Why do Trees Mean So Much to Us?

A silver lining in the recent protests at Aarey colony is that they demonstrate that care and protection of Nature is deeply ingrained into the hearts of millennials who made up bulk of the protestors. While it is heartening, it is also unsurprising because an affinity for Nature is a trait as typically human as the desire to raise a family or build a house. After all, one of the first images a child learns to draw is the mountains and the sun.

It is not a trait that is widely recognised though. It resides in our subconscious, hidden from conscious knowledge. If one were to ask the public to list what they need to live a successful and wholesome life, regular contact or communion with Nature is unlikely to come up. There might be ‘morning walks in parks’, ‘a seaside property’, or ‘vacations in the hills’ mentioned occasionally but what is driving these choices is largely hidden from us in our subconscious.

Humans have been connected with land, with Nature, for about five million years. It’s the time evolutionary biologists hold that we split from our animal ancestors. Only in the last hundred years or so humanity began to converge in the cities in large numbers. Today, surrounded by concrete, metal and glass, we live in a near constant state of disconnection from Nature forgetting that we are an inherent part of Nature.

Yet, our subconscious does not forget. It’s always prodding us, seeking to re-connect us with Nature.

Look away from this screen for a moment, chances are you will find symbols of Nature all around you – from the woman wearing floral printed clothing, to flowers or other aspects of Nature represented in curtains, furniture, paintings, photographs, book covers, murals, wallpapers, display pictures on social media, ads for automobiles, and even iron grills. It is as if, we are desperately trying to compensate for the lack of Nature in our lives with artificial imitations without even recognising it.

In the 1980’s noted biologist Edward Wilson named this phenomena ‘Biophilia’ in a book by the same name that won two Pulitzer prizes. He argued that humans have an innate and subconscious tendency to seek connections with Nature to such an extent that “our existence depends on this propensity.”

As mental illnesses rise in the cities some are blaming our lack of contact with the Natural world. In 2005, Richard Louv coined a new term, Nature Deficit Disorder, to describe our disconnected city lifestyle. Scientists are increasingly learning that even a few moments of contact with Nature is beneficial for us. They found decades ago that patients who have undergone surgery recover more quickly if their room has a view of a garden. That taking a walk in a forest improves health. Merely watching Nature images on television leads to measurable increase in happiness.

Last year, a meta-study from University of East Anglia involving more than 290 million people compared 140 past studies to state that spending time in Nature reduces the risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, and preterm birth while also reducing blood pressure, heart rate and stress and increasing sleep duration. Doctors in parts of UK are already beginning to prescribe caring for plants as part of the treatment for anxiety and depression.

Once we cognise our affinity for Nature and all the signs Nature gives us to tell us where we belong, it would become easier to understand why people are willing to go to jail to save trees. During morning walks, as I walk past a tree sometimes I try to remember that the two of us are bound not only through gas exchange from stomata in its leaves to my lungs and vice versa but something much deeper than that. A non-physical connection that goes back millions of years.

Manu Sharma organises Nature-immersion retreats at Sharing Nature and lives in a family farm.