgotten by modern farming. Many varieties excellent, nutritious fodder for animals. Forming living fences, hedges, they shelter as well as feed farm animals. In return, the cattle and sheep fertilise the fodder trees. In addition, forest shrubbery and leaf litter filter any excess nitrogen. Forage Examples include: Oak, Poplar, Acacia aneura (Mulga), Albizia Julibrissa (Leguminous, deciduousfast growing, regenerates) and Dodnaea viscosa (Hop bush),

Living Fences

Hedging technique in Dartmoor U.K.

Animal barrier systems such as hedges are stronger, longer-lasting, and more durable than fences. Hedges might look chaotic, but the borders can be trimmed. The chaos can have boundaries. Hedges permit small creatures to pass underneath and larger animals/people and cars to stay out.

Thinking Bigger

Structural Products

Many trees were big enough to shelter a traveller. Even Plato wrote about trees too big to put his arms around. Good old fashioned lumber (wood for building) is still in business. Valued attributes include flexibility, lightweight, thermal mass and pliability. Traditional buildings in Japan use wood to build earthquake-safe housing. Wood has more to offer. Recently, an 18 storey Skyscraper was built out of engineered wood in Norway.

Big Network, Big Potential

There are kilometers of fungi in just a cup of soil. These Fungi & Microbe powerhouses can convert sugars into energy sources more readily than machines. Paul Stamets shows how mushrooms can save the world.

Indirect Benefits To Humanity

Giant Lilly Pilly

Conservation/Wildlife Habitat The preservation of habitat makes good economic sense as much as an ethical sense. If nothing more, we can keep healthy forests as a bank of diverse genetic material because most of it we have not yet recognised it’s full value to us. Machines might be able to create clean air, water, soil, and find nutrients but our prosperity still depends upon nature’s bank of genetic diversity.

Carbon Sequestration is the long-term storage of carbon dioxide or other forms of carbon to either mitigate or defer global warming and avoid dangerous climate change. Long living trees are excellent guardians of carbon. Many trees live thousands of years (including olives) however, clonal colonies of trees have the potential to be immortal. Pando, an 80,000-year-old colony of Quaking Aspen, is the oldest known clonal tree.

Forests Build Their Own World

Forests create and protect soil. Trees will halt erosion by holding banks of steep slopes and trapping centuries of organic matter. They even create their own rain by trapping moisture with the leaves seed the clouds by releasing fungi and other particles. Best of all, forests can create a beneficial micro-climate.  

Energise Your Future

Growing Transition

Last century, humans used wood to make steam, to turn pistons that turned wheels on tracks to move people from station to station. Before that, we would grow grain to feed to horses that pulled the wagons of cut trees we used to heat our homes and cook food. These technologies still work, that in the future the technologies will be cleaner and more efficient.

Today, we use a lot of electricity. one of the biggest challenges for the conversion to natural energy use is finding a form that is compatible with the system we already have. Nicole Foss talks about our limitations due to the current dependence on particular forms of energy. At the moment, mankind is dependent on either electricity from an aging grid network and on liquid fuel or gas for transport. Biogas and other energy transition technologies allow us to convert existing equipment such as gas cookers and tractors.

Looking ahead, transition technologies will connect us more easily with the type of energy that nature offers.

Plant Now. Enjoy in 2050.

Forests are facing three big threats. The first threat comes land clearing, the second from global warming and thirdly, increasing public fear of fire.

Making space for nature begins with making space for trees. Understanding the different products and services that forests offer and using trees to fit well with the urban space will create healthier cities. “Traditionally human settlement has set about to conquer nature and exclude other species. It is time to realise that part of our ecological happiness comes from other species.” Evolutionary biologist Prof Menno Schilthuizen

What Can One Do?

People have the power to increase urban forests because ownership of most of the open spaces is actually in private hands. We learn from nature by reconnecting, getting involved in citizen nature projects, and building the ability to observe. Ultimately, we begin to partner with nature.

Do we need a reason to reforest the earth? Perhaps we should do it simply because we can.

"It is the range of biodiversity that we must care for - the whole thing - rather than just one or two stars" David Attenborough

Permaculture mimics nature. By observing how nature faces challenges, we design for smarter and efficient uses of her resources.

