As we close out 2020, there may be some things we can learn from trees as we head into 2021. During this time of the year, it is typical to make New Year’s Resolutions often as a way to personally develop and improve ourselves, which is referred to as “growth” among psychologists. Growth is a fantastic thing, and important, but sometimes, as trees show us, it just might not be the right environment for fast growth to occur.
Trees record their year in their “rings”. Tree rings have fascinated scientists for years, and those who dedicate their lives to studying tree rings are called dendrochronologists. It has been observed that a tree’s yearly growth changes in response to seasonal climate changes. Different types of growth occur inside a tree which impacts cellular structure, and this is what we can observe in a tree ring. Thin-walled cells are associated with earlywood, that which is grown at the beginning of the growth season. These cells are generally lighter. Then, later, thicker-walled cells emerge which are darker and represent latewood. These two types of growth cells, plus the ‘normal growth’ cells in the middle, together form a single tree ring. Tree growth is sensitive to the changing conditions. Available moisture, the temperature and how much sunlight all impacts tree growth. Broad rings tell the story of a good growth year, and narrow rings provide evidence that some environmental stress was present.
Humans may not be as different from trees, some years we grow big and some years we just work to stay alive and upright. Like a tree, our environments also continuously change. Thanks to modern technologies we generally do not have to worry about the flux of temperature and availability of food, but we do have periods of increased stress that produce an environment that is not conducive to high-growth. But, like a tree, small growth or big growth, both are biologically positive because as the old biological adage goes, “if you are not growing then you are dying.” The good news is that the growth is not quantified, there is no minimum growth required. Humans may tend to forget that, most tend to want to “go big or go home”, but maybe that is where we can take a lesson from the trees. The production of another tree ring, the evidence of surviving another year, may simply be enough.
Factors that influence tree growth are temperature, weather, atmospheric conditions, competition, age, and parasites. Humans are also influenced by similar factors; we just may call them something different. Trees that survive hurricane force winds overcome a huge weather stress. For humans, the sudden death of a loved one or the loss of the family-stabilizing job may be equivalent to a hurricane. Infections in trees can shunt resources normally used for growth towards repair. Likewise, the energy and stamina required to beat a microbiological warrior or a biological-process-disruption like cancer, may trump using that energy for growth.
Instead of a New Year’s Resolution this year, perhaps consider establishing a new tradition. A gratitude walk. Schedule a time to step outside for a walk or hike and really notice the trees and ponder how long and what they have overcome to survive. Then, turn your reflection inward and celebrate what you have accomplished and overcome. You may have had a big growth year; your tree ring may be a thick one. Or, you may have had some serious environmental challenges this year, and your tree ring is skinny, but if you are reading this, it is still there. Celebrate that by getting outside, it is good for humans everywhere.