My father has an encyclopedic knowledge of trees. As a landscape designer and nursery/garden center owner, he would walk with me through Pennsylvania forests where he could name nearly every tree, including its genus and species.
To be on a first-name basis with the trees, as Adam was in the original garden, is to have an intimate and stewarding relationship with Creation.
While I did not inherit that gift for remembering botanical names, I did develop a deep reverence for things green and growing. First as a Lutheran minister, and now a seminary professor, cultivating an ethic of care for the Earth community is an orienting principle of my life and work.
It seemed only fitting, then, when I heard about a University of Kentucky research study called “Healthy Trees, Healthy People,” that I should participate, especially as my fellow eco-Lutherans are celebrating 500 years of the Reformation by planting 500 trees across the country.
At the orientation, we were trained to assess the health of specific trees at two Lexington parks, Kirklevington and Harrods Hill. For six weeks we were to walk the pathways around the parks every few days and seek out the trees on our list. We learned how to assess the health of the roots, stem and canopy of the trees, and to record them.
The study was designed to test whether people’s health improves when they engage in nature by becoming “citizen scientists” and observing the health of trees. By learning about the important role trees play in our urban environment, and about the pests that can threaten them, we become “eyes on the ground” for the researchers. Just as important, we improve our own physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing.
I sat down with the lead researchers, Lynne Rieske-Kinney, (Dept. of Entomology) and Heather Norman-Burgdolf, (Dept. of Dietetics and Human Nutrition) to ask what they had learned.
Initial indications are that people did report feeling happier and less stressed by the end of the study. In addition, participants shared their appreciation for being able to connect to trees with a different set of eyes trained to spot signs of health and disease.
I asked Rieske-Kinney how climate change impacts tree health. “We don’t know,” she admitted. “On the one hand, trees do better with increased carbon dioxide. But then, so do the pests that attack the trees, as well as the insects that attack people. What we do know is that things are changing. Insects are appearing in new areas, pushing north as temperatures warm. Those that kill trees are doing so at faster rates, contributing to wildfires.”
None of the 50 participants saw any Asian longhorned beetles, gypsy moths, or walnut twig beetles which cause thousand cankers disease. But as the climate of Kentucky continues to warm and bring more pests, we will need even more citizen scientists.
As Reformation Sunday approaches, I’ll be planting my own tree with my husband and children. I’m sure Martin Luther would approve. And my father will be proud.
Leah D. Schade is a professor at Lexington Theological Seminary and author of “Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit“ (Chalice Press, 2015). She blogs at www.patheos.com/blogs/ecopreacher/, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.