In Full Bloom

Trees enjoy summer to their utmost producing full growth up until August. Light is a precious commodity and leaves will maximise their absorption as they compete for space and light in the forest. Even while this growth is going on Nature is planning ahead with the formation of buds for the next spring. Trees lie dormant in winter and preserve their energy stores.

The fresh green of summer leaves

Winter is Coming!

Nature is the law of balance in action. After fresh growth and longer days of light, plants and trees prepare for colder weather. Deciduous trees save the energy maintenance of keeping leaves alive which would otherwise have less photosynthesis in conditions of a light deficit. They withdraw nutrients and through the chemical reactions of sugars and tannins the leaves turn colour and fall. Metabolism slows and the roots become more dormant in the cold. This is actually a good time to plant a tree, as the tree has less demand for nutrients and water, and is less shocked by a new environment. 

Resilient Nature

While humans scramble for layers of clothing and turn on heating in their homes, trees stand naked in the chill,  with hardy specimens handling temperatures down to – 70 °C through the production of proteins that allows the space between cells to freeze, rather than the cells themselves. These temperature decreases are also good for killing pests and disease that would harm trees.

wild tree in cold weather, winter
Trees are well prepared to handle cold weather. However, they do struggle with sudden fluctuations.

Climate Change

With the increasingly unpredictable temperature fluctuations and the increase in milder winters in some parts of the world, trees have less time to adapt. This will result in the death of more species due to periods of extreme cold, as well as to pests and disease from milder winters. More adaptable trees and exotic species will also migrate to new areas, as new habitable regions appear for them. In years to come we will see there has been a large shift in species migration.

Understanding Trees

Three hundred and seventy years ago a Belgian alchemist and physician was exploring ideas that there were other gases in the atmosphere, as well as the idea that the substance which makes up plants and trees did not come from the soil, which was thought at the time.

van Helmond

Jan Baptist van Helmont (1580 – 1644)

This man, Jan Baptista van Helmont, was the first to do these experiments on a willow tree in a pot over a 5 year period. He took accurate readings of the mass of the soil, the tree and the water added, using modern experimental ideas of science introduced by the likes of Galileo, William Harvey and Francis Bacon.

Weeping Willow

Weeping Willow

After 5 years he checked the mass of the soil and found it had not changed by much, and so it could not explain the mass of the willow tree. He therefore assumed incorrectly that all the mass came from the water added during its lifespan. It was only until 160 years had passed that Nicolas-Théodore de Saussure, a Swiss chemist, repeated van Helmont’s experiments along with analysis of the gases given off by the tree, and concluded that carbon dioxide contributed significantly in explaining the mass of the tree.

Wood cross section

From carbon dioxide to carbon in wood…

Today we know that about 98 % of the mass of a tree is made up of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorous and sulphur, with the first three of those elements contributing mostly to its mass (dried wood is about 50 % carbon).

What this means, is that simply by using a small amount of surface area of arable land, and by adding water, we have a mechanism of removing carbon from the atmosphere. And this resulting creation not only provides a habitat for a multitude of life ranging from the microscopic to larger mammals, it also provides us with oxygen and is most pleasant in appearance. And I have not even mentioned fruit trees here.

I challenge you to think of a similar mechanism which can remove carbon from the atmosphere with the same cost, efficiency and environmental impact.

Deforestation: Above and Below the Waterline

A multi-faceted approach is needed in tackling the effect of human activity on the climate and natural world. A reduction in industrial emissions through better practice, technology and efficiency is key, coupled with protection of carbon sinks, namely the forests and the oceans.

