Poet Joyce Kilmer famously extolled the loveliness of trees, and now Nashville's music community is taking arboreal praise a step further with the If Trees Could Sing project, an environmental education program launched by The Nature Conservancy in partnership with Metro Parks Nashville. Aiming to raise awareness of the value of trees and the importance of protecting them, musicians like Reba McEntire, Taylor Hicks, Tim O'Brien, Suzy Bogguss, and Webb Wilder made videos in which they talk about their favorite trees, sharing personal stories and in some cases, playing a tune.
"If you care about humans' future on Earth when faced with our big environmental challenges such as climate change and water management, well, trees are a big part of the solution," says Paul Kingsbury, director of communications for the Nature Conservancy in Tennessee, and one of the developers of the project.
"Everyone knows trees provide oxygen. We all learned that in grade school. But did you know that trees cool our air by several degrees? Did you know they remove a substantial amount of air pollution? Did you know they soak up storm water in their roots? Did you know trees make people feel more relaxed and that being in the presence of trees actually reduces people's stress hormones and blood pressure? I could go on and on. As Reba McEntire says in her video, trees aren't just pretty background scenery. They're essential to our health and well-being. We wanted people to get the message that trees are important. As our tag line says: Let's take care of our trees, so they can take care of us."
So far, 20 music artists have been filmed with their trees, and several more have agreed to do so, including some outside the Nashville community. Those who have been approached have been receptive, says Kingsbury. "Some artists had definite ideas about which trees they wanted to talk about. Ben Folds, Jim Lauderdale, Reba McEntire, Victor Wooten, Will Hoge, Mike Farris, Jason Ringenberg of Jason & the Scorchers (aka Farmer Jason), Ketch Secor of Old Crow Medicine Show, Suzy Bogguss — these artists knew exactly what tree they wanted. A few artists didn't, so we picked one for them."
Singer Taylor Hicks chose the Sweetbay magnolia "because it reminds me of my home in Alabama, and just the South in general. Ever since winning 'American Idol' I've spent a lot of time away from the South and my hometown of Birmingham. Whenever I see a magnolia tree, it tells me I'm close to home. Magnolia trees are as much a part of southern culture as sweet tea and BBQ. They have soul, you know?"
As a boy, "I had a favorite climbing tree in my yard growing up," Hicks recalls. "I remember jumping out of it and it felt like I was jumping out of a 10-story building. About everybody I knew, and every place I went, there was a magnolia tree. They were great for hiding in and climbing. They made cool natural forts. I remember them being everywhere. They had these huge green leaves and white flowers that smelled like vanilla. You could smell those things from a mile away! Getting involved in If Trees Could Sing helped remind me of this," he says, praising the project's unique combination of technology, music, and education. "Hopefully it will help others recall their memories and not take trees for granted."
Grammy-winning bluegrass musician Tim O'Brien plays the fiddle in his video, alongside a chinkapin oak. "I always liked the fiddle tune called 'Chinquipun Hunting,' but I liked it even more after I learned that the title refers to folks in the mountains eating the acorns from that tree. I can sorta see folks gathering them now while I play it. Chestnuts are another great natural food source. They just fall on the ground and wait for you to roast them."
O'Brien also has memories of climbing trees in his youth. "There were mulberry trees in both mine and the neighbors' yards. My friends and I would climb up and eat the ripe berries, and we'd string tin can telephones up between the trees. There was a giant spruce in front of another friend's house. The branches went right down to the ground, and underneath was a kind of dark, cool room, and it was our secret meeting place. Trees are ladders, air conditioners, and art objects. They're also shelters, playgrounds, even food. When they fall over, they become a fuel source," he says.
Calling trees "a living monument to the spontaneous creativity of all living things," O'Brien believes "there's a logic to a tree, and you can trace its path in life, the way it reaches out of the ground toward the sun. Nature helps equalize and calm the frenzy of modern life. It tells a timeless story and brings us back to our origin as natural beings. If Trees Could Sing reminds us to stay in touch, literally, with the natural world."
Singer-guitarist and actor Webb Wilder talks about the blue spruce in his video, but has several favorites. "I have so many childhood memories involving trees. Growing up in South Mississippi meant that pine trees were everywhere. Of course oak trees and other hardwoods provided shade, climbing, beautiful autumn leaves. Magnolia trees are a symbol of Mississippi, the Magnolia state," says the Hattiesburg native. "I love so many things about trees. I love the things that can be made from wood (like guitars!) and all the different types of woodworking craft that go with it. It is because of this that I also realize how precious trees are and how important it is to be judicious about which ones to harvest and which ones not to, to be aware of renewed forestation, etc."
In addition to the Web videos, there's a real-world element to If Trees Could Sing in Nashville's Centennial Park, and a commitment to education. The included trees have been outfitted with a sign including the musician's photo and a scannable QR code linked to the video. "We have specifically added content to our site that can be used in the classroom for teachers and schoolchildren. We link prominently on our If Trees Could Sing landing page to The Nature Conservancy's Nature Works Everywhere program for middle schools and their lesson plan on Urban Trees," says Paul Kingsbury, adding that visitors can learn more online. Suggestions include helpful tips like not 'topping' trees when pruning them and watering them well in the first few years after planting.
"We want people to start to notice trees and value them for the exceptional benefits they bring to our lives," Kingsbury sums up. "Secondarily, we would love it if people of all ages would think about planting trees and taking better care of the trees we already have."
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