Trees in Distress: Toward the Well-being of 3 Trillion Companions

Loss of Habitat?  Swivel Chair Stranded as Reservoir Runs Dry. Photo by James Ting:   Sofa Chair from Evidence I series  , 2/8/14, Alamden Reservoir, CA.   James Ting ’s work was on display at the Watchung Center for the Arts until October 27. 

Loss of Habitat? Swivel Chair Stranded as Reservoir Runs Dry. Photo by James Ting: Sofa Chair from Evidence I series, 2/8/14, Alamden Reservoir, CA. James Ting’s work was on display at the Watchung Center for the Arts until October 27. 

There is much to appreciate in a tree’s way of being.  Trees display their leaves to intercept sunlight.  Each leaf feeds the tree by combining water from the ground and carbon dioxide from the air.  The leaf communicates with the atmosphere by opening lip-like, water-powered guard cells.  Carbon dioxide is captured from the air, while water evaporating inside the leaf keeps the leaf cool under the hot summer sun.  The leaf also releases free oxygen, to the benefit of all breathing creatures.  Water is vital to these processes, so a tree’s roots reach out in the soil to soak up the rain that drips through its canopy and draws this water up the trunk and out through the branches to moisten the inside of each leaf. 

Thousands of magnificent trees in Essex County’s South Mountain Reservation have been my companions through thirty years of walking in the woods.  Never before have I seen so many trees with brown-edged leaves, or with leaves shriveled and dead.  We had very hot days in early summer, and long stretches without a drop of rain. New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection just issued a water supply drought watch [1]. DEP Commissioner Bob Martin wrote, “…we are beginning to observe signs of stress in our water supply indicators, and this warrants closer scrutiny and public cooperation.”  

I think about Earth’s three trillion trees each facing the challenges of a changing climate [2].  “Drought and heat-induced tree mortality is accelerating in many forest biomes as a consequence of a warming climate, resulting in a threat to global forests unlike any in recorded history,” wrote researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the journal Nature Climate Change [3].   As forests are a major carbon storage area, this has global consequences for our climate, for the multitude of forest-dwelling creatures, and for all who cherish a walk in the woods. 

How do we respond to the distress of our trees?   Global political agreements are essential, but equally important is local action by citizens that changes the social fabric.  Pope Francis addresses this in his encyclical, Laudato Si’ - On Care for Our Common Home.

Not everyone is called to engage directly in political life. Society is also enriched by a countless array of organizations which work to promote the common good and to defend the environment… Some, for example, show concern for a public place [such as] a landscape … and strive to protect, restore, improve or beautify it as something belonging to everyone. Around these community actions, relationships develop or are recovered and a new social fabric emerges... a shared identity, with a story which can be remembered and handed on…These community actions, when they express self-giving love, can also become intense spiritual experiences [4].

The South Mountain Conservancy practices active stewardship toward a resilient forest, controlling erosion, promoting biodiversity, and supporting research [5].  It is one of the many hundreds of nonprofits in New Jersey that help educate a new generation of climate care-givers and stewards of our living environment.  

This fall, in 2015, make time to go off-line and into the woods; notice and appreciate our trees' way of life, get involved in an environmental nonprofit near you, and cherish the gift of our delicately-balanced eco-system that urgently needs our care.

Marian Glenn is a Professor of Biology at Seton Hall University. 


1. Issued September 23, 2015 for 12 counties in  northeast NJ

2. Rachel Ehrenberg.  “Trillions of trees: Survey of surveys finds 422 trees for every person on Earth.” Nature News, 9 September 2015

3. Nathan G. McDowell & Craig D. Allen.  “Darcy's law predicts widespread forest mortality under climate warming.” Nature Climate Change 5, 669–672, 2015.


5. South Mountain Conservancy