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“Watching trees grow, shrink, drink and breathe”

“This oak tree and me, we’re made of the same stuff, ” Carl Sagan, one of the most inspiring science communicators of the 20th Century once said. But what did he mean?

Probably, he thought of Darwin and his famous universal tree of life, that was used not only as a metaphor, but also as a model and research tool. Furthermore, by choosing an oak tree as a comparison, Sagan might have referred to himself being strong, tall, long-standing. More generally, his quote could refer to the ancient relationship of human beings and the forest. And finally, Carl Sagan obviously used a personification to relate to the tree, to “humanize” it – a common approach in science communication.

By “humanizing” nature, we create empathy. That is one reason why German forester Peter Wohlleben’s book “The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—” was so successful. However, Wohlleben is quite controversially discussed among both foresters and scientists. “Not scientific enough,” researchers say. “Too emotional,” forest practitioners complain.

Admittedly, many people – especially those who are non-experts – obviously like the emotional perspective on the forest. Even Carl Sagan. And fortunately, there might be a scientific approach that could satisfy different groups interested in trees and the forest: precise dendrochronology. While dendrochronologists used for centuries the scientific method of dating tree/growth rings to the exact year they were formed, they recently introduced precision dendrometers. These instruments – following a recent article in The New Yorker called “A Day in the Life of a Tree” – “allow scientists to do something entirely new: watch how trees change and respond to their environments on an instantaneous scale.” Reading the article, one can follow the life of a more than 145 years old plane tree in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park from 5:28 A.M to 8:19 P.M. Written in epic language, the author takes us on an inspiring tour, where we learn about recent studies using precise dendrochronology in countries like China and Canada.

This approach is of course not only interesting for science communications – this was just my angle to look at it. Precise dendrochronology is of severe importance when investigating the resilience of trees, because it can measure how they react to drought, rain, pollution levels and further disturbances. Knowledge about forest growth (and mortality) provides valuable information for understanding how different tree species respond to variables like extreme weather and help to build predictive models.

Finally, as we recently introduced in our series “Voices of Resilience” on this blog, there are also both scientifically innovative and effectively communicated research projects in Europe worth looking at. One example is the “The Twittering Tree”, presented in a short interview with Kathy Steppe, Professor at Ghent University and Head of the Laboratory of Plant Ecology.

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