Seagrass meadows play a critical role in the carbon cycle (photo: M. Sanfélix)

Seagrass meadows play a critical role in the carbon cycle (photo: M. Sanfélix)

The oceans are the largest carbon sinks in the world storing 93 % of carbon in the form of algae, vegetation and coral, and sequestering 20 to 35 % of anthropogenic emissions. However, there is evidence to suggest that the oceans are becoming less efficient since around the year 2000 in absorbing these emissions1. Further, since the 1940’s, marine carbon sinks have been suffering with a loss of 30 % of mangroves, 25 % of salt marshes and over 30 % of seagrass meadows2. These are being lost at a faster rate than the rain forests.

Coastal development, aquaculture operations and timber removal are destroying these marine ecosystems, and thus there is a connection between the destruction of forests on land and under water. Deforestation through clearing and burning also generates 17 % of global carbon emissions, more than from all the world’s air, road, rail and shipping traffic combined. The highest rates of deforestation are taking place in the regions where illegal logging is at its worst – the Amazon Basin, Central Africa and Southeast Asia3. These are areas where there is a lack of forest governance and where accountability and transparency are often in short supply.

Mangrove forests are threatened by coastal development (Source: www.sundarban.org)

Mangrove forests are threatened by coastal development (Source: www.sundarban.org)

Illegal logging actually floods the market with cheaper wood, which suppresses global timber prices between 7 and 16 per cent3. It is estimated that legal timber companies are being denied US$30 billion per year from these activities.

It looks good, but do you know where it was sourced?

It looks good, but do you know where it was sourced?

As can be imagined, protecting forests and marine ecosystems require political and economic solutions, as well as enforcement of law. And as an end user of timber products we have a deep responsibility to ensure that our furniture, floors and wooden features in our homes and businesses are from sustainable and legal timber. We are all part of the solution.

References

  1. Khatiwala et al. (2009). Reconstruction of the history of anthropogenic CO2 concentrations in the ocean. Nature 462, 346-349
  2. Blue Carbon – The Role of Healthy Oceans in Binding Carbon. Rapid Response Assessment by GRID-Arendal and UNEP. 14 October 2009
  3. Davyth Stewart. Combating illegal logging key to saving our forests and preventing climate change. Project LEAF (Interpol), 21 March 2013

The Boreal Forest (Taiga)

Rainforests gain a lot of attention due to the amount and variety of species they support, but the world’s largest land-based biome is the Boreal Forest, aptly named after Boreas, the Greek God of the North wind. Also known as Taiga, from Russian, this concentration of trees covers much of Russia, most of Canada, Alaska, Sweden, Finland and Norway,  coastal Iceland, and the northern parts of Kazakhstan, Mongolia, the U.S. and Japan representing 29 % of the world’s forest cover.

Distribution of the Boreal Forest (Wikipedia)

Distribution of the Boreal Forest (Wikipedia)

Largely comprised of coniferous trees, this forest supports 85 species of mammals, 130 species of fish, 300 species of birds and approximately 32,000 species of insects. Life is hard here with temperatures ranging from -65 °F (-54 °C) to 86 °F (30 °C), low precipitation (200 – 750 mm/year), 50 – 120 frost free days per year and acidic, low nutrient soils.

Alaskan spruce

Alaskan spruce

Canadian wetland systems

Canadian wetland systems

The region also contains vast areas of wetland, bogs and fen, and the Canadian boreal region contains more rivers and lakes than any similar sized landmass in the world. Fire is a natural part of regeneration, and some trees like the lodgepole and jack pines have resin sealed cones which rely on fire to open and spread their seed.

Fire is a natural part of the regeneration cycle

Fire is a natural part of the regeneration cycle

This forest provides humans with enormous amounts of lumber and supports 1,400 communities in industrial activity. However, forestry practices are often still primitive in their approach, for example the practice of clearcutting in Canada removes most trees in an area only to be replanted as a monocrop (a singular species), which does not emulate a fire and is often followed by an increase in erosion.

