During the last few years, as we’ve been approaching the year 2000, there has been much talk and planning for how best to celebrate the new millennium. In keeping with the anthropocentric perspective of our modern society, this has largely focussed on commemorating human achievements during the last two thousand years, and there are indeed plenty of notable accomplishments, works of art and creativity, and scientific and cultural advances which are worthy of such celebration. The dawning of the new millennium arrives as a significant way marker for how much we have increased our ability for both self-expression and alteration of our surroundings to suit our needs and desires. We are extraordinarily successful as a species, and our present day technologies in particular provide us with unparalleled power over the world around us.
However, for me that is only part of a larger picture, as humanity is just one of an estimated 5 million or more different life forms on the planet, and the questions which weigh in my consciousness are, ‘what does the beginning of the new millennium mean for our fellow species, and what prospects does it hold for their future?’. With my own personal interest in, and passion for, trees and forests, these questions take on an added urgency, as they are under threat today as never before. Is there anything for trees and forests to celebrate, with the arrival of the year 2000?
In pondering these questions, I’m drawn to imagine what the world’s forests were like two thousand years ago. At that time, substantially more of the planet was forested, and the wildlife which lived in those forests was both more numerous and diverse. In Britain, much of the country still had its original forest cover, and the Romans, who had just arrived here, called Scotland Caledonia, meaning ‘wooded heights’. In the forests wild boar, beavers, wolves and brown bears flourished, while lynx and moose may also still have been present. In England and much of western Europe, broadleaved forests covered most of the land, although clearance of woodland for agriculture had already taken place in some regions.
Elsewhere in the world, the differences between the forests of two millennia ago and today are even more dramatic. In New Zealand, for example, the forests which covered virtually all of the land had never been seen by any humans (the Maoris would not arrive until almost a thousand years later) and were home to 15 species of giant flightless birds called moas. In the absence of terrestrial mammals, they and other smaller birds were the principal wildlife in the forests, and were preyed upon by the Haast eagle, the largest eagle ever known.
Humans were also absent from Madagascar, another mainly-forested island which was home to the world’s largest bird – the flightless, 3 metre tall elephant bird. Those forests were also the habitat for a pygmy hippopotamus, giant tortoises and over 40 species of lemurs. In North Africa, forests were widespread and formed the basis for much of the wealth of the Carthaginian civilisation. Elephants, the Atlas bear and the Barbary lion all thrived there, with the latter in particular being extensively hunted by the Romans for use as ‘sport’ in their Colosseum.
In North America, Southeast Asia, Central Africa and Latin America, vast tracts of forest covered most of the land, with tribal peoples and wildlife co-existing in a balance which sustained both the human cultures and the forests on which they depended.
However, humans were already having an impact on the forests, especially in the Mediterranean region. Almost 400 years previously, Plato had commented on deforestation in ancient Greece when he wrote: “There are mountains in Attica which can now keep nothing but bees, but which were clothed, not so very long ago, with … timber suitable for roofing the very large buildings …. The annual supply of rainfall was not lost, as it is at present, through being allowed to flow over the denuded surface to the sea …”
Unfortunately, the implications of what he was saying have rarely, if ever, been heeded since then, and in recent decades in particular, deforestation has become a global phenomenon of unprecedented proportions. On every continent forests have been decimated and numerous species of wildlife have become extinct. In Scotland, only 1% of the original Caledonian Forest remains. In New Zealand, the forests of massive kauri trees which once covered 12 million hectares now exist as a mere 4,000 hectares and the moas and the Haast eagle are extinct. In Madagascar only 20% of the original forests survive and the elephant bird, pygmy hippopotamus, giant tortoises and 14 species of lemur are gone forever, as are the Atlas bear and Barbary lion of North Africa. The forests of China, the Atlantic coast of Brazil, West Africa, Hawaii and many other areas have also been similarly diminished in both extent and the range of wildlife they support.
On the threshold of the new millennium, the cumulative impact of two thousand years of human population growth and land utilisation on the trees and forests of the world has been graphically highlighted in several publications. These report that only 20% of the world’s forests remain in a natural, pristine state and just 6% of them are protected, while 8,753 species of trees (10% of the world’s total) are threatened, with 77 having recently become extinct.
Much of what we know about the loss of trees, forests and wildlife is derived from historical records and evidence of vegetational change in the land. Human lives are short in comparison to two thousand years, and the loss of forests, which was gradual in many cases, probably went relatively unnoticed from one human generation to the next. However, there are organisms still living in the world today – the longest-lived tree species – which were alive two thousand years ago and therefore have lived through many of the changes which humanity has wrought upon the planet. The bristlecone pines and giant sequoias of California, the alerce trees of Chile, the ancient yews of Europe and a handful of other species all live to more than two thousand years in age. Some of these oldest of all trees are celebrated through the year in photographs in this special diary for the year 2000.
