People hug trees for a reason --- not just “hippies” and not only on Arbor Day (April 29). It’s because no one can deny the importance of trees for the way they beautify, fortify and shade the earth. They are a constant source of nurturing energy wherever they grow.
The first formal celebration of Arbor Day was held in 1872, in Nebraska, even though tree-planting festivals had been going on since civilization began because trees have always been considered the symbol of life. The founder of Arbor Day, Julius Sterling Morton, a journalist from Detroit, was a nature-lover who saw a need and filled it. He and his wife, Caroline, moved to Nebraska and planted trees, shrubs and flowers to cover the bare ground. When Morton became the editor of Nebraska’s first newspaper, he used the forum to share information about agriculture and his love of trees. His new home state had a mysterious lack of trees, which inspired him to submit the resolution the State Board of Agriculture accepted in 1872 “to set aside one day to plant trees, both forest and fruit.”
Morton was quoted as saying, “The cultivation of flowers and trees is the cultivation of the good, the beautiful and the ennobling in man, and for one, I wish to see this culture become universal.”
He got his wish. Now, according to recent scientific research, hugging trees is good for you. However, you don’t necessarily have to touch a tree to reap the benefits. You just have to be in the presence of trees. Matthew Silverstone, author the 2014 book Blinded by Science about how trees help humans, agrees that trees do in fact improve conditions like concentration, depression, stress and other challenges to mental health. Green Cities: Good Health, a website created by the University of Washington, touts the positive effects of nature on the mind and mental fatigue. For instance, spending time in nature helps restore the strength and clarity of the mind. Outdoor fun can also improve symptoms of dementia, stress, depression, Alzheimer’s and cognitive function in breast cancer patients. It has also been discovered that urban nature can benefit from the inclusion of parks and appealing walkways in building design, as it provides a sense of calm and encourages things like learning and alertness.
In the 19th century, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and recognized as the "Father of American Psychiatry," was the first to document the positive effects experienced by individuals with mental illness when they worked in the garden.
Research on the subject has been ongoing ever since, and Horticultural therapy (HT) is more common than ever. According to the American Horticultural Therapy Association, Gregory Bratman, winner of the 2015 Charles Lewis Excellence in Research Award for his study, The Benefits of Nature Experience: Improved Affect and Cognition. In it he compared people who walked for 50 minutes in an urban setting with others who walked the same amount of time in a natural setting. It’s no surprise that those who walked in nature had less anxiety and less rumination than the urban-walkers.
So, if trees are worth hugging and are responsible for improving our lives on a cellular level, then surely they’re worth planting, which is what Arbor Day is all about.
Last year, a study conducted by the University of Chicago on the cognitive and psychological benefits of nature scenery attempted to quantify just how much an addition of trees in a neighborhood enhances health outcomes. Researchers found that having 10 more trees on a city block improved health perception similar to how an income increase or being about 7 years younger would improve one’s perception of his or her own health status.
Marc Berman, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, who co-authored the study, said although self-perception of health is subjective, “it correlates pretty strongly with the objective health measures.” While the considerably large study doesn’t identify exactly how trees improve health, some conclusions were made. One possibility is that trees improve air quality by pulling ozone and other pollutants out of the air through their leaves, which protects people from them. Another possibility is the premise that exposure to nature’s beauty affects people mentally in a positive way. “People have sort of neglected the psychological benefits of the environment,” Berman told The Washington Post. “And I think that’s sort of gotten reinvigorated now, with these kinds of studies.”