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What drives a spiritual connection with giant trees?

As the largest and oldest living organisms on Earth, giant trees play an important ecological role in the natural world. Giant trees inspire a sense of awe, as they hold the story to our shared history. Some human societies are known to position giant trees in significant socio-cultural roles with unique identities and names selected by local people. 

Giant trees have a spiritual connection with local people by encouraging social cohesion. Attachments with giant trees can also encourage spiritual well-being, but just exactly how this occurs remains unknown. 

Geography and climate are known to influence the age, size, and other properties of trees. Previous studies have suggested that trees with extraordinary properties tend to be given unique names and are recognized as sacred. The size and distribution of trees and spiritual ecosystem services may be influenced by macroecological processes (e.g., geography and climate). 

In a new study conducted by the National Institute for Environmental Studies, researchers used structural equation modeling (SEM) on 38,994 giant tree records from 237 species across Japan. The goal was to determine whether climate and geographical variables may drive both probabilities for giant trees to be an object of faith and receive a unique name from local people. 

The study revealed that trunk circumference and tree age were the top two variables that influenced the probability of a tree becoming a spiritual object and receiving a unique name. Tree trunk circumference and age were also strongly correlated with climatic factors. 

The probability of a tree being an object of faith and receiving a unique name increased with lower annual precipitation. The worship of giant trees in Japan is partly related to the “prayer for rain.” Rice cultivation was the foundation of traditional Japanese society. The abundance or failure of rice crops was directly linked to life and death. Drought was the strongest factor in a devastating decline in rice yields. The study’s results are strongly consistent with previous empirical findings.

This research is the first to demonstrate the relationship between spiritual ecosystem services and underlying macroecological processes, which have previously been difficult to quantify. The findings provide a starting point for further clarification of the spiritual connection between people and biodiversity, as well as the driving processes behind this connection. 

The study is published in the journal Nature Plants.

By Katherine Bucko, Staff Writer

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