The Childhoods of Trees

Have you ever seen a partially or completely hollow tree, still quite leafy and alive? This is possible because [the tree’s] “veins” are in the outermost layer of the tree, just under the protective “skin” of bark. Every year, going through the cycle of generating new xylem, cambium tissue, and phloem, a tree adds a ring. The interior rings, literally relics from the tree’s sapling childhood, need not remain alive or intact for the overall plant to stand and survive. If they do, their role is supportive but not essential.

-Teri Dunn Chace in her article “Tree Work” from Sanctuary, Fall/Winter 2013-2014

CIMG1128My daughter has been learning about trees in her homeschool nature class the past month or so, and since I’ve been tagging along to the classes, I’ve been learning, too. Last week, the class investigated tree rings and tried to piece together what factors may have influenced the growth of the tree in years past. Apparently, there is a lot that will change a tree’s growth pattern without killing the tree. Was there a drought? A forest fire? An insect infestation? Was a house put up too near the tree in its youth, blocking the sun? Was a building or other obstacle taken down, allowing the tree more light and a boom in growth?

All of this is in the rings.

Certainly, not every tree survives every challenge, but it’s comforting to think how many live for hundreds of years, holding in their heartwood everything they’ve survived but often not showing these effects from the outside.

CIMG8648While I recognize that there is some risk in comparing human beings too closely to trees, I also find the comparison irresistible.  As a person who was once a child, I find the notion encouraging that a healthy childhood is “supportive but not essential” to a healthy adulthood. Each of us experiences different challenges of varying degrees and types, but there is a way to grow and be healthy despite these challenges.

As a mother of children, I find comfort in the idea that things will come into their lives that influence their physical, emotional, and spiritual growth, but none of this necessarily keeps them from becoming strong, healthy adults. This doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t protect my children as much as possible from harm but just that when bad things happen—which they inevitably will—they don’t automatically bar my children from healthy adulthoods.

This idea of the hidden childhoods of trees also helps me remember the wise words a friend once shared with me:

“Don’t judge your insides by someone else’s outsides.”

We can’t tell from the surface what relics are stored within.


4 Replies to “The Childhoods of Trees”

  1. Thank you for quoting from my magazine article about trees. How wonderful that your child has a “nature class.” No such thing in the public schools my sons attended. 😦 Because I find this wrong and alarming, I have done my best to get them outside and to teach them what I know and encourage them to learn what they might wonder. I fear a whole generation of kids is spending too much time indoors, cut off from and ignorant of nature…this does not bode well for them or the world. (Have you read Last Child in the Woods?)


    1. Thank you for your comment, Teri, and thank you even more for your article!

      One of the things I love about homeschooling is the freedom to engage in more outdoor education, especially in our area where there are so many fabulous nature programs for homeschoolers. My kids still don’t spend as much time outside as we ideally would (particularly in winter when we’re all just so wimpy about the cold), but we do our best.

      I’ve not read Last Child in the Woods, but I’ve heard a lot about it. There was a nature preschool program at a farm and preserve near our home when we lived in California, and I first learned of Louv’s book when I was reading up about the preschool, but I’ve never actually picked up the book myself. I wasn’t sure it was necessary for someone who’s already convinced of the value of time spent in nature.


      1. Well, I see your point! However, I think his Introduction is really worth reading. Best of luck with your kiddos–your homeschooling sounds terrific.


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