The hidden value of nature: enhancing our well-being

Published: 29 November 2023

In our busy everyday lives, it's easy to overlook our deep-rooted connection with nature. The connection is not just about the nourishment we derive or the air we breathe; nature subtly but significantly enhances our well-being. This intriguing intersection is where McGill Department of Natural Resource Sciences PhD candidate Jackie Hamilton directs her research.

Her study focuses on ecosystem services, a concept spotlighting the priceless benefits nature bestows upon us. From shelter and nourishment to inspiration and tranquility, nature enriches our lives in a myriad of ways. Ms. Hamilton's research delves into this intricate relationship, specifically focusing on our leafy companions—trees.

She conducted her study in the Mont Saint-Hilaire Biosphere Reserve surrounding McGill's Gault Nature Reserve, a UNESCO biosphere reserve that's a patchwork of agricultural, forest, and urban landscapes. Ms. Hamilton and her team, including Macdonald Campus undergrad Heather Brown, embarked on a quest to understand how residents perceive the value of trees and how this shapes their interactions with these towering green giants.

"Our goal was to unravel the bond between humans and trees," says Hamilton. "We placed assessment points across the reserve, documenting the species and size of each tree. We also engaged locals in conversations, unearthing captivating tales about their relationships with trees."

One delightful discovery was the inventive ways people transformed dying ash trees into stunning artworks or practical items like chess boards. This highlighted the profound connection between individuals and trees.

Maple trees reigned supreme in the landscape, contributing nearly half of the biomass. But a striking contrast emerged between private and public lands. "The largest trees flourished on private property," Hamilton notes, "suggesting a special bond between people and the trees inhabiting their yards."

Maple trees occupied a sentimental space in locals' hearts. Over a third of interviewees had tapped a maple tree or knew someone who had. "It wasn't about economic benefit," says Hamilton. "It was about joy, culture, and familial ties."

This research journey transcended data collection: it was an exploration of human–land–tree connections. Each conversation underscored the immeasurable value that trees bring to our lives.

"So, let's pause and appreciate how we are connected to the nature around us," urges Hamilton. "It's not just existing separate from us; it's enhancing our well-being, infusing joy into our lives, and connecting us in ways we often fail to see. Let’s recognize the countless ways we are shaping nature and it is shaping us, for the collective well-being of this planet we share.”

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