The Joy of Trees

Go ahead, hug a tree. And celebrate them, hike among them, and plant lots, lots more of them.


Photo by Veeterzy/Unsplash

Trees. They’re all around us, beneath us, and above us. They allow us to breathe, heat, build, and eat—and, for many of us during the pandemic, they offered peace. Through the following stories, we say thanks. You’ll meet the planet’s most astonishing trees, explore the flourishing world of rewilding, and learn how to take a deeper, richer walk through the forest.


Photos by Brendan George Ko and Cody Cobb

A Better Way to Hike

Jane Billinghurst first started working with legendary German forester and “tree whisperer” Peter Wohlleben in 2015. She was the editor and translator of his best-selling book, The Hidden Life of Trees, which fundamentally changed the way many people—including Billinghurst—think about forests. Combining their forces more deliberately this time, the pair coauthored a new book, Forest Walking: Discovering the Trees and Woodlands of North America, which blends Wohlleben’s professional and scientific expertise with Billinghurst’s awe and wonder as a nature lover and master gardener.

Billinghurst shares how to walk, hike, and wander with more attention—and intention.

Read the full story.


Photo by amnat11/Shutterstock

Maypole, Anyone?

For as long as humans have been around, we’ve found creative ways to use trees—including in our celebrations. There are the ubiquitous May Day celebrations, of course. But nearly every country in the world has a holiday or festival that honors our stately friends, from Israel’s Tu BiShvat—which honors the cycles of nature—to Hong Kong’s Lam Tsuen Well-Wishing Festival.

Read the full story.


Photo by Andras Bako

Rewilding Might Just Save Our Planet

In the past half century, the world has lost two-thirds of its wetlands, grasslands, and wildlife—and in the last five years alone, the planet has lost roughly 125 million acres of forests. Rewilding—which involves the reintroduction of native flora and fauna—seeks to remedy that. It looks different depending upon the location, and the most successful projects consider both geographical and local community needs that arise when “giving the land back to wildlife, and wildlife back to the land,” says John Davis, executive director of the Rewilding Institute.

It takes time, resources, and a dash of hope. Meet the places leading the way.

Read the full story.

Scotland Is Poised to Become the World’s First Rewilding Nation

Scotland isn’t all greenery and peat bogs. Over centuries, the U.K.’s northernmost territory was gradually stripped of its forests and associated widlife. In 1960s, select organizations mounted an effort to change that. More than 60 years later, nearly 18 percent of the nation has been rewilded—and now, environmentalists are pushing the government to make Scotland the world’s first “rewilding nation.”

Explore the people and projects making that a reality.

Read the full story.


Illustrations by Lucy Engelman

Do you pine for more tree knowledge?

Get to know three of the world’s most unusual species: the sea-loving mangrove, the miraculous baobab, and the spiky monkey puzzle.


Photo by RodLongZac/Unsplash


The coastal tree that thrives in salt water


80: Number of mangrove species in coastal locations around the world, including Florida, Costa Rica, Panama, Tanzania, and Indonesia

25 percent: Reduction in shoreline damage from Hurricane Irma thanks to Florida’s mangroves

80 feet: Maximum height of a mangrove

10,200 square miles: Size of the mangrove forests that spread across Indonesia, where mangroves are most concentrated

539 square miles: Size of Sundarbans National Park, the world’s largest contiguous mangrove forest, which stretches into both Bangladesh and India

Maa: One of the names for a forest goddess believed to inhabit India’s mangrove-rich Sundarbans National Park. It means “mother.”

Bengal tiger: The only large, land-based predator adapted to life in a mangrove forest

The mangrove is the only tree in the world that thrives in salt water.

In parts of Indonesia, mangroves are used as treatments for ulcers, asthma, stomach and muscle aches, and other ailments.

Mangroves act as natural water purifiers: Roots filter out salt, as well as toxic runoff that might flow into a larger water system.

Best place to see them: Florida’s Biscayne National Park features one of the longest stretches of mangrove shoreline in the United States. The tree also grows along the entire Gulf Coast.


Photo by Dudarev Mikhail/Shutterstock


Africa’s “tree of life”


108 feet: Maximum height of a baobab

146 feet: Maximum known circumference of a baobab trunk

32: Number of African countries in which baobabs grow. It’s known as the “tree of life.”

2,450 years: Age of the oldest known baobab tree

26,000: Gallons of water a tree’s trunk can store. Humans have used baobabs as cisterns (without harming the tree) in dry seasons.

300: Number of uses for the tree. Young leaves can be eaten, seeds can be pressed for oil, and the baobab’s bark can be used medicinally.

Reniala: The name of the largest baobab species in Madagascar, which translates to “mother of the forest”

There are several fables about the tree, including one legend that the baobab was one of the first God planted. As a result, the baobab grew vain. God punished the tree by pulling it out of the soil and replanting it with its roots sticking into the air—hence the baobab’s unique look.

A proverb in Ghana states: “Knowledge is like a baobab tree; one person’s arms cannot encompass it.”

Best place to see them: Along the Avenue of the Baobabs near Morondava, Madagascar


Photo by Anderl/Shutterstock

Monkey Puzzle

Chile’s slow-growing national monument

Araucaria araucana

19th: Century in which the tree’s nickname was coined. Englishman Charles Austin noted that the tree would be a challenge even for a monkey to climb. The common name stuck.

164 feet: Maximum height of a monkey puzzle tree

Désespoir des singes: Name of the tree in French. It translates as “monkeys’ despair.”

10 pounds: Maximum weight of a cone. (Don’t stand beneath this tree!)

13 inches: Average growth each year. (It is extremely slow-growing.)

250: Number of edible seeds each pine cone can produce. They are slightly larger than almonds with a flavor similar to pine nuts.

Pewen: Name for the monkey puzzle (Chile’s national tree) among the Mapuche people who are native to the Chilean Andes, where the evergreen thrives.

1976: Year the species was declared a national monument in Chile

Araucaria seeds are a large part of the diet of the Mapuche people. They also make a form of chicha, an alcoholic beverage, from the seeds.

Araucaria wood is prized for its strength and durability and is used to build bridges, furniture, boats, and even mine shafts.

Best place to see them: In one of the many national parks and reserves in Chile home to araucaria forests: Conguillío, Tolhuaca, and Huerquehue

>>Next: A World of Wonder: Inside AFAR’s Earth Issue

Aislyn Greene is the associate director of podacsts at AFAR, where she produces the Unpacked by AFAR podcast and hosts AFAR’s Travel Tales podcast. She lives on a houseboat in Sausalito.
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