The Mystery of Trees
An Interview with Diana Beresford-Kroeger
This interview with Diana Beresford-Kroeger was conducted by Dr. Gary Null, noted talk radio host, in May 2010 as one of his Conversations with Remarkable Minds (M-F, noon EST at www.ProgressiveRadioNetwork.com).
Gary Null: I’d like to welcome all of you; I am Gary Null. Today we are going to talk about the biological mystery, threats and future of trees and our global forest. My guest is Diana Beresford-Kroeger, who is an Irish-Canadian researcher, scientist, and nature mystic who perhaps knows more about trees than anyone else in North America. She is an expert botanist and medical biochemist who has held posts at the Canadian Department of Agriculture and University of Ottawa School of Medicine. She has written extensively on the molecular biology of trees, their medicinal properties, the social interactions between trees and other life forms in our forest, sustainable forestry and the traditional wisdom trees hold for healing.
Diana’s own research gardens outside Ottawa are open to the public and include rare plants from Turkey, Iran, China and other countries, and a hundred rare types of trees from the northern forest, many of which are endangered. Her recent book, The Global Forest, is composed of 40 short essays that environmentalist Bill McKibben says reflect “someone who understands the subject so deeply that it is transmuted to wisdom.”
Nice to have you with us today Diana. I’m going to give you a very broad canvas to paint with today, to give examples of the biological wonders and medicinal properties of trees; the destruction of our forest, and the threats to human and other life due to their demise; and the ways to introduce trees back into our lives. I have an enormous reverence for trees, and have planted more than 4,000 on my own farm in Florida.
Diana: Well, thank you, and good for you. I feel that the planet is for everybody, and to reduce and take down the global forest is an absolutely catastrophe for the world. Learning more about our forests is very necessary for the health and the safety of the world that is to come, and here on this continent there are extraordinary species that are matched nowhere else in the world, like the wonderful array of oaks and hickories. These species and the black walnuts will do something for the future that you all need to know and that you all need to be ambassadors for and pass this knowledge around. 400,000,000 years ago the atmosphere was filled with carbon dioxide and man and his babies could not live there, and the trees stepped into the stage of life. They made an extraordinary marriage happen between carbon and oxygen. That marriage took place in the shade of sunlight that stimulated the manufacture of sugars and the oxygen that all the four-legged and two-legged species require.
I would ask you to right now just stop breathing and see how long you can support yourself. Now the oxygen that you are breathing comes from trees and the invisible global forest of the ocean, and they both hold hands with one another. Trees do something quite extraordinary and even as we are speaking they are doing it, which is to make both the wave form of light and the straight line form of light dance in an extraordinary molecular dance and that produces energy in a thermodynamic reaction that produces food. This is the source of all the food we eat! That’s the food the animals eat and the oxygen we breathe. So this is what trees do and have been doing for 400 million years, but the trees on the American continent do it better than anywhere else, because they plug in carbon dioxide into their bodies and they get huge and massive, and they open their faces to the sun. These are the trees that will give us life, will give every baby in uteri life, and will breathe life back into the planet. So I say we have to protect our forest, and we all have to plant trees.
Gary: Thank you. I would like us to learn more about the energy of trees, and why people considered trees as sacred throughout history, as living entities, yet we tend to see them as floors, or a desk or a newspaper.
Diana: I brought many people to the Arnold Arboretum yesterday to show, amongst many more, one tree that I am particularly interested in, that was considered to be a sacred tree by all of the people of eastern North America for 6000 years. Ptelea trifoliata lived from Florida up into Canada, and its common name is wafer ash. This tree gave the first nations an extraordinary medicine, a biochemical synergist that is capable of looking at cancers straight in the face and saying, “You will not survive.” It is an absolute boon to all of the oncologists and the people who are suffering everywhere all over the world from the massive exposure to pesticides and consequently the incredible problems with cancer. This chemical from ptelea trifoliate will give us one answer. But there are now only, I hate to tell you this, four or five or six left.
