Life and Limbs

Systems thinking and trees that heal


The whole earth is alive, all of a piece, one living thing, a creature.

—Lewis Thomas

Trees are healers without words or borders. Beyond the stuff we take from them—the fuel, food, interspecies habitat, pharmaceuticals, lumber, beauty, shade and oxygen—there is a gift of presence that can’t be quantified. And anyone who has read the autographical works of Rachel Remen may recall one of her most humbling insights about being a psychologist: after long presuming her counseling clients got better because of her saying the right things, she realized they healed not by her insights and training, but her presence. As a nonjudgmental presence, she emulated a tree. (Coming from me, Ms. Remen, that is the highest of compliments.) A tree can help us to save this life we love. But only if we first put ourselves in its presence.

Trees in general seem merely a means to an end during this environmental crisis, their loss meaning a rise in global temperatures. Up in Canada, they are fighting over how to manage aging forests infested with pine boring beetles and vulnerable to increasing wildfires. Locally, many researchers want to stop the wood boring beetle infestations and the spread of sudden oak death. We desperately need to save the trees if we are to sustain life on earth.

But we need them for more than atmospheric thermostat adjusters and stuff providers. We need them because they restore us to ourselves in a way our hare-brained, digital communications cannot. A tree is connected morphologically and cosmically to something larger and deeper than private gains or political agendas. In fact, selflessness and political neutrality make trees powerful helpers in times of crises.

The French who organized Médecins sans Frontières more than 35 years ago—known to English speakers as Doctors Without Borders—saw the innocent die for being on the wrong side of some border, and “excluded from medical care.” These physicians aid victims of crisis in least 60 countries around the world, ignoring political boundaries. Other systems thinkers ignore the boundaries too, just as trees themselves do.

In a recent post on the Nature Conservancy blogsite, David Cleary proposed a cap-and-trade extension that includes tree saving beyond our political frontier. “Why not,” Cleary asked, “include a provision in the U.S. carbon trading system that allows U.S. companies to gain carbon credits for offsets in Latin America?” He points out that North America, too, will suffer if the Amazon goes. The Germans are ahead of us in thinking beyond their borders to extend cap-and-trade benefits to preserve trees in the Andes. Whatever we do elsewhere to keep the trees in the ground will buffer climate change here. 

If we keep this up, soon everyone will accept the biological and spiritual concept that everything is connected to everything else, like the healing power of just one tree up close and personal. Pick just one and spend some time beside it. Turn off the cell phone and experience time differently, as tension eases, lost peace is restored, answers float to the surface. Trees nurture the health and well-being of humans everywhere.


For a species that can’t read, trees practice the key medical-ethics principle primum non nocere, or “first, do no harm.” And they ignore the borders imposed on them. They even ignore the boundaries we impose inside ourselves, including, “I’m too busy to sit by the last tree on earth. I have to answer these emails.”

The healing tree in my life happens to stand close by. In my creekside backyard is a towering California Bay Laurel with a trunk measuring 249 inches—the largest individual I’ve seen anywhere in the North Bay. It grows half on my neighbor Ray’s property and half on mine, curving like a trident hand over the small house Ray’s father built in 1942. Ray keeps the old house as a weekend retreat in memory of his dad and of his childhood spent on the creek.

Ray and I, though from different generations, share an intense love of trees. And inexplicably, this bay laurel seems to love us back. Talk about presence. Maybe because it has lived so long in a hallowed spot and grown to such gargantuan proportions, it seems sentient to me. But in its presence, my mind clears and I am glad to be alive and a part of everything else.


Sonoma County Library