File photo: Peter Blasl

As much as the air we breathe, most of us take trees for granted. But the very air we breathe depends on trees. Some Long Island communities avidly protect their trees almost to a fault, while others seem oblivious to their fate. Some magnificent kinds of trees, and others not so magnificent, tower above the North Fork landscape. Some ancient trees form a true forest masterpiece on the West Coast. And scientists now tell us of a fascinating discovery about trees: they have something close to a heartbeat.

So let’s take a closer look at what these poetic, often majestic fixtures in nature are all about. Hopefully, after reading on, you may see trees in a different way — maybe in a far different way, at that.

Public utilities and local highway departments vary in their attitudes toward trees. Utility crews in cherry-picker trucks “prune” trees to the extreme, in careless compensation for how long it will take before they do it again. Highway departments will remove them entirely if they find trees unhealthy and thus a safety risk. Limited budgets, however, allow for shamefully little in the way of tree replacements. And when a tree is gone, there lingers a sad, haunting space.

Yet Lancaster University in the UK discovered in 2013 an interesting benefit about roadside trees – that they actually reduce nearby, indoor air pollution by more than 50 percent. Towering tree canopies overhanging roads were a wonderful feature of LI, but less and less so now. Interestingly, the U.S. Forest Service reports that houses within 100 feet of a tree-lined street sell for higher prices, as if they had 129 more feet of finished space.

There’s much more to our trees’ story than their diminishing place at our roadsides. They create an ecosystem providing habitat and food for birds and other animals. We know how they absorb carbon dioxide, and harmful gases such as carbon monoxide and sulfur dioxide from the air, and release oxygen.

The Forest Service also reports that global forests removed one-third of the world’s fossil fuel emissions annually from 1990 to 2007. Cities with long-term, tree-planting programs report real success: trees have removed 2,000 tons of air pollution in Los Angeles, 18,000 tons in Chicago, and 26,000 tons in Kansas City. North Carolina State University tells us that one large tree supplies enough oxygen in one day for four people. This explains how the Amazon rainforest, chiefly from its tree canopy, gives the world 20 percent of its oxygen.

This brings us to another fascinating discovery about trees by scientists at Aarhus University in the Netherlands, published in the journal, “Plant Signaling and Behavior.” They used “terrestrial laser scanning” to monitor 22 different kinds of trees to see how the shape of their canopies changed, measuring them at night in greenhouses to avoid sun and wind as factors. They report that a synchronized change in shape and water pressure moves the trees’ branches up and down every couple of hours as they pump water from their roots, just as our hearts move blood through our bodies.

Though they don’t understand exactly how this “pumping” motion works, they suggest that the trunk might squeeze the water through a system of tissue whose main job is transporting nutrients. And they conclude that the only difference between our pulse and a tree’s is that a tree’s moves much more slowly, “beating once every two hours or so, and instead of regulating blood pressure, the heartbeat of a tree regulates water pressure.”

California’s majestic Sequoias deserve mention here. A four-hour drive from San Francisco takes you to no less than 500 giant Sequoias, in a section of Yosemite Park called Mariposa Grove. Here are among the world’s oldest living things. One of them, named “Grizzly Giant,” has a 100 foot diameter trunk reaching hundreds of feet into the sky. National Geographic estimates its age to be 2,700 years, “give or take a few centuries.” A five-year drought that has killed over 130 million trees of other species in California didn’t impact the Sequoias thanks to their lack of a taproot. Instead, they have shallow root systems that are three feet deep, spreading as far as 200 feet from each trunk. A thick, tannin-rich, insect-resistant bark makes them the world’s most resilient trees.

In 1864, President Lincoln took time from the Civil War to sign over Mariposa Grove to the state of California. Never before had a nation set aside land as a nature preserve. Read more about his epic story in an earlier column here.

It is what humankind brought to the Sequoias, however, that had to be corrected, and that’s just what the U.S. Park Service did with private help. Gone at last are the asphalt roads (a guide for our driveways?) that smothered roots and hosted polluting tour buses. Tourists now park in distant lots, with a 10-minute walk to that surreal, forest paradise, on dirt walking trails held together with resin. Volunteers there rejoice in how “…society has evolved, with a lighter-on-the-land approach.”

This lighter-on-the-land approach brings us from Yosemite Park to our cherished Greenport Village. Back in the ’80s and early ’90s, its late Mayor George Hubbard Sr., father of the incumbent, had the foresight to plant trees – hundreds of them – all over the village, often with private donations. It wasn’t entirely popular an idea then, though most didn’t care. But that is what leadership is all about. His marvelous legacy will endure for generations. Imagine if such wisdom found its way into some of our other East End communities?

This is not to overlook what some other L.I. municipalities will do for their trees. An effective tree committee is appointed by, and works out of, Southold Town Hall. The Village of Muttontown in Nassau County has a strict code to protect trees, having fined one homeowner $23,000 for removing seven trees from his front yard without a permit.

Vibrant and beautiful Riverhead Town could use a tree committee. When it comes to commercial properties in Riverhead, tree removal must be part of an approved site plan, though developers, even the phone company, have been known to clear-cut large wooded areas as they please, dealing later with Town Hall’s ho-hum reaction. Couldn’t Riverhead and Southold form a combined, North Fork tree committee of citizen volunteers? Sadly, Riverhead considers a clumsy plan to remove a number of mature trees for more parking north of Main Street, as well as north of its police station. The Riverhead Town Board and the town architect surely are capable of much smarter thinking than that.

Some might say a serious tree policy is a luxury we can’t afford. But consider this: according to the U.S. Forest Service and the American Arbor Association, objective data prove that every dollar spent on planting and caring for community trees yields two to five times that in benefits, such as cleaner air, lower energy costs, improved water quality, storm water control and increased property value. This was the conclusion of the University of Georgia in 2002, whose faculty study further showed that homes in Georgia’s Fulton County sold on average for $105,000 more in neighborhoods with mature trees. This is good reason to ease up on chemical weed killers in our own yards. Ever notice perfect lawns where trees decline more each season?

An award winning author, biologist David G. Haskell (, writes movingly of our connection to trees, of their effect on our minds and bodies. Check out his book, “The Songs of Trees.” He suggests each of us get to know one particular tree, to sit by it, to revisit it often, and to experience what he describes as “an enthusiastic openness of the senses.” And get this: though often used as a demeaning phrase, actual tree-hugging is now scientifically shown to lower stress, among other things.

On and on we could go about all that trees give us, such as the new science of how the measured evaporation of water from the leaves of trees, as well as their shade, has a far deeper cooling influence than we thought. We hear all about climate change, but rarely of how tree-planting combats its effects. And consider the Ancient Greek proverb, “Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit in.”

So plant the kinds of trees that last well into future generations (oak, beech, hickory and tulip tress are some that fill that role in these parts). All this recalls a children’s book that many of us would read to our young ‘uns, or was read to us, Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree” (1964, Harper & Row). Now there’s a book title that is as simple as it is true.

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Greg has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He is a former Suffolk County Family Court judge, six-term Suffolk County legislator and commissioner of Social Services. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a board member of several charities. He lives in Jamesport. Email Greg