Social Function of Trees

    Trees have provided warm and friendly environments for generations of people across the globe.  Trees more than any other form of vegetation are the most important natural element in our urban landscapes (Martin, 1998).  Their imposing dimensions and longevity provide a physical and spatial sense of scale to the urban forest.  They generate essential environmental and social benefits for everyone - not least of all in providing an aesthetic balance between the structured enquiry achievements of people and their innate need to co-exist with nature (Martin, 1998).

    Studies have shown that hospital patients with a view of trees out of their window recover much faster and with fewer complications than similar patients without such views (Martin, 1998).  Most urban dwellers appreciate wildlife in their day-to-day living.  Trees provide habitat to a wide variety of living creatures, including birds and squirrels and make wildlife a common occurrence in the surrounding environment.  Trees also help record the history of your property.  If your father or grandfather planted an apple tree on a red oak many years ago, what is the sentimental value of that?  Can you really put a price to the maple tree that you climbed as a kid or the tree that you and your Dad planted together when you were in kindergarten.  Everyone has memories linked to trees and nature sometime throughout their lifetime.  A value that is sometimes overlooked when discussing the importance of trees.

    Some trees provide key medicinal ingredients for illicit areas and treatments.  One out of every four pharmaceutical products used in North America comes from tropical forest plants (Plant-It 2000).  Trees can provide pleasure to all of the senses, the feel of the bark and leaves, the sight of a tree in bloom or changing colours in the fall, the sounds of the rustling leaves in the wind, the taste of the fruits and nuts that are produced by trees and the smell of a pine tree or a cherry tree in bloom.  One cherry tree can perfume the air with 200,000 flowers (Plant-It 2000).

    A study done in Zimbabwe showed that the domains of human habitation, home bases and home fields were found to be the most emotionally laden spaces with trees in them being constantly planted, nurtured, conserved, eliminated, or destroyed on the basis of certain emotions and social norms (Mandondo, 1997).

Case Study

    This study set out to examine the extent of emotional and ethical investment in the trees and spaces.  They wanted to determine the nature of the emotions and norms and how they were weighted across different tree species and spaces.  Also studied was the reasoning behind these emotions. In certain societies, trees may or may not be nurtured, protected destroyed or cultivated for a variety of reasons.  It has been determined that most of the reasons have an emotional basis of some sort, it could be reverence, shunning, hate, or love.   Political and ethical controls on trees are also an influence to how people interact with trees.

Using the Zimbabwe experiment as an example, we have discovered that trees are used for many rituals in society.  The Nyamaropa people believe that they can transfer the malevolent spirit from the homestead to some particular object, usually a certain tree species in the local environment.  Most often it was Gardenia globiflora (Mandondo, 1997).   Because of this use, the people shun the cutting and putting the tree to conventional use, but at homes and in fields it is deliberately destroyed.
Vascular semi-parasites on trees are believed to provide a range of potent charms that can be put to good or bad use.  For example, the parasite on the Koma remusasa is believed to provide an evil charm that is used by witches and sorcerers.  Therefore, that particular species is actively eliminated at the home base, but elsewhere is usually left undisturbed.
There is also a curative ritual done where the affliction of the family member is transferred from the 'root' of the clan to a particular tree species within the local area.  The tree then becomes a species of ritual to the clan.  As a result it becomes extinct from conventional use.
In Nyamaropa, it is recognized that trees don't eat meat, but they are given totemic responsibilities so that people can start enjoying meat derived from animals of their totem.  That particular tree and any other members of it's species are then deemed special and demand respect from the members of the clan.  The ritual etiquette demands that no harm be done to the tree species by members of the clan.
Afzelia quanzensis is the species used by the Nyamaropa for rain rituals and other rituals that involve propitiating for the bounty of the earth.  This tree should therefore not be cut, even during clearance to establish homestead and fields.

    We have seen through this example that certain trees in local landscapes can be the object of immense emotional and ethical significance (Mandondo, 1997).  Protection and destruction of individual plant species is based on the perceptions of threats believed to be endangering the species with extinction.  Among these threats are extraction for aesthetics and domestication, commercial exploitation, primary dependence, and habitat destruction.   However, in Nyamaropa, active elimination or protection of some plant species from certain areas is done to secure and sustain certain material and spiritual benefits.

    For whatever reason that you may value a tree, whether it be for the smell, the touch, the taste or just the sight of a tree on a beautiful fall day, a tree can provide important memories that can last a lifetime, or find the cure for a foreign disease.  Whatever the importance may be to you, there is an importance, one that either consciously or unconsciously provides pleasure for generations.