Now let us look at something that has a global impact. In the ancient world of China, Japan, Russia, going down into Europe, and indeed in America, we have 1000 species of hawthorns, and these are called crataegus. Now, these have been considered to be a magical species all over the world for all cultures in all times, and indeed there is magic in these trees. The magic has now been transmuted into a chemical called crataegun. Now you have to take your noses and you’ve got to find a hawthorn, and right now they’re flowering, and stick them into these flowers. And when you put your nose into the flower, it is kind of a bitter smell, but what happens is like smelling a gorgeous apple pie that has just come out of the oven, your salivary glands start to work, and as they start to work, the lactone comes out of the flower and goes into your salivary glands and you actually drink the lactone of crataegus, and, here is the magic, here is the big answer, it opens the left ascending coronary artery. I will guarantee you will not have a heart attack while you are smelling that plant, and if you have had ascending artery surgery you will have been given this compound, but this one is for free.
The hawthorn produces a little red apple, and in the fall the farmers all over eastern North America, when they would go and get their dairy herds, they would pick this as a trail food,; this gives them crataegun and that is why lots and lots have been so healthy. But the aboriginal people took it even further. Each fruit has got five tiny little nutlets inside, and they would wash and grind these up, and they had their first cup of coffee because there’s caffeine in these little nuts and it gave them a little stimulant. So this is another example of the magic out of the forest.
Gary: Many people, not everyone, consider trees to be an intelligent life form, with their own immune systems, and even sexuality. Would you also share your observations about social lives of trees in the forest, how the forest as a natural habitat is actually a living community.
Diana: Well, you kind of have to sit back and listen to this one because it is an extraordinary story. I am an aristocratic mongrel. My father was from a titled family and my mother was from an ancient Gaelic family who were the kings of Monster, one of the five counties of Ireland, in the 5th century. And my father was killed, and my mother and brother, and I was made an orphan at age 11. Now, in the south of Ireland, an orphan is everybody’s child, an orphan is the child of the whole community and the people who picked me up, who thought I was a valuable child, from, I suppose, a historical point of view because I was the last child left, they taught me for three long years, in and under the Brehon Laws. They taught me all of the ancient knowledge of Ireland, the ancient knowledge of druids, they taught me the Gaelic language, they taught me about the importance of trees, they taught me about the ability of trees to speak and how to listen and how to meditate into the forest. And they taught me all kinds of medicines, and cures and methods of withstanding the future world, because I would be an orphan child going into, they called it “the new world,” for I would be their last child and I would have to speak for them there. Then I went to university and I studied and did all kinds of things, and as I got older this gift they gave to me became bigger and bigger, and these things that were told to me I saw they were extraordinary. And indeed I see now that I am the last child of that ancient world.
Now the forests are communities that have an extraordinary genome, they have extraordinary epigenetics, just like we do. They have an immune system and a biochemical pathway system filled with serotonin, similar to us, that links neuron paths. We have our brain at the top of our head, they have a cambia layer, and we can think of a cambia layer as a form of brain. But the tree is a chemical manufacturing system that is the wonder of the world. It is that chemistry that gives us 40% of our medicines that come from trees, like aspirin for example. So the chemical transmutations that the trees have produced over the centuries and millennia have become very important. And the tree can do something now, in the modern world, that we know very little about. We really don’t know how the tree transports water form the soil, pulling up the aquifers into the great volumes of the tree and into the sky, and the aerosols that the tree produces has got legs, with hydroxyl groups on them. These attach to the moisture vapor above the trees and they’re responsible for clouds and weather patterns, and they’re responsible in the end really for our civilization, because if we have no moisture, we cannot survive. But the tree is awfully clever, and I will talk about the wonderful redwoods on the west coast in California, as they do something quite extraordinary in the upper canopy—they produce aerosols up there to pull in water vapor so that the sperm can swim along the tiny sheath of water and fertilize the ovule. This is a wonder of our world. I could go on and on and on. The trees have a low nutrient requirement, they drain sustainably into the lakes and valleys and down into the streams and the deltas of the world, and they put out a measured amount of nitrogen that is perfectly balanced for the ocean. If too much nitrogen goes downstream from farming, you get all of this algae that grow and you get toxic tide that grows and grows until the nitrogen is burnt up and the bacteria come in and draw off the oxygen such that some of the water areas are the graveyards of the sea. But the trees and the great forests of the world will stop this.
And that is why everything in the world is functioning like a unit, to keep it all together. We are the song of the universe, we really are the miracle of the universe in our mathematics, and the tree has this form of intelligence too. If you damage one tree, another of the same family next to it produces a phenol to help it heal and mend and cure itself.