Biomimicry & Permaculture Today

Janine Benysus, in her ground-breaking book Biomimicry, acknowledged Permaculture as a way to create food forests by mimicking the workings of the natural forest. The insights are still relevant. She had predicted Nature would be a powerful educational model. There are now an abundance of designs based on nature. One of these thriving design sciences is evident in the number of good mature permaculture sites worldwide.

And as we develop more observation skills, Nature becomes our patient mentor.

Revisiting Biomimicry’s Principles

Janine Benyus1: “9 Basic Principles of Biomimicry and how they work:

  1. Nature runs on sunlight. This is true of nearly every living creature, but not all.  The very rare exceptions include tubeworms in the depths of the ocean that eat chemicals released from volcanos. There are recent discoveries showing a few rare organisms do not need full sunlight. And sadly, with climate change we are witnessing the struggle of some plants to survive in full sunlight. The permaculture strategy to stack plants in a food forest is valuable here. We can fit a lot of plants into an intensive space and out-compete weeds.
  2. Epping forest, London IPUK delegates from Africa and Hong Kong marvel at the wasted abundance in a major city

    Nature uses only the energy it needs. If a creature harvests more than it needs, the harvest is not wasted. Squirrels often forget where they buried their nuts, these nuts either sprout into new trees or are eaten by other creatures. The trees benefit from this forgetful relationship.
    Most predators will kill only the weak animals in a herd. Most kill only as needed. There are always puzzling exceptions. Foxes will bury their kill and dig it up to eat later, they believe in banking. But it is difficult to see the wisdom of a predator that kills all the flock of hens without leaving some animals to reproduce. Perhaps cunning doesn’t imply planning skills as seen in Ants farming fungus or aphids.

  3. Nature fits form to function.
    When a function is needed, a form evolves: The camel evolved great nostrils to minimise water-loss. The termite uses insulation to prevent the nest from overheating. Bears and skunks burrow for comfortable hibernation. Functional design today learns fr
    om nature.
    Nature Knows How - Soft Technology
  1. Nature recycles everything.
    Energy, chemicals, and matter are used and reused by nature. Where there is desolation, very little matter is moved or transformed but where there is life there is constant change.
  2.  Nature rewards cooperation.
    bumble_bee_yellow_flowerThis is essential in the web-of-life. Many plants rely on close relationship with their pollinators. Flowers reward the bees by providing them with nectar. There are often competitors and cheats in a natural system (eg. robber bees who by-pass the stamens and raid the nectar by drilling holes in the base of the lower) but the bulk of the work is done through happy, productive relationships.
  3. Nature banks on diversity.
    Through diversity, there are many different types of creatures, with a variety of habits and needs. There is an intricate co-habitation in a rich tapestry of living organisms.
  4. we found our niche and we are filling it!Nature demands local expertise. In some species, we find local expertise, size and functional diversity in the one colony. Ants are a good example of diversity and are one of the most successful and diverse species on the planet (15–25% of the terrestrial animal biomass.[8)
  5. Nature curbs excesses from within. When there is a limit of resources, many natural processes will curb population growth. Some species are less fertile without adequate nutrients. Some species of animals can delay the implantation of a fertile embryo, enabling them to delay pregnancy until the season is more favourable.
  6. Nature taps the power of limits.
    This principle was more
    controversial at time of writing and is has mixed metaphores (a limit is not a power source) so it is difficult to qualify.
    Janine wrote:
    “real survivors are the Earth inhabitants that have lived millions of years without consuming their ecological capital, the base from which all abundance flows.” Our ecological capital includes energy, nutrients and genetic material.  Fortunately, for humanity, there a constant and free energy input from the sun, a strong life force and a rich bank of genetic material.  With careful management we can maintain a clean supply of nutrients.

permaculture_farm_Ideas-1024x601Limits create responses. Innovation such as variation and diversity is stimulated by limits.  Because farming exports nutrients, there are real limits. 

Some farming ideas can help reduce nutrient loss ie. with the use of good water management to help minimise erosion. We can build soil organically by supporting micro-fauna and flora.

An integrated system like Permaculture uses less ecological capital.  It recognises our limits helps us focus for resilience.
1Benyus, Janine (1997). Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. New York, USA: William Morrow & Company. ISBN 978-0-688-16099-9.

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