Vast terrain with subterranean peat in western Siberia

Vast terrain with subterranean peat in western Siberia

Deforestation and oil exploration along with the processing of tar sands pose significant threats, however, climate change is the main threat to this region. The boreal forests stores huge amounts of carbon, possibly more than the temperate and tropical forests combined, with much of it in the form of peat. The boreal zone of latitude has experienced some of the greatest increase in temperatures on Earth over the last 25 years, with greater relative increases in winter temperatures than those in summer. The release of carbon, mostly in the form of methane, greatly adds to a feedback cycle of warming.

pinebeetle

Attacks visible by the mountain pine beetle (Lorraine Maclauchlan)

Furthermore, the warmer winters lead to an increased survival of tree-damaging insects and recent years have seen forest destroying plagues of the spruce-bark beetle, the mountain pine beetle, the aspen leaf-miner, the larch sawfly, the spruce budworm and spruce coneworm. In Siberia, the boreal forest is changing from predominantly deciduous larch trees to evergreen conifers; this is also likely to accelerate warming as evergreen trees absorb more of the sun’s rays. These signs indicate that serious change is already underfoot.

But this does not mean that we should bury our heads in the sand, or imagine our individual actions to be inconsequential.  Anthropomorphic warming of this planet is comprised of the activity of individuals and human minds. There may be perceptions of fear or paralysis in the comprehension of the enormity of the task required, but this is the time to act –  there is no other.

Britain’s Trees

A land covered by ice and glaciers

Britain’s native trees have not always been present and rooted – they were scoured clean from the earth during the last ice age 20 000 years ago. Species migrated southwards until reaching the physical barrier of the Alps. As the ice retreated about 10 000 years later, trees recolonised the landscape. This was easier due to the land bridge connecting mainland Europe that was not yet covered by rising sea levels. After a few thousand years of growth, Britain would have been covered by magnificent woodland.

Ariundle Nature Reserve (scotland.gov.uk)

A few thousand years later, so about 5000 years ago, ancient peoples cleared small sections of forest for agriculture and livestock farming. These people had religions connected with nature and it is around this time (4000 to 5000 years ago), that Stonehenge was erected. Later, during the Iron Age, the Celtic priestly class or druids played a strong role in determining the inhabitants’ connection with nature and trees. It is thought the word ‘druid’ is derived from Indo-European roots meaning ‘oak-seer’ or ‘oak-knower’. Especially important trees in Celtic mythology and tradition were the oak, ash, apple, alder, elder and yew. Trees were sacred and had spirits, while forests were ruled by a single goddess.

Systems of thought connected to nature were more prevalent in ancient Britain (Wigulf)

The Romans brought more organized agriculture and farming, as well as increased deforestation. Roman expansion had already led to deforestation of the Mediterranean basin and resource pressure turned their eye towards Northern Europe and Britain. Naturally there were also political reasons for expansion, including punishment of the Britons for their aiding of the Gauls.

Deforestation continued and in 1086 William the Conqueror with his Domesday census found that less than 15 % of the natural forest remained across England. However, he did enact forest laws in order to sustain hunting grounds. During the middle ages Vikings also burned sections of forest as part of their campaigns.

The continuous demand for timber throughout history (ukscblog.com)

Deforestation continued with the industrial revolution and the rise of sheep farming, faster growing coniferous forests were planted and the ancient broadleaf forests continued their decline; this has been observed in the pollen record. After the First World War it was realised that Britain had nearly run out of timber, and further fast-growing species were introduced along with the creation of the Forestry Commission. Quick fixes often do not work in natural ecosystems, and this was too late for the wolf, bear, wild boar, beaver, lynx and elk.

Wolves were common in Britain (print by www.martinridley.com)

11.6 % of the U.K is currently covered by woodland, with England at about 9 % and Northern Ireland at 6.4 %. This is significantly lower than the European Union average of 37 %. While there are still pockets of ancient forests, trees in Britain have paid the price of industrialisation and war.

Trees and Humans: Stories in Film and Literature

The tree is a powerful symbol in human consciousness and one that often manifests in our stories. There, they are often used in journeys or as a connection, as a source of wisdom or redemption, or a representation of the mystery and untamed in Nature.

