Botany in Popular Culture: Laura Veirs

I love music for its ability to conjure up emotions, create a mood, and inspire action. The music of Laura Veirs has always inspired me to get out into nature and be more observant of the wild things around me. Her music is rich with emotions, and I feel those, too. However, when I think of her music, I can’t escape images of the natural world and the creatures that inhabit it.

Found within her nature-centric lyrics are, of course, numerous botanical references. After all, plants and their actions make excellent subject matter for all types of art. And with that in mind, Veirs asks rhetorically in the song Rapture, “Doesn’t the tree write great poetry?”

When it comes to botanical references, the song that jumps first to mind is Lonely Angel Dust, starting off right away with these lyrics: “The rose is not afraid to blossom / though it knows its petals must fall / and with its petals fall seeds into soil / Why toil to contain it all? / Why toil at all?” Plants produce seeds in abundance, as mentioned in Shadow Blues: “Thousand seeds from a flower blowing through the night.” And, as in Where Are You Driving?, they’re seeking a suitable spot to plant themselves: “Through clouds of dandelions / seeds sailing out on the wind / hoping you’ll be the one to plant yourself on in.”

 

Flowers come up often in the songs of Laura Veirs. In White Cherry, “cherry trees take to bloom.” In Nightingale, “her heart a field in bloom.” In Make Something Good, “an organ pipe in a cathedral / that stays in tune through a thousand blooms.” In Sun is King, “innocent as a summer flower.” In Cast a Hook, “with watery cheeks down flowered lanes.” In Life Is Good Blues, “Messages you sent to Mars came from a crown of flowers.” Grass and weeds get a few mentions, too. In Summer Is the Champion, “let’s get dizzy in the grass.” In Life Is Good Blues, “tender green like the shoots of spring / unfurling on the lawn.”

Trees are the real stars, though. Veirs makes frequent references to trees and their various parts. This makes sense, as trees are real forces of nature. So much happens in, on, and around them, and images of the natural world can feel barren without them. First there is their enormousness, as in Black Butterfly, “evergreen boughs above me tower / were singing quiet stories about forgiveness, ” and Don’t Lose Yourself, “we slept in the shadow of a cedar tree.” Then there is their old age, as in Where Are You Driving?, “tangled up in the gnarled tree,” and When You Give Your Heart, “falling through the old oak tree.” There is also their utility, mentioned in Make Something Good, “I wanted to make something sweet / the blood inside a maple tree / the sunlight trapped inside the wood / make something good.” And then, of course, there is the fruit they bear, as in July Flame, “sweet summer peach / high up in the branch / just out of my reach,” and then in Wandering Kind, “a strange July / a storm came down / from the North and pulled out the salt / and it tore out the leaves from the pear tree / my canopy.”

Many of Veirs songs create scenes and tell stories of being in the wilderness among rivers, lakes, mountains, and caves. Chimney Sweeping Man, for example, is a “forest resident” who “walks[s] quiet through the forest like a tiny, quiet forest mouse.” In Snow Camping, Veirs tells a story about sleeping in a snow cave in the forest, where “a thousand snowflakes hovered,” “a distant songbird [was] singing,” and “the weighted trees” were her “only home.” But sometimes those forests burn, which is captured in Drink Deep: “Now the raging of the forest fires end / and all the mammals fled / I smell in the charred darkness / a little green / a little red.” Later in the song: “the fire closed his eyes / tipped his flame hat and slipped through the dire rye / we wandered romantic / we scattered dark branches / with singing green stars as our guide.”

Nature can also be empowering, and Veirs often refers to things in the natural world as metaphors or similes for the human experience. In Cast a Hook, Veirs adamantly asserts, “I’m not dead, not numb, not withering / like a fallen leaf who keeps her green.” This line comes up again in Saltbreakers: “You cannot burn me up / I’m a fallen leaf who keeps her green.” In Lake Swimming, Veirs addresses change and how some of life’s changes may wound us but we can still shine – “shucking free our deadened selves / like snakes and corn do / … / Old butterfly / I’ll dance with you / though our wings may crumble / we can float like ash / broken but the edges still shine.”