These Methuselahs of the forests dwarf humans with their longevity. If a human lifespan is taken as 75 years, then two thousand years are equivalent to almost 27 consecutive lifespans, whereas this same time period is less than half the age of the oldest known bristlecone pine, and a mere 20% of the age of the oldest living tree, a huon pine in Tasmania.
These bi-millennarian trees have been witnesses to much of human history and are links with the past, both literally and symbolically. The ancient yew tree at Fortingall in Scotland, for example, is considered to be oldest tree in Europe, and is thought to be at least 3,000 years old, and possibly much more. Fortingall is also reputed to be the birthplace of Pontius Pilate, the man who tried Jesus, and he must have been familiar with the yew, which would have been at least 1,000 years old in his time. That tree therefore is linked to one of the most important events in human history, and one which gave rise to our present calendar system that is about to celebrate the completion of two millennia. Another ancient tree, the bo tree at Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka, is said to be 2,300 years old, and to have been obtained as a sapling from the bo tree which Buddha received enlightenment under, about 2,600 years ago.
Recognising as I do that trees, like all life forms, have a consciousness associated with them, and therefore some sort of memory, I wonder at the wisdom and experience that these trees have accumulated in their lifetimes. Is there some way in which we as humans can tap into the memories stored in their cells, in the very fabric of their cellulose? What could we learn from these venerable beings, if we could but find a way to touch their spirit, to truly commune with them? What could they tell us about ourselves, and how they’ve seen humanity and the world change during their lives?
I have been privileged to visit some of these arboreal ancients, such as the Fortingall yew, the Sherman sequoia (the largest of all sequoias) and the alerces. Standing in their presence and feeling their vast antiquity, I’ve found it an awe-invoking experience, and one which shows my own four and a half decades as but the briefest interlude in the multi-millennial reckoning of their lives. This feeling of being dwarfed by a vaster, almost timeless being was particularly palpable last year when I was in New Zealand and visited the largest surviving kauri tree, which is known by its Maori name of Tane Mahuta, meaning ‘God of the forest’. With its huge 4.4 metre diameter trunk, this tree towers over the surrounding forest as a manifestly impressive being, and after being near it for a few minutes, my wife turned to me and said, ‘This feels like Darshan, like an audience with God’.
I believe that many people have similar experiences with ancient trees and in old growth, primary forests. Indeed, groves of trees in such forests are often described as being ‘cathedral-like’ in their loftiness and their imagined aspiration to a heaven above. However, it would in reality be more appropriate to describe cathedrals as being ‘ancient forest-like’, for it was surely the inspiration of trees and forests that led architects and builders to construct churches and temples with columnar, tree-like features in the first place.
This may sound like a minor exercise in semantics, but for me it is of profound significance because it reflects the change in human values which is required for ancient trees, and indeed ourselves, to flourish in the future. Our cathedrals are some of our most sacred and revered creations, and any act of damage to them is considered to be the worst form of vandalism, totally against our society’s norms. Yet, our culture has thrived for the past two millennia, and particularly in the last 150 years, on the destruction of forests and ancient trees. Institutionalised and culturally sanctioned vandalism against Nature has led to the loss of most of our old growth forests and many of the planet’s oldest trees, including the oldest known bristlecone pine, estimated to be 4,900 years old when it was cut down ‘for research’ in 1964. And in New Zealand, Tane Mahuta, for all its size, was dwarfed by a much larger kauri, 8.5 metres in diameter, until that was destroyed by fire in the 1870s.
For me then, the most appropriate way to celebrate the new millennium is to use it as an opportunity to draw a final curtain on the era of ecological destruction which has been the hallmark of the last two centuries, and to a lesser extent, of the past two thousand years. Let us begin the 21st century with a new consciousness and a new, or renewed, paradigm – of respect and care for Nature, for our planet and all her forests. Let us welcome a new era by celebrating those beings which were alive two thousand years ago – the ancient trees – with the honour and respect their antiquity and wisdom deserves.
We cannot replace the world’s lost forests overnight, or even in a century. However, we can use this opportunity to affirm the lives of our world’s oldest inhabitants, and with that perspective we can begin to transform our culture into one which nurtures, cherishes and restores the Earth. By doing so, we can ensure that today’s bi-millennial trees, those survivors from our distant past, are joined by new generations of prospective ancient trees, growing in wild, natural forests on a planet where humanity is once again in harmony with the rest of Nature.
Alan Watson Featherstone
(This article featured as the introductory essay in the 2000 edition of the Trees for Life Engagement Diary)
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