Gary: Can you expand further on tree aerosols, their purpose for the trees and life in the forest, and how the tree is vital for our lives? And then juxtapose that with what’s going on in Borneo, where they are destroying all the trees. You see it in South America, all over Brazil, they’re burning the trees; the Chinese have contracted for genetically engineered soybeans, American companies have done the same, they’re burning the trees. No one seems to care about the trees anymore!
Diana: I think what is happening here is that there is a dull roar coming from the human herd. We are listening to something that is quite extraordinary and ordinary people are starting to listen, though many across the world are a little deaf to this, and I think they all might be in for somewhat of a surprise in the near future.
But let me go to the aerosols. The tree functions by means of many mouths on many, many leaves, called stomata, that open and close by means of guard cells and emit these aerosols. The aerosol compounds are very, very important. As you go further north, some of these aerosols actually scrub the atmosphere and make it aseptic. Have you ever thought we are breathing in this dirty air, more or less, and most of us don’t get lung infections. So the trees actually are doing that.
If you go out into the forest in a mountainous region on a warmish day that is a tiny bit humid, and you see a slight haze in the air over the forest, often people will say, “Oh it is kind of a hazy day today”—it’s actually that the trees are producing vast quantities of aerosols! And you are seeing the aerosols in their tonnage being put into the atmosphere and cleaning the atmosphere with chemicals like alpha pinene and beta pinene from the pine forests. America has extraordinary pine forests, many, many types of pines, and pines are smart. If you have a child, or a teenager that has a learning disorder, and you bring your child into a pine forest, on a warmish day, when it is a little muggy with nice fresh air, the pinene is being released as an aerosol from the stomata of the leaves and the child will breathe it in. The pinene has a slightly narcotic effect on the brain, and it is a stimulant that acts as a carburetor for the brain, so the child comes out of the forest breathing a whole lot better, clearing and opening out its lungs, but with a higher IQ and a better able to pay attention.
For those of you who live in cities, there are many, many areas in north America that have extraordinary urban forests, and we have to protect and build and strengthen them. Our urban forests are as important as the great forests of the world, and they do something really quite extraordinary. We have a deadly killer amongst us right now called particulate pollution, which is pollution of less and 2.5 microns. It’s tiny, about a tenth the size of a pollen grain and its produced by cars and buses and planes. When these particles go into the deep area of the lungs they are very hard to get out. But the extraordinary thing that trees do, by the trinomial hairs, the hairy surface on most trees’ leaves, is that they actually comb the air of this particulate pollution.
Let me tell you a little more about this particulate pollution because it also carries things called hitchhikers, which are the pesticides and herbicides that are being sprayed on fields. Along with large molecules like cobalt or lead or magnesium, metals, they are very dangerous for asthmatic people, and account for the rise in asthma of about 30% worldwide. So under a tree, the leaves comb the air of this pollution and it gets onto the leaves and the rain washes it down into the soil where microbes eat it and they use it for their daily lives. So if you sit under an urban tree, you are exposed to 25% less pollution. This is very important for people who have heart conditions or asthmatic problems, really important for our babies, and also for our dogs and our cats.
Gary: Can you talk about the nature of communication between animal species, humans and trees and between trees and other trees?
Diana: Yes I would love to. The human body is made up of the spirit, the mind and the soul, and for us to have productive lives we have to have all of them functioning very well—all communities, all people everywhere have thought that. But there is one other thing that we have. We have the ability to listen to the trees and hear the forest, and not everyone can do this. Now the only way I can describe this phenomenon is when some people go to concerts and hear symphonies, and hear music when it is in its mathematical perfection because it’s between the musical notes, what you don’t hear, that makes the pattern that’s so important. And they experience a rush of feeling that comes into their chest that is almost a choking, a cry, and it pulls you all into yourself. So for some people, walking in the forest is like the feeling of going into a cathedral, and indeed the ancient forest is the cathedral of nature. Here you feel this same emotional pull in your chest. I think that most of the children of the world when they are very little will go into the forest and feel this. For them it feels like the trees are their friends and they can indeed talk to the trees.
The trees are the most extraordinarily large species that are living on this Earth, make no mistake about it. They are alive. They have DNA. They are functioning like you and I are functioning. When you have a very large object, maybe an elephant, or a volcano, or a tree, it produces a low-frequency sound called infrasound. It’s just recently been proven that the elephant can send out infrasound calls from one elephant to another in warning, and the trees do the same thing. These low level rumblings can be measured in our sound experiments.
