Most of us in summertime waft through life oblivious to trees. Oh yes, we seek out their chlorophyll canopies. We borrow their leafy largesse for picnics, for a temporary respite in the middle of a strenuous bike ride and use their capacious cover to protect us from the sun's burning rays.
But few of us take the time to tune into their unseen value. In fact, many of us seem to hate trees for no apparent or rational reason or because of their iconic value to the environmental and conservation movements.
A few years ago I had the misfortune of riding in a cab whose driver was listening to one of Rush Limbaugh's interminable rants. His topic that day was environmentalists and "tree huggers." Somebody somewhere was trying to save old-growth trees from destruction. He railed against such political correctness, arguing something to the effect that there are plenty of trees -- in neighborhoods, in city parks, along highways and the like. And what was it with liberals that they would interfere with someone's ownership rights to save trees?
It was as expansive a display of ideological ignorance as I have ever witnessed (but then again, ideological ignorance is bliss, is it not?). The distinction between young and mature trees completely escaped him.
On another occasion, a former neighbor who had just moved in next door chopped down a perfectly marvelous dogwood as his opening act as a neighbor. The tree stood right beside the neighbor's front door, and turned an otherwise plebian view from my side window into a stunner. I took great pleasure watching it sprout not just one color of blossoms each spring, but a combination of some white and some pink blossoms -- rather rare for a dogwood in my limited experience.
When I asked the neighbor what prompted him to mimic George Washington, he replied, "We have four kids, and trees are dangerous for children." I spat back, "That particular dogwood was of the child-eating genus, wasn't it?" Our quaint neighborhood of old homes and older trees was now down one irreplaceable dogwood, and his front yard stood out, positively denuded.
I raise the subject of trees because I've just learned some fascinating facts about them. Even the tree haters among us should seriously consider the economic damage they do to themselves when they gleefully (as in the case of my dullard ex-neighbor) chop them down.
I now live in a closely knit lakefront community in a suburb of Washington, D.C. The lake is man-made (two creeks that met naturally were dammed up more than a half-century ago to create the lake). The environmentally sensitive community has gone to great pains over the years to preserve and enjoy the abundance of mature trees in our midst. What I never realized before was how much these trees contribute to our economic well-being.
A recent community newsletter recounted that mature trees are not just things of great beauty. They also define the health of the local soil and the quality of the local watershed. Their extensive root systems do a much better job than those of younger trees in holding soil particles and absorbing runoff. The reason is, mature root systems extend two to three times beyond the drip line of the tree and most runoff is absorbed in the top 12 inches of the soil.
The newsletter points to U.S. Department of Energy studies proving the energy savings mature trees afford homeowners. Tree shading and evapotranspiration (how leaves release water vapor) can reduce surrounding summer air temperatures by as much as 9 degrees Fahrenheit.
Homes surrounded by mature trees can save 15 percent to 50 percent on energy costs over those surrounded by small trees. In cool weather, mature trees cut down wind chill, which produces energy savings of between 25 percent and 40 percent. If all that doesn't convince you, the newsletter also cites studies showing mature trees can account for up to 15 percent of the value of a residential property.
So go ahead. Call me a tree hugger. I take it as a compliment and as a reference to my superior financial management skills.
Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and writes this column for Scripps Howard News Service.
© 2005 Seattle Post-Intelligencer