The magic tree of Enid Blyton's enchanted forest

The magic tree of Enid Blyton’s enchanted forest

In Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree series, a magical tree in an enchanted wood allows access to different lands, some pleasant and fun e.g. The Land of Birthdays, and others a nightmare for children e.g. The Land of Dame Slap, a horrid teacher. One must also return in time before the lands rotate, or else one waits another full rotation. Here the tree is similar to the conduit envisioned by shamans to access different worlds (The Meme of Trees), as well as there being a karmic concept of cycles, and consequence, if one stays too long in one land.

The Summer Tree

The Summer Tree, by Guy Gavriel Kay, is an important link between humans and nature

In The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay, the tree is a place of redemption and sacrifice, and one that can renew the spirit and allow contact with Nature. One who survives this sacrifice on the Summer Tree, the 3 days of being tormented by one’s self, without food or water, arises stronger, with powers and direct communication with the wildness of the land.

In Tolkien’s Middle-earth, trees, and especially forests, are embodiments of the mystery and power of Nature. Elves, who are more connected with natural magic, do not fear these ancient abodes and some make it their home. There are also Ents, tree-like creatures with a tonal language, having become the trees they herded. Large and incredibly strong, they protect the great forests and provide a face for Nature. The Ents, who are slow, but steady, have their anger roused by the deforestation by Saruman and the orcs, and wage war, showing a limit to their tolerance.

Tolkien’s Ents from Middle-earth

In M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening (2008), people in cities and suburbia inexplicably fall dead leaving people fearful and confused. Terrorism is initially blamed, but the cause is traced to trees releasing a chemical in order to remove a threat (humans). Here, Nature is fighting back and this brings in similar concepts such as those mentioned in Lovelock’s Revenge of Gaia.

A scene from The Happening in Central Park

The Fountain (2006), by Darren Aronofsky, provides a surreal experience with the Tree of Life (inspired by the Kabbalah) an important symbol connecting the three periods (conquistador, the neuroscientist and the space traveller), as well as a paraphrase from Genesis 3:24, that eating from the Tree of Knowledge began human’s experience of duality and limitation.

The tree from Aronofsky’s The Fountain

In Terrence Malick’s visually stunning Tree of Life (2011), there are themes of existence and human suffering in a grand cosmology, while the large oak tree symbolizes connections between generations and the witnessing of family tragedy, while ever growing and being a source of life.

Malick’s Tree of Life: a source of life and connection, and continued existence

Even in ancient stories, The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest surviving works of literature from Mesopotamia, the hero has to overcome many obstacles, including a Great Flood, to reach a garden of jewel-laden trees where he leaves the physical world. In this ancient epic there is the same account of the flood myth as Genesis 6-8 as well as the account of Enkidu and Shamhat, similarly relating to Adam and Eve.

A tablet from the Epic of Gilgamesh, about 4000 years old

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity… and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.”   William Blake

Creatures of the Forest

While we may consider that many trees make a forest, we should not forget that forests are ecosystems, and that there are many large and small players beneath the canopy. Interactions are too numerous to mention in detail and have evolved over millennia, but pictures can highlight some interesting characters.

The vast canopy, with a tributary of the Amazon

A jaguar having a scratch (Environmental Graffiti)

Emerald tree boa

Leafcutter ants

Howler monkey on a break (Environmental Graffiti)

Baby bear hanging on (Environmental Graffiti)

Tree frog (Ranitomeya summersi)

Baby 3-toed sloth (Environmental Graffiti)

Amazona oratrix

Amazon horned frog

The beady eyes of Tarsiers

Muliticolour treefrog (Ranitomeya benedicta)

Bengal Tiger

The well known anaconda

Amazon Morpho butterfly

Visions and Dreams: Natural Hallucinogens

Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a natural molecule (Erowid)

Life, with its never ceasing experiments, has evolved with vast chemical complexity not only in the production of individual molecules, like proteins and alkaloids, but in the way that these messengers, regulators and controllers interact.  Harmala alkaloids are especially interesting as they appear not only throughout the plant kingdom, but are also present in the human pineal gland. Similarly for Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which also induces psychedelic states, powerful visions and immersive experiences in humans. These are chemicals which are more familiar to the body than ethanol in beer, but are treated with the utmost respect (in their raw plant form) by indigenous tribes, especially in the Amazonia region.

