Why we need to keep sight on the real value of things

A little soul

On the far side of our land is a tree that looks rather sorry for itself. It fell down long before we bought the place, a victim of the winds that hurry through the hills for ten months of the year. Now it lays, keeled over, propped up by its own extremities, a handful of roots holding on to life tenaciously. It is definitely not a prize winning specimen but it does have its own, slightly forlorn beauty with the main trunk, parallel to the ground, carpeted in rich, olive green lichen. During the winter, our two small ponies find their way between its branches and seek an escape from the breeze beneath its curved outline. In the summer, the chickens pick and preen their way to something similar, this time hunting shade from the sun. This is tree as shelter.

On the opposite side of the smallholding is a very different tree. He is a single, young oak, sitting alone in the middle of a field. Oscar, as we called him, came to us as a rescue mission. He’d been abandoned, roots caged within a porcelain pot too small, his growth stunted. A year or so on and he’s now a sturdy young tree who will outlast us all hopefully. Oscar will be tall and proud in the middle of that field, long after you and I are once more recycled space dust, floating round the universe and he could well be home to over 200 different species of insect by that point too. This is a tree as a landmark, a piece of permanence set against the fleeting human time frame.

Shift your eyes again and you’ll come upon three trees huddled together. Once again they are hawthorns just like our toppled over specimen. Two of this triplet are a good four metres high, broad and green at this time of year. The third is shorter, lighter, a different species and still protected by manmade barriers to keep the playful, nibbling animals at bay. If you squint you can see this tableau for what it really is. Two parents keeping quiet, stoic watch over a youngster. The two outer trees also predate us, the middle one was planted by us, the symbolism deliberate. This is tree as a memorial.

And there are more, trees as food source, trees as windbreak, trees as life-giving hedgerow habitat. We even have a large fallen tree branch as a stimulation object and plaything for the horses. Trees after all, are environmental enrichment for many of us. We’ve willow, hawthorn, hazel, sea buckthorn, wild cherry, apple, blackthorn and more. We have, what might immodestly be called, the makings of a functioning ecosystem. Trees as part of a whole.

Help the Aged

“If all the greatest aesthetes and engineers that ever lived were assembled in some heavenly workshop and commissioned to devise a material with the strength, versatility and beauty of wood I suggest they would fall far short. Wood is one of the wonders of the universe.”

Trees are fascinating and Colin Tudge’s book, The Secret Life of Trees, quoted above, is magical in describing both what we know about them, and what we are only just beginning to discover. We now know that individual trees communicate with each other, warning of danger, amongst other things. We also know that their root systems are linked, although we maybe don’t understand to what extent. We understand their plumbing, how water and nutrients are pumped great heights for centuries at a time although it remains a marvel. We can fill whole books on trees, yet a lot of us individual humans know less than we should despite the wealth of humanities combined knowledge on the subject. But we do buy a lot of things made from trees.

The oldest individual tree in the world is a Great Basin bristlecone pine and it is located in the White Mountains of California This grand old specimen, witness to a huge swathe of human history is estimated to be 5,066 years old. Due to the wonderous joys of human nature, scientists have hidden the identity of the tree for its own protection. The second oldest tree is the “Methuselah,” another Great Basin bristlecone pine which is 4,848 years old. The Methuselah pine also grows on the slopes of the White Mountains in California, and its exact location is also hidden from the public domain because humans truly are the wisest, most thoughtful of all the apes. These venerable old survivors are trees in a beneficent witness protection scheme.

Maybe we could do with extending that idea a little. This week came stories of tree poaching in Canada. Western Red Cedars chopped down in the middle of the night on Vancouver Island, with nothing but defiled stumps left behind. Their monetary value causing their demise at the hands of humans.

Useless Trees

“Trees, those useless trees, create the air that I am breathing.”

So said one of Sheffield’s finest, Jarvis Cocker. As a lyricist, Jarvis has always had an eye for the details often overlooked in the everyday. And what can be more every day than a tree? You’d have to be incredibly deprived of nature to not see a number of them every day. If, like us, you read quite a lot of information on the climate crisis and the environment, then you’ll probably have consumed a fair few words about them as well.

Trees are increasingly posited as one of our salvations. Natural carbon stores that will allow us to offset our emissions if we just plant enough of them. And on top of that, there’s all those existing trees doing that job already. If we can prise the Amazon from the hands of President Bolsonaro’s destruction happy mobsters then we’ll be even better off. Trees, simple trees, might just be part of what save us.

As with so much of what we read and hear about tackling the planetary emergency we are living though, it might not be that straight forward. Different species sequester carbon at different rates. Planting a sapling today and claiming back the offset against this years emissions when the sequestration might not begin for a decade or two seems questionable at best.  

And of course, there’s that thorny questions of using offsetting as a way of giving high emitters and easy way out that doesn’t involve changing their behaviour. Yes, we’re looking at you, global aviation industry.

Whichever way you look at all this, it does rather reduce the tree to a carbon capture technology to be maximised and little else. Neat orderly lines of a crop designed to minimise the thoughtlessness of human behaviour. If you search carbon off setting online, you’ll be offered a smorgasbord of companies investing home and abroad in planting in your name. These trees are a commodity, just like those old cedars stolen in Canada.

Like a Friend

That is not necessarily a bad thing. Man (and woman) kind has been treating trees as a commodity since he or she stood upright for the first time and admired the view from a different perspective. They are the most obvious source of food in many habitats. Without trees (and presumably a good dollop of lightning to begin with), we’d never have learned to cook our food and unlock the higher nutritional values that drove our increased intelligence. Without are ability to turn trees into a product, we might never have risen so far up the food chain.

So we’ve a lot to thank them for.

In the modern world we can use wood for almost every type of task. Bats and books. Tools and tables. Shelves and Sheds. There is even a renaissance in building houses from wood thanks to technological advances. Growing trees on demand and then chopping them down on schedule is big business. In 2020 the UK was the second largest importer of timber products in the world, behind only China. Our homegrown timber industry employed more than 32,000 people and involved the delivery of more than 10 million tonnes of green wood to processors. Its huge business. It’s even bigger in Scandinavia. If you’ve had the delight of wiping your own bottom today, you’ve probably been the customer of a Swedish forestry.

The problem with trees as commodity lies in how it reduces the complex down to the something simple in our service, a collection of green tipped pound notes waiting to happen. When I look out the window and see all the different things trees can be, shelter, food, landmark, habitat and more, we’re seeing the natural world as it really is. An interconnected web of life, ebbing and flowing in front of us. Oscar, our oak who sits in the middle of the field isn’t alone. He’s part of the landscape, a picture that includes other trees, hedgerows, insects, birds, mammals, grasses, soil health and much more. And of course it includes us. To see him merely as a trunk to be felled one day would be to entirely miss his beauty.

Humanity has driven the climate crisis we’re now in. Our mindset, fixated on endless growth and consumption, creating costs on a scale we can’t comprehend has taken us to a place where we have felled trees to fuel our rise and now have the cheek to turn around and attempt to repackage their qualities as part of our salvation. They may well be, but for that we don’t have ourselves to thank. Our species rapacious track record of treating the natural world as an asset to be exploited, extracted, mined, drilled, farmed, fished and gutted is the mindset that has driven us into the unpleasant arms of the climate crisis in the first place. The old the phrase about knowing the cost but not the value of something springs to mind. As we set about trying to mitigate the effects of the climate emergency it’s well beyond time to make sure we treasure the extraordinary value of the whole, not just the profit in the individual. Like Oscar, we need to treat the planet in it’s glorious complexity, as a friend.

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