 

The botanical references Veirs makes in her songs are not the only things that excite me. Birds, insects, mammals, fish, and worms all find a place in Veirs’ lyrics. This is why, after more than a decade of listening to her songs, I find myself coming back to them again and again. There is a sort of kinship we feel for each other when we share in common a love of the natural world. I find that in the music of Laura Veirs.

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Trees Are Good For Your Lungs

Trees help reduce air pollution. They do this primarily by pulling gases (like ozone, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide) into their leaves and then diffusing them and/or chemically altering them so that they are no longer a direct threat to humans. They also intercept particulate matter, trapping it on the surfaces of their leaves until the wind comes along and blows it away or the rain comes around and washes it into the soil. Trees are filters in this sense, reducing the health threats of our polluted air.

But didn’t I just report on the contribution of urban trees to air pollution via their production of volatile organic compounds? Yes I did. And that remains a possibility; however, according to a study recently published in the journal, Environmental Pollution, the presence of trees is a great benefit to human health despite potential risks. More research is necessary of course, but the consensus so far is that having trees around is a net positive.

Alnus glutinosa, European Alder (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Alnus glutinosa, European Alder (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

There have been many studies on the relationship between trees and air quality, but little is known about the extent to which human health impacts are avoided and the related money that is saved as a result of air pollution mitigation by trees and forests. With the aid of computer simulations, researchers at US Forest Service and The Davey Institute used 2010 Census data, tree cover maps from the 2001 National Land Cover Database, US EPA’s BenMAP program, and other data to seek answers to these questions. Their analyses – focused at the county level – involved the 48 contiguous United States.

According to their study, trees and forests removed around 17.4 million tons of air pollution in 2010, which resulted in a health care savings of $6.8 billion. 850 human deaths were avoided, and incidences of acute respiratory symptoms were reduced by 670,000. Ozone and nitrogen dioxide experienced the greatest decrease, while the removal of ozone and particulate matter resulted in the greatest health value. Air pollution removal was greater in rural areas compared to urban areas simply because there is more rural area in the US than urban area; however, the removal of air pollution was found to be more valuable in urban areas due to differences in population density. Resulting health benefits and savings are quite dramatic considering that air pollution removal by trees was only found to improve air quality by about 1%.

There were many things left out in this study though, and the researchers acknowledge this. First of all – as stated earlier – trees have the potential to contribute to air pollution. They emit volatile organic compounds which can result in ozone formation, they can reduce wind speeds which concentrates pollutants, and they produce pollen which is a direct contribution to air quality and a major health issue for those with serious allergies.  But trees reduce air pollution in indirect ways as well. For example, by shading buildings, trees can reduce energy demands which results in decreased power plant emissions and a reduction in air pollution.

Quercus sp., Oak Tree (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Quercus sp., Oak Tree (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Trees can also be negatively affected by air pollution. When particulate matter collects on leaf surfaces, photosynthesis is compromised, limiting a tree’s ability to take gaseous air pollution into its leaves. Urban trees are stressed in additional ways. For example, trees growing near sidewalks, driveways, and roadways deal with serious soil compaction and are often not receiving optimal amounts of water, which can limit their ability to mitigate air pollution. Thus, environmental factors should be considered when determining the relationship between trees and air quality.

This study was conducted at the county level. The researchers acknowledge that more precise predictions could be obtained if analyses were conducted at a finer scale. “Local-scale design of trees and forests can affect local-scale pollutant concentrations.” So, the number of trees, their concentration and configuration, the length of the growing season, the percentage of evergreen trees vs. deciduous trees, etc. all play a role in the extent of air pollution reduction.

While limitations to the study abound, the researchers assert that this initial analysis gives “a first-order approximation of the magnitude of pollution removal by trees and their effect on human health.” Future studies will provide more accurate approximations, but for now I think it is safe to say that trees are good for our health and worthwhile things to have around.

Boise National Forest

Boise National Forest

This study focused mainly on health issues of the respiratory variety. The positive psychological benefits of plants have been observed in separate studies, and our also worthy of our consideration when determining the health benefits of trees and forests.