Freelance Science Writer & Editor

The cool shade of trees

An occasional blog about plants, people and landscape.

The cool shade of trees

Viki Cramer - Monday, May 08, 2017

The walking is slow. Every fallen twig and feather provides a distraction from sustained momentum forward. Three-year old legs move at their own pace, unhurried by cares about the UV index or getting home to get the dinner on. It is late afternoon, but the air is hot, heavy and still. The sun’s stare remains fierce and there’s been no sea breeze to take the edge off. We are headed for the deep spaces under a row of eucalypts. I take my son’s hand and, with purpose now, we step into their cool shade.  

I exhale and silently thank them for the simple relief they provide. The serendipity of it all. The evaporation of each molecule of water from the surface of each leaf in the canopy above us – the transpiration essential to the life of the tree – needs a small amount of heat, taken from the air, to transform the water from liquid to gas. The physiology of trees did not evolve to please us, yet their reliance on the simple laws of thermodynamics to move water from soil to root to shoots means that the luxuriousness of their shade is not easily replicated by any human construction.

This moment happened years ago, but I often think about the cool shade of the trees on that day, as well as all the other, often unregistered, ways that plants improve our everyday lives. We all know that human life on Earth depends on plants: for food, fibre, fuel and building material. Yet plants structure our world and our sense of place within it in ways that are both subtle and powerful. Who hasn’t stepped out of an air-conditioned airport terminal on a sunny afternoon and inhaled that warm eucalyptus-air and known deep down in their guts that they were home? And if I mention ‘leafy suburbs’, we know I’m talking about postcodes of affluence not too far from the CBD, not rural-residential blocks on the city’s outskirts.

In a new focus for my blog, I’m going back to my roots in plant ecology to explore the remarkable ways that plants shape our world. (Yeah, I know. That pun was borderline.) Ecology, at its essence, it the study of connections: the connections between species; and between species and their environment. We, as humans, are part of this web of connections. More than just greenery, and more than just habitat, our connection to plants extends beyond the utilitarian to the psychological and sensual. Being surrounded by healthy, abundant and diverse plant life plays a powerful role in our well-being, from the mental health benefits of maintaining gardens in the house paddock during droughts, to the increased liveability of cities cooled by urban forests and plentiful patches of native vegetation.

And then there’s the joy and wonder of plants and the communities they form; the love of plants for their own sake that a philosopher would call their ‘intrinsic value'. I am fortunate to live in a corner of the world – the south-west of Australia – that is home to some of the most remarkable plant life on the planet. Not just in terms of the sheer number of species found here, but in the extraordinary ways they make their living on some of the oldest and poorest soils on Earth. The rest of the country’s not too shabby plant-wise either. I’ll share with you the insights of plant biologists and ecologists into just how cool our green leafy friends are.

It will be a blog about plant science and conservation, but also about the relationships between people and plants, in both our cities and the landscapes beyond.

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    Science Writer and Editor Perth Australia
    Viki Cramer   PhD BSc
    Freelance science writer specialising in ecology and the environment.
    Ecologist - Science Communicator - Editor
    Perth, Australia
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