You and I and the human family are created like a viola—we have our ribs, we have our chest, which is empty where there is a pair of lungs, so if you think about it, we’re a receptor machine. So we can receive these sounds. Some people can receive them better than others, but children can definitely receive these infrasounds. Dogs can hear this low-level sound, birds can hear it, and I understand that monkeys can hear it also. In some ways some people are deaf to these sounds, but you can actually attune yourself by aligning yourself into unity, a form of all is one, a form of meditation. Then you can hear that sound. You have to listen and it will come to you. You don’t go to it; it comes to you. And it is there in the trees. This is how birds can locate their own trees for feeding, perching and pruning, or for tuning up their bodies to the sun. This infrasound is just at the edge of coming into the radar of science because it means that the physicists have to work with the biologists and the biologists have to work with the biochemists, and there are not too many teams like that in all of the world. But there are a few people holding professorships of physics who actually do know about this.
Gary: As an organic farmer, I am very aware of the significance of trees. Not just what I plant, but the trees around the garden, and even the rich soil when a tree dies. As many listeners are starting to grow their own gardens, what would you recommend for trees that can benefit the growth of their gardens? And second, if you drive through much of the farmland in the United States, especially in the Midwest, you see that every inch of land has been utilized by the larger farmers. In the earlier past, the use of hedgerows was known to benefit the life and health of a farm. Could you explain to us what a hedgerow is and how they can benefit us?
Diana: Can I answer the question about the hedgerow first? When you have a hedgerow, you have a biodiversity of insects. It is a chain link fence of the forest around the field that provides the biodiversity needed for your crop, for predation and also for pollination. It has been proven that when you have your hedgerow, you have a 35% increase in your crop because of pollination and when you’re talking about industrial farms, I don’t really care if they are organic or are not organic, what happens is you have oceanic fields. All of our beneficial insects require one very essential amino acid called lysine; the queen bee, the queen wasp bee or whatever requires lysine for egg laying. Without that they are not able to produce the huge brood that they need to do all the massive pollination, stamen by stamen by stamen, and if you have oceanic fields you cannot produce lysine in the early flowering of the hedgerows, the bees cannot survive, therefore you cannot have pollination. Some of the bees are dying because they do not have sufficient food. And the birds are our first line of predation, running up and down the crops and protecting them by getting all of the deleterious insects. But birds cannot do predation when you have oceanic fields. And these industrial farms are also pouring the nitrogen from fertilizers into the oceans and destroying them. What do you expect when you attend the Church of the Holy Dollar and put everything into your fields and forget nature? You will end up destroying the planet!
Now, let me backtrack on this one. The price of food is too cheap, and the farmers are on their knees. Please, ask them to have smaller fields, so they can have areas where all of the native pollinators can live and grow. They are as good as you; a bee is as good as I am. So we have to hold hands with all of these agents of nature, and also allow these farmers to survive. What can you do as a consumer? You have a voting power in your purse. You go out with your purse and if and when you can you buy organic, but you try to buy organic from small farmers, local farmers, and keep them off their knees. And try to buy good quality food for you and for your growing babies.
Now we will go back to the first question you asked. What would be beneficial for little city gardens or country gardens would be any member of the Rosaceae family, like a pear, an apple, or other fruiting trees, and Amelanchiers, like the Serviceberry. All of those groups of flowering, fruiting trees are very good because the flower is a little five-petal flower, like the rose, that a flying insect, a wasp, a bee, a butterfly can fly into and rotate. When the insect can rotate, it feeds, when it feeds, it gets enough nectar, and when it gets enough nectar it keeps these beneficial insects primed for pollination. And so you have a win-win situation.
Gary: After all of your many years of observing and studying trees and forests, as a scientist and as a spiritual seeker to discover their hidden meanings, what is the wisdom you would most like to impart to us?
Diana: I would say that the tree is the king of the forest. The forests evolved to be the pinnacle of the green world with its chloroplastic structure, and we have evolved to be the pinnacle, I think, of the animal world. We have evolved our red blood cells, which contain hemoglobin, and the hemoglobin that makes us run is almost identical to the chlorophyll that makes the tree run. We have to hold hand to hand. The oxygen that is produced by the trees gives us the kiss of life, and we have to look to the trees and thank them like the ancients did in the long way past, because if we don’t do that, when the last tree goes, like it did on Easter Island, we too, will go. No question, scientifically, spiritually, or otherwise about that.