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Daily News ‘Look up and look around at our friends the trees’

By Brian Lehrer and Marielle Anzelone / New York Daily News Jan 04, 2023 at 5:00 am (Link to the original article)

Aside from the annual choice between a spruce or fir for our living rooms, trees don’t get much attention. Quietly, without notice or fanfare, trees are doing critical work. They cool us off in the sticky heat of summer, beautify our neighborhoods in their autumnal splendor, and exhale the oxygen that we breathe. Yet we barely recognize their outsized role in our daily lives. So Marielle had an idea: What if we took the time to get to know our arboreal neighbors more intimately?

Listeners generally associate Brian’s radio show with current events, but for one year we also gave plants a media platform.

From November 2021 through October 2022, we invited listeners to follow a tree of their choosing as it changed through the seasons. Over the airwaves, Brian and Marielle met each month for a talk with an expert guest. Here’s some of what we learned in our year of trees.

A woman walks among trees bathed in the morning sunlight in Prospect Park on Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022, in the Brooklyn borough of New York.

Last February, we spoke with Rutgers professor Dr. Myla Aronson about how a forest is a complex concoction of soils, fungi, and animals all interacting with wild-growing plants. As director of the Hutcheson Memorial Forest, one of the last remaining old growth patches in New Jersey, Aronson noted that these organisms have co-mingled and evolved for thousands of years, creating forests that provide ecological benefits that planted trees can’t match.

Individual trees can also serve as habitat — for lichens, galls, and especially birds. In May, Dr. Desiree Narango described some morbid findings — nests with baby chickadees that seemingly starved to death. Her research as a conservation scientist at the University of Massachusetts found the problem was not enough caterpillars. These larval insects are picky eaters and generally don’t feed on exotic plants. The non-native trees that we plant in our landscapes mean fewer caterpillars. As caterpillars are also ideal baby bird food, this leads to insufficient calories for the young nestlings to survive.

This summer New York City experienced downpours, localized flooding, heat advisories and air quality alerts. As climate infrastructure, trees play an important role mitigating some of these effects. They act as natural air conditioners, providing shade and releasing water mist through their leaves. They reduce ambient temperatures and help sequester carbon and absorb stormwater. In July, Columbia Prof. Kate Orff, a founder of SCAPE Studio, shared her work quantifying the significant cooling provided by the oaks and hickories of Forest Park in Queens. Ground temperatures in the park were up to three and a half degrees cooler than the surrounding neighborhoods. For urbanites to reap these benefits, city blocks should look more like forests.

In June we spoke with Dr. Charles Nilon, professor at the University of Missouri. He shared insights on how race and income influence the type of trees and kind of nature urbanites experience. Typically, the more affluent a neighborhood, the more trees there are; and less wealth means fewer trees. His research has found that access to power and resources are largely responsible for the enormous gap in the canopy cover. The presence or absence of a tree says so much about the place you live.

There was arboreal activity off the air as listeners posted monthly photographs of their trees on social media. From winter’s stark architecture to the early flush of springtime flowers that morphed into summer’s fruits, followed by autumnal foliage; these phenological changes helped us collectively mark the passage of each season.

We heard from callers too. Lily from the Bronx shared how she walks among the trees several times a week and could feel the positive effects mentally, physically and emotionally. Diana in Tribeca reminded us of Tu BiShvat, the Jewish new year for trees. Trisha from Windsor Terrace grieved the loss of a giant beech near her home. Even as the city installs many new saplings, “You can’t plant a 75-year-old tree,” she lamented.

The poignancy of such loss became even clearer in light of our January segment about how trees boost our mood. University of Illinois psychologist Dr. Ming Kuo described her research into the positive effects of seeing and experiencing trees on individual and community well-being. Cardiovascular disease, depression, diabetes, ADHD — she challenged listeners to call in with a disease that was not improved by trees. These gains could be measured on a molecular level, said Kuo. Even looking at trees for a few minutes has the power to make us happy. Turns out, human wellness lies in wood.

It’s no wonder, then, that during winter’s darkest days, humans have long sought solace in evergreens. We hope this series will inspire you to appreciate the trees that live among us throughout the year and strive for arbor equity for all.

Lehrer hosts “The Brian Lehrer Show” on WNYC Radio weekdays. Anzelone is a botanist and founder of NYC Wildflower Week.