One of my first jobs after leaving high school was working as a firefighter, traveling in an old, prison-issued, inmate bus that held 20 men going from fire to fire all over Northern California.
Witnessing the devastation and impact of fires upon our forests gave me a greater insight into the environmental importance of our forests and trees.
Each fire I went on affected me in one way or another. When we arrived at my very first fire, we headed up a steep mountain behind a bulldozer blazing the way and cutting a clean fire line for us to follow. The winds shifted, fire suddenly surrounded the bulldozer and the operator leapt off and climbed under his machine for shelter. The fire engulfed his dozer, and he was burned alive.
This not only taught me how fragile life can be; it also taught me the unpredictability of a fire.
Emotionally, I didn't deal well with this loss of life — or with seeing deer and other wildlife burned, orphaned and left to wander around in shock and confusion. This fire was so hot that the shrubs and brush disintegrated to a powder on the sterilized ground. I later learned that this massive fire was caused by a person mowing weeds when the machine's blade sparked on rocks and ignited dry plants.
After working as a firefighter, I eventually wound up working for the National Park Service in California's Sequoia National Park, living and working alongside some of the largest and most famous trees on earth. It wasn't until I began working for the Park Service that I began to fully develop a passion and love for all trees, especially giant sequoias.
It was a matter of learning to be mindful that each tree, no matter where or what kind, has a uniqueness to it. They are the ultimate survivors. Trees teach us about relationships, and they can teach us respect. How can a person stand under a 2,000- to 3,000-year-old sequoia and not feel some sense of energy and emotion?
I'd like to think that trees have developed an ability to communicate. This has been a topic among researchers for many years, and it continues to be a topic of discussion. I made it a daily habit to touch and, most importantly, acknowledge the trees around me.
If you are alone among trees and you take the time to listen, it is amazing what you can hear. You can hear the wood make grinding, gnawing or growling noises as the cellular structure of the tree moves and adjusts to the wind or natural movement of the earth's surface. I would hug and feel the texture and fibers of the bark and process the energy offered in return.
From a strictly biological standpoint, it is unclear whether tree communication is active (initiated by neighboring trees under duress) or passive (perceived by the neighboring tree). Some researchers think it is active and that plants exhibit an organized behavior.
There is speculation that after a tree is attacked, it may be able to develop immunity from insect enemies, and that this may be the reason there are cycles of pest outbreaks. If the trees acquire immunity after an attack, this may suppress the insect population for a few years until the immunity wears off, and the cycle begins again.
Many researchers wonder whether trees communicate through the roots and the soil, but experiments in and out of laboratories indicate this is not so. In any case, the trees apparently were "talking" over a distance of more than 100 yards. Scientists proposed that airborne pheromones might hold the clue.
The Japanese have a term called "shinrin-yoku," which means "forest bathing," or being surrounded by a forest environment. This form of therapy has been proven to benefit one's mental and physical health. Studies in Japan have shown reduced stress, lower blood sugar, better concentration, diminished pain, improved immunity and even anti-cancer effects. The research has been so significant that Japanese companies are starting to incorporate forest bathing in their health care benefits and wellness programs, making a walk in the forest a promising prescription.
My suggestion is to give yourself an opportunity to come up with your own conclusions. We each uniquely interpret what we see, hear and perceive. You need to have an open and willing mind because some things simply can't be measured in a laboratory.
Franklin Corbin is author of a self-published book, "For the Love of Trees," available at Bloomsbury Books and Northwest Nature Shop in Ashland and Terra Firma in Jacksonville.