Much of my inspiration and commitment to protect and restore trees and forests stems from an important incident in my life, which took place in 1977. At the time I was working as a surveyor for mining companies in the northwest of Canada, looking for mineral deposits in remote wilderness areas. On each survey, we had to establish a site for a base reading, which would be permanently marked in the landscape and could be used as a reference point for any subsequent surveys. Usually, this site was marked by painting a cross on a prominent feature, such as an exposed rock, but in one particular location there were no rocks around, and I had to mark a tree as a reference point. I did this by removing a piece of bark from the tree with my machete, leaving a prominent scar. However, I realised that if someone came to do a future survey from the other direction, they wouldn’t see this scar as it was only on one side of the tree. Thus, I ended up removing a section of bark from all around the tree, making it visible from every direction.
That evening I told the survey crew leader what I’d done, and he responded by asking if I knew that I’d killed the tree. In actual fact, I hadn’t known then that ring-barking a tree prevents the flow of sap within it, thereby causing its death. This unwitting mistake was deeply upsetting to me, as I’ve always had a sense of kinship and love for trees, and yet there I was responsible for this one’s death. In coming to terms with this experience, I was confronted with the fact that, although I appreciated and valued trees, I didn’t know very much about them, and it was this ignorance which had caused me to end that tree’s life so prematurely.
In the years since then, I’ve sought to educate myself as much as possible about trees, and about Nature in general. In so doing, my contact with, and passion for, all things wild has grown steadily. However, despite all I’ve learned, that feeling from 1977, of how much I still don’t know about the green rooted beings of the forest, stays with me. Sometimes when I look at the old ‘granny’ Scots pines of the Caledonian Forest in Glen Affric, each with its own unique, distinctive shape, I wonder what the personal life histories of those trees are. What happened to make that one grow with its branches all twisted and contorted, or another one to branch into a multitude of parallel trunks a few feet above the ground? I can speculate about a storm, or browsing animals breaking off the leader shoots when the trees were young, but the trees’ life stories, their experiences of reality, are impalpable, a mystery, the unknown … beyond my cognitive grasp.
My journey of discovery has led me to appreciate the many wonders and intricate interconnections of the natural world around us, but it has also revealed how little we collectively really know about trees. For example, until a few years ago it was widely accepted that the oldest tree on the planet was a bristlecone pine in California, 4,600 years in age. However, scientists in Tasmania have recently identified a huon pine there which is at least 10,500 years, and possibly as much as 40,000 years old.
In 1994 Australia was the location of another remarkable discovery, when the Wollemi pine, an ancient conifer species thought to have died out 150 million year ago, was found growing in a rainforest gorge just 200 kilometres from Sydney.
As it turns out, we haven’t even known what is the world’s most massive tree. This record was attributed to a giant sequoia in California, but in 1993 two researchers announced they’d found a much larger tree – a stand of aspen in Utah. Because aspen spreads by suckers, or ramets, which grow from the roots of a parent tree, what appears to be a group of individual aspens is, in fact, a single multi-trunked organism or clone, in which all the ‘separate’ trees are genetically identical and linked by their roots. The aspen clone studied in Utah consists of 47,000 trunks, covering 42 hectares, and it has been speculated that it is essentially immortal, for although some trunks will die, other new ones will grow, and the tree as a whole continues living. Some aspen clones may have done so for perhaps a million years or more!
When I extrapolate my thoughts about the life histories of 300 year old Scots pines to what the huon pine in Tasmania or the aspen clone in Utah have experienced in their lives, I realise how little we know of the true nature of a tree’s reality.
Some aspects of the reality in which trees live are being illuminated through the discovery that they are intimately linked with other organisms. For example, in forests all over the world, scientists have found that many of the trees have their root tips wrapped around by, and intertwined with, the root filaments, or hyphae, of fungi. In a symbiotic, mutually-beneficial relationship, the fungi, which cannot photosynthesise, gain sugars which the trees have made using the sun’s energy, while the trees receive nutrients from the fungi, which they themselves cannot access directly from the soil.
