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Trees' Symbolic Power

Shel-Silverstein (1).jpg
U.S. Postal Service
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Thirty-nine years! That's how long my husband and I have been married. My mother-in-law embroidered a needlework sampler for our wedding present. The background is the shape of a tree, and she stitched the names of our ancestors within its branches, illustrating family connections across generations.

Going back, some families identified with particular trees. There are obvious ones, like “Woodward," but also “McIntyre,” the Scottish name that means “son of a carpenter.”

Here in Utah, we've named lots of towns after wonderful trees — Cedar City, Cottonwood Heights and Ogden, which in Old English means "the valley of acorns."

36 nations depict trees on their flags, like the maple leaf for Canada. The flag of Cypress features two olive branches, symbolizing the Greek and Turkish communities’ hope for peace.

And 83 countries portray trees on their postage stamps to remind citizens of their arboreal heritage each time they mail a letter. This year, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp for Shel Silverstein's beloved book, “The Giving Tree.

And hey! Pull out your wallet and look at a $10, $20, or $50 dollar note. You'll find images of trees on each of them.

So, why are trees such pervasive symbols? I think it means that trees — silently and intimately — remind us of what we most cherish: our families, the places we live and our national legacies. In a nutshell, trees symbolize the very best of ourselves.

Dr. Nalini Nadkarni is an emeritus professor of both The Evergreen State College and the University of Utah, one of the world’s leading ecologists and a popular science communicator. Dr. Nadkarni’s research and public engagement work is supported by the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. @nalininadkarni
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