“If the Hour (the day of Resurrection) is about to be established and one of you was holding a palm shoot, let him take advantage of even one second before the Hour is established to plant it.” – Prophet Mohammed.
Sitting under an apple tree, Isaac Newton discovered the law of gravity. Sitting under a huge Bodhi tree, a prince found enlightenment and became the Buddha. And under the majestic palm trees, a group sat with the Prophet Mohammed and listened to his message. For centuries other great thinkers have found meaning and answers to life’s deepest questions in nature, under a green leafy tree.
Trees and the vegetation around them not only provide beaut, they are also vital to life as they help us breathe. They also give us shelter and shade, provide timber, fuel, food and medicine. No wonder there is widespread concern about the fires that continue to ravage the Amazon, an ecosystem on which the world and a broad array of life within it depends for sustenance.
The Amazon is a vast sink for storing carbon dioxide and a key element of any plan to restrain climate change. While the issue is currently highly politicized, it is important to remember that any increase in deforestation in Amazonia would hasten global warming as well as cause untold damage to biodiversity.
Besides keeping the planet healthy, trees help us feel better, think more clearly and even live longer.
It was almost 50 years ago that a visionary Sheikh Zayed understood the power of greenery and its everlasting impact on wellbeing. As he said in one of his most famous quotes, “Give me agriculture and I will give you civilization.”
Abdul Hafeez Yawar Khan Al Yousefi was there in the early 1960s in Al Ain when Sheikh Zayed uttered that sentence, and went on to become agricultural adviser to Sheikh Zayed and a key part of the mission to make UAE “green.”
“The right trees planted at the right time can change a place forever,” says Al Yousefi, now 81.
Popularly known as Khan, he has degrees in agricultural science from both Pakistan and Beirut and arrived in Abu Dhabi in 1962 at the special invitation of Sheikh Zayed, who was then serving as the Ruler’s Representative in the Eastern Region.
“Whenever I met him, he always talked about agricultural projects,” recalls Al Yousefi. “He kept asking: ‘What should we do next? What do you have on the agenda? I’m keen to see trees, flowers and vegetables everywhere.’ Trees, when they flourish, can change the weather of a country, and heal all those around them. Date palm trees I planted over 50 years ago are still producing fruits and shade that benefit everyone in the country.”
As well as their importance to birds, animals and insects, Al Yousefi reminds us of the special place trees hold in Islam.
“They are Sadaqa Jariya, charity that lasts beyond your lifetime,” he says.
As the Prophet Mohammed said: “There is none among the Muslims who plants a tree or sows seeds, and then a bird, or a person or an animal eats from it, but is regarded as a charitable gift for him.”
Among the first trees imported to the UAE on Al Yousefi’s advice, after he arrived in Al Ain was the eucalyptus. Twelve crates of saplings were imported from Australia, specimens carefully chosen to withstand the harsh climate and unforgiving terrain.
Al Yousefi fondly remembers how Sheikh Zayed often stood with a measuring tape by his side to mark the spots earmarked for planting between Al Ain and Al Buraimi.
“His Highness had a country to govern and a nation to build, but agriculture always took center stage,” he says. “It was an uphill battle.”
Under his direction, Al Yousefi set out to plant trees along the roads of Al Ain and Abu Dhabi, to give protection from sands and the wind – trees that are there still. They also introduced the drip-drop system to conserve water and defied the odds by planting trees along several kilometres.
“At the time the water used to be 25 to 40 feet below ground. This was the 1960s,” says Al Yousefi. “They had to lay a pipeline all the way to Abu Dhabi but due to the rising demand in Al Ain, the water table started to go down. They then used the same pipeline to bring water from Abu Dhabi to Al Ain. These detours were costly and time consuming, but such was Sheikh Zayed’s passion for agriculture that he always made the funds available.”
Sheikh Zayed reformed the barren landscape and was “not convinced” by the British experts who firmly believed that nature would always have the upper hand in this battle.
“His dream was to turn the desert green,” said Al Yousefi.
Al Yousefi is currently in the US undergoing medical treatment. But he rarely stays in his hospital room and likes to be wheeled outside to the gardens and parks where he can be close to what he loves most.
“Trees heal and were highly beloved by Sheikh Zayed and are respected in Islam,” he says.
According to a 2015 study conducted in Toronto, Canada and published in the journal Nature, having trees close by can add approximately 1.5 years to someone’s life.
There is “a significant independent effect of trees on the street on health,” said one of the researchers, psychologist Omid Kardan of the University of Chicago. The study concluded that people who live in areas with higher street tree density report “better health perception and fewer cardio-metabolic conditions” compared with people living in areas with fewer trees.
The calming effect of trees is not to be underestimated. Some countries, such as Japan and South Korea, the government not only maintains special “healing” or “bathing” forests but is expanding them as part of an intuitive to improve wellbeing. South Korea’s National Forest Plan and The Japanese Society of Forest Medicine promote research on the therapeutic effects of forests on human health and educate people on the practice of forest bathing.
A 2018 Japanese study on the psychological effects of walking through forests revealed doing so decreased the negative moods of “depression-dejection”, “tension-anxiety”, “anger-hostility”, “fatigue”, and “confusion” and improved the participants’ positive feelings of “vigor” compared with walking through an urban area.
Canada and Finland also have therapy through trees initiatives.
“It has been said that ‘our secret is in our nature’ very literally,” says Katriina Kilpi, co-founder of International Forest Therapy Days. ”When others rely on psychotherapy, Finns have always put on their rubber boots and headed to the woods.”
IFTDays was established in 2018 when two entrepreneurs joined up to champion the bond between people and forests. Kilpi’s background is as a consultant on nature and health, while Heidi Korhonen is a nature connection coach. Their efforts led to community forest healing sessions with visitors from around the world.
“Finland is Europe´s most forested country with three quarters of its land area being covered with forests,” says Kilpi. “Though our forest relationship is traditionally strong, it is also under pressure due to digitalization, urbanization and a lack of perceived direct dependence on the forests. We too are starting to think we can exist without the forests.”
IFTDays is a week-long event people that attracts about 100 people, with 60 attending a one-day workshop and a smaller group of 40 staying on to immerse themselves in different approaches to forest therapy. This year IFTDays welcomed more than 25 specialists in everything from forest science to mindfulness to folktales, to serve as speakers and guides in the sessions held throughout the week.
“International Forest Therapy Days brings together those wishing to apply the healing effects of nature in their work, to share knowledge, learn from each other and experience different forest therapy practices,” says Kilpi.
Since trees are “our life support system”, she says that “just being around trees has been shown to balance our heart rhythms, lower blood pressure, lower the stress hormones in our blood, decrease negative thoughts and lift our moods. Trees provide a feeling of community and comfort.”
Finnish forests are “relatively safe”, offering ancient bedrock as well as fresh berries to eat in season, says Kilpi.
“Generally, you can say that if you can withstand the Finnish mosquitos, which are a nuisance but not dangerous as they do not carry any diseases, the Finnish forests are a paradise,” she says.
Featured image courtesy Abdul Hafeez Yawar Khan Al Yousefi, agricultural adviser to Sheikh Zayed, founder of the nation.
Rym Tina Ghazal is a cross-cultural and Arab history expert. She is also a peace ambassador, thought/youth leader, documentarian, lecturer and author for young readers. As an award-winning journalist with more than 15 years’ experience, she was one of the first Arab women to cover war zones in the Middle East, in 2003.