These mycorrhizal fungi, as they are called, wrap their hyphae around the roots of numerous trees in a forest, thereby forming a literal ‘web of life’ which connects the trees to each other. It has been suggested that this underground interconnectedness may form a ‘communication network’ for trees, which could explain the observations of scientists who have studied the defence mechanisms of some trees in South Afric and the USA. These trees produce large quantities of poisonous tannins when they are attacked by leaf-eating insects, but the research showed that it was not only the trees suffering the insect infestations which produced the tannins, but other, untouched trees up to 50 metres away did so as well within 15 minutes of the insects’ arrival. In a mysterious way, the trees communicate about insects. I wonder what else they communicate about? Perhaps about humans, and what we’re doing to the world and its forests …
Living as I do in the Findhorn Foundation Community, which was founded on the recognition and experience that all of Nature has intelligence, consciousness and spirit, and can be communicated with by sensitive, open-minded people, I am not at all surprised by these new discoveries. I know that Nature, and trees, have much to teach us all, if we would but lift our eyes and our minds from our culture’s fixation with the economic growth, consumer products and species-centred lifestyle which separates us from the rest of Nature and is destroying the wondrous, but still largely unknown, forests of our world.
During a workshop about trees which I led in Sweden in 1985 I received a simple lesson in humility about how much there is to learn from Nature. I asked each of the participants to find a tree and hug it for a few minutes, to see if they could imagine being that tree, and to just accept any feelings or thoughts that came. I chose to hug an old, small apple tree, some of whose branches were broken and supported by wooden poles. After holding this tree for a couple of minutes, feeling what it must be like to be rooted in that spot, growing there quietly through the seasons, year after year, a message came into my mind, as though from the tree itself: “You humans, in your pursuit of materialism, are like the alchemists of old, for whom the goal, the miracle they sought, was to turn lead into gold. Yet here am I, a mere apple tree, and every year I turn soil, water and sunlight into apples, into new life – a much greater miracle, but one which you overlook, or never give a second thought to.”
No human invention can produce an apple from sun, earth and water, yet we are entranced by our own creations to such an extent that we often don’t appreciate the wonders of life on our planet. We suffer from what has been described as ‘the arrogance of humanism’ – the delusion that we know it all, that we know better than Nature. This results in, for example, natural forests all over the world being cut down, often for throwaway products, and replaced by monoculture plantations, which are claimed to be ‘more productive’. However, what experience, what wisdom, what understanding of the world is being lost with the old trees and ancient forests?
For me, and many other people all over the world, trees have never been mere sources of cellulose, waiting to be harvested and converted into human wealth. They are living organisms, each one as individual as every human being. They silently pump tons of soil up into the sky as they build their bodies, they are converters of sunlight into organic matter, they influence local weather patterns, and they are a home, habitat and symbiotic partner for many species of bird, insect, fungi and plant. On another level, through their very presence and longevity, they anchor qualities of peace, strength, endurance and calmness in the landscapes where they grow – all qualities we humans sorely need, in this time of transition and transformation at the end of the millennium.
That much I know about trees, and have learned as a direct result of my experience in Canada in 1977. Like the scientists carrying out research in the forests, I suspect that what I know, and what humanity collectively knows about trees, is far outweighed by what we don’t yet know. What I have learned infuses and guides all my work, for the regeneration of the Caledonian Forest in the Highlands of Scotland, and in the production of this diary and the Trees for Life calendar each year. However, in a sense those are just the vehicles for a deeper level of work – to transform and heal humanity’s relationship with the rest of Nature. Only when that is accomplished will there be a viable future for natural, wild forests and all their constituent species. Only then will we have a human culture which once again looks to Nature as our teacher, and which fully engages in the journey of evolution on this planet in harmony with our fellow species. It is up to me, and all of us now, to ensure that there are still trees and forests to learn about when that time comes.
Alan Watson Featherstone
(This article featured as the introductory essay in the 1998 edition of the Trees for Life Engagement Diary)
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