Ayuhuasca often induces colourful and ecstatic experiences

Ayuhuasca preparation

These ritualistic brews are created from bark, leaves and vines in the forest, as is the case with ayuhuasca. This is normally under the watchful eye of the local shaman, although  now a dying breed, who manages the process and the interpretation of journeys. While journeys to different worlds in complete 3D environments with music, ecstatic kaleidoscopic colours and interaction with creatures and beings of the forest make good stories and for some, real life changing experiences, what is sometimes forgotten are the remaining questions. Questions such as: how do the shamans know which plants to use in the right combinations and so much about them? And why should these trees and plants cause such an effect on humans in the first place? Do the trees benefit at all from this interaction? Why did trees develop these molecules and why are they also present in humans? And how is it that some dream creatures and their characters are also known to shamans, indicating that experiences are not uniquely random?

The Amazon shaman

If one also thinks from an experimental design perspective, to run enough experiments including inescapable trials and deathly errors, and even considering the known 40,000 plant species in the Amazon region and various combinations thereof, how would one tribal shaman come to this knowledge of plants and trees and their effect on the human body, even considering a long shamanic lineage? Well, when this question has been posed to shamans they have answered quite simply and said “the plants tell us”.

This indicates that shamans have a different world view, one that all beings and living things can communicate with each other and have unique relationships. While this currently may be a fair jump for an urban westerner, what is more obvious and astounding than this shamanic perspective, is that ‘modern’ humans have very little or no conscious relationship with nature. It is this lack, this gaping wound in our awareness, that underwrites our apathy in the face of environmental destruction.

Ayuhuasca inspired vision

A Home in the Trees

A refuge in the garden (source: treehouse company)

Climbing a tree is a universal joy while growing up and constructing a tree house is a further source of fun, especially as an exclusive meeting place barring adults. Schemes for alien defense, gender battles and plots for world domination are often hatched, until we are told to come down or grow up, or when such an abode no longer inspires our imagination.

Nutritious Sago grubs are a delicacy

However, there are some people who are never told to grow up and climb down, and for whom the tree is an endless source of joy, shelter and essential part of family life. These people are the Korowai and Kombai tribes who live in the dense forest of West Papua in Indonesia, and until 1975 had hardly any contact with the outside world. A large portion of their life is spent 20 to 40 metres above ground in tree houses, and on notable occasions eating the nutritious delicacies of sago grubs.

The tree houses are constructed relatively quickly and provide a good defense against warring tribes, floods and biting insects. The pig is the local currency and a sacred animal, while ritual cannabilism was apparently practiced more in the past. However, once dead, the Korowai believe their souls travel to the underworld along a ‘Major Causeway’ and are welcomed by their ancestors. After a while there they can choose to reincarnate back into a child that is about to be born.

Korowai tree house

Home, sweet home

Constructing a tree house is begun by choosing a sturdy Banyan tree and then removing the crown. Thinner poles provide the framework while the bark of the sago palm is used for the floor and walls, and leaves provide roofing. Similar to most cultures, marriage normally initiates a new house.

For these two tribes, the tree is far more than a provision of shade and beauty, but a home and a source of comfort. Contact has been growing with the outside world, but I imagine there would be some confusion when describing current rates of deforestation and the behaviour of more ‘civilised’ humans.

Vistas of the forest: an old Korowai tree house