Psychology and Trees: The Missing Role of Place


In California, a young tree looked on as a group of people engineered bark and wood into what would become the first boat. Four thousand years later the same tree, Methuselah, now overlooks a town that hosts a wild, wild west marathon.  Trees have witnessed the worst of human nature – lynching, war, and treason – and the best of human nature – sanctuary, glory, and liberty.

Hangman’s elm in NYC’s Washington Square park has attained over 300 years of age.  While it seems not to have witnessed any actual executions, in its earliest years this English elm observed the decline of the Lenape Indians, the city’s reduction of slave ownership, the control by British soldiers and the state’s eventual annexation to the newly emergent United States.

The oldest tree in central park is the great London plane near the reservoir. That tree grew up amid rocks and swamps.  She lived to see the creation of a park and witnessed the invention of the automobile, the airplane and jogging.

Trees talk to one another.   They work together to create forests and parks, forging ecosystems from the available amounts of earth, air and rain.

Psychologists pay a great deal of attention to relationships between people and less so to those between people and the environment. Yet every relationship occurs in a physical space. Remembrances of loved ones often include the spaces and places where they were known.Every human action that imbues consciousness with meaning takes place in a material environment .  Psychological knowledge usually excludes those landscapes that inhabit almost every memory and importantly shape the neuro-cognitive and relational bases of personality.

After a tree’s porous green leaves take their final summer breaths, they gradually redden or yellow until attaining that crispy brown state. Then they become the crunch beneath feet marching toward winter.  Naked branches reach high into fierce stormy skies sometimes gathering snow in an elegant display of ballroom finery.  Soon little green baby heads poke out from branch ends and into a frosty, sunlight morning, squirming and wiggling their way into full leafy splendor. Summer returns.

Softly whispering, roots tickle the earth, and branches grasp the clothing of careless passersby.  “Look out,” the trees say.  Or “hang on.” Sometimes they even tremble, calling out, “Stop.” Mostly trees soothe, offering the humble lyrics of quivering leaves and creaking branches; the sound that greets every newborn and accompanies everyone through each day of life; the sound that will continue long after life has passed.

Every tree has been seen by a person. Every person has a story about a tree, rock, or landscape.  All stories happens in a place. In the effort to achieve, overcome, win and conquer; in the quest to heal wounds and traumas, the voices in our heads overwhelm the scizz-scazz of scattering leaves.

Answers to problems may be found in words or drugs. Might other answers be found in the memories of places as well as the people? Can answers to the psychological issues of our day be found in what the trees have witnessed?

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