In the summer of 1977 I was working as a surveyor for a mineral exploration company in the far north of Canada. In each area where we worked, we had to establish a site for a base reading in our survey, which would be permanently marked and could be used as a reference to tie in our data with those from 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 nearby, and all I could do was make some sort of mark on a tree. I did this by taking my machete and removing a piece of bark from the tree, leaving a visible scar. However, upon reflection, I realised that if someone came to do the next survey from the other direction, they wouldn’t see my mark as it was only on one side of the tree. Thus, I ended up removing a section of bark from all around the tree, so that it was 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, of course, I hadn’t known 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 here I was responsible for the death of a tree. As I came to terms with this experience, I resolved to learn more fully about trees, to match my love with knowledge and wisdom, so that I would never again act in ignorance with regard to them.
This has led to a profound deepening of my personal connection with trees, and to an increasing awareness of the global situation they face, and the consequences of that for all life. I realised that my experience was in some ways a personal microcosm of a much larger phenomena, for we live today during a time in which humanity is having a dramatic effect on trees and forests throughout the world.
In every country forests are declining, either through logging and other methods of outright clearance, or because of human-created pollutants such as acid rain. While this situation is now receiving considerable publicity, due in large part to the efforts of environmental and conservation groups, it is perhaps not so obvious that it is only a culmination and an extreme extrapolation of what has been happening throughout the rise of western civilisation.
The history of humanity’s development and rapid spread over much of our planet in the last few thousand years is intimately connected with the forests. Early human societies were dependent on them for a major part of their livelihood. Wood was the principal fuel for cooking and the smelting of metals, as well as being the main material used in the construction of houses and the fabrication of ships and ox-carts – the basic means of transportation at that time.
As those cultures flourished, so the forests were cut down and pushed back from the settled areas. The dependence of civilisations such as ancient Crete, Cyprus and Greece on the forests has led some researchers to suggest that deforestation was one of the main reasons for their decline, because the loss of their trees resulted in an inability to build ships, produce metal implements and weapons and so forth. Nowadays, much of the land on which they flourished, for example in Egypt, Lebanon, and Greece, is arid or semi-desert in nature, supporting little more than sparse scrub on the impoverished soils. In more recent times, large areas of the forests of Britain were cleared to fuel early industrial activities in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with the same pattern being followed by settlers on the eastern seaboard of North America.
Each time an area was deforested and the effects of this began to be felt, cultures (or their industrial activities) moved on to new regions and the story was repeated. Thus, in the late twentieth century, with many of the most industrialised countries having exhausted their own forests, the front lines of deforestation have reached those parts of the world which, because of their remoteness, have remained relatively untouched until now. These include the tropical rainforests in many countries, the great forests of northwest Canada and Alaska, the Taiga in the USSR, the far south of Chile, and the Australian state of Tasmania. In other words, we are at the limit of what can be exploited, and when these areas have been tapped, there will be no other forests to move on to.
Just as those ancient cultures around the Mediterranean were completely dependent on the forests for their survival, so too are we in our modern civilisation. Wood and other forest products such as paper and rubber are essential to the functioning of our industrial society. Similarly, we depend on the forests and the species which live in them as a genetic base for our foodstuffs and medicines, whilst trees fulfil an essential role in regulating local and global climate and the supply of fresh water. Additionally, on a deeper, more personal level, trees and forests nourish us spiritually by providing an environment of tranquillity and peace to which we can retreat from the busyness and stress of our lives.
While it is apparent that humanity is, and always has been, dependent on the forests for our welfare and survival, the converse is also now true. For the first time ever, trees and forests are dependent on us for their survival, and unless we change the exploitative nature of our industrial society, their future, and our own, is in jeopardy.
Thus, we are at a critical juncture in the history of the forests of our planet. For 200 million years they have been the natural covering or skin for much of the land surface of the Earth, yet in the span of a single human lifetime they may disappear from most countries. Clearly, this wholesale destruction of forest ecosystems will have to come to an end in the near future, if only because the available forests will be exhausted. However, it need not proceed that far as we in this generation have the opportunity to stem the tide of devastation while some substantial natural forests still remain.
This then is the challenge of our times. It requires a conscious contribution from each of us, particularly those who live in the more affluent countries, as our lifestyles have the greatest detrimental impact on the world around us. The change that is asked of us is firstly one of consciousness – we need a return to the wisdom of native cultures who recognise that humanity is an interconnected part of all life on the planet. This must then be reflected in our practical life situation, so that our activities become not only for our own benefit and advancement, but also for that of the Earth as a whole, and all her constituent parts. Only in this way will we ensure a sustainable future for ourselves, for the forests and for all species.
Significantly, it is the tremendous destruction of forests taking place today which is acting in many cases as the trigger for this change in consciousness and action. The plight of the tropical rainforests and areas such as the Black Forest in Germany have stimulated the proliferation of numerous forest protection groups and campaigns, many of which are now having a major effect on our society. Similarly, the loss of an estimated 15 million trees, including many prized specimens of rare species in various parks and gardens, due to hurricane-force winds in October 1987, enabled many people in Britain to realise how much they value trees in their lives.
Looking back to my experience in Canada, I can see now that the death of that tree was in effect a sacrifice which enabled me to grow in consciousness, and has now inspired me, not out of guilt but from a deeper understanding and sense of caring, to devote a lot of my time and energy to the survival and renewal of forests. That commitment has now flowered as a paper-recycling programme in my community, in the creation of the Trees for Life Calendars (which are dedicated to celebrating the beauty and diversity of trees and forests, and the efforts to protect them), and in a project to regenerate the native Caledonian Forest of Scotland.
Looking at the world situation with this same perspective, the current loss of trees appears in some respects to be a sacrifice so that humanity can grow in consciousness of our interdependence with forests, and all life. If this is so, then I feel that the task for those of us who are aware of the situation is to ensure that the sacrifice is not in vain, that we as a species learn to respect and sustain the other lifeforms on the planet. What is urgently needed, then, is for forest activists and all those who appreciate trees to become agents for change on a large scale, stimulating and inspiring individuals and organisations everywhere to make a commitment to the future of our forests. In producing this diary, my intention is to inspire you to become involved in this process. Trees, and humans, everywhere now depend on you and me and all of us for their survival.
Alan Watson Featherstone
(This article featured as the introductory essay in the 1994 edition of the Trees for Life Engagement Diary)
Return to the Writing page.