Trees of life

Flowering Crabapple, from the Undiscovery Channel

There’s always something a bit paradisaical about a fruit tree in flower, abuzz with insects of every description. The aural and visual stimuli combine with the heavy scent and the electric atmosphere to create an almost overwhelming impression of superabundance. How can the world not be good, we think. I’m sure someone who grew up in the Midwest would argue with me on this, but I just don’t believe one can experience the same kind of gestalt in a field of wheat.

It’s worth recalling, perhaps, that for a very long time our main vision of paradise was arboreal. The central truth of the Garden of Eden story is that the loss of paradise was and remains wholly preventable, and that it finds expression most often in the misuse of trees. Nowadays, of course, for all but the willfully ignorant, evolution teaches that we are primates, descended from the trees: a not incompatible truth. One way or another, the wholesale destruction of forests is something that few human beings can regard with equanimity. And quite often, as in the mythical Eden, it dooms us.

Consider landslides. Hundreds of thousands of people, at the very least, have been buried alive after the slopes above their houses were logged, from Oregon, to China, to the Philippines, to Indonesia and various parts of the Himalayas.

Officials in the wildlife and forest department of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, (AJK) are of the view that an estimated 30 percent of the 87,000 people who died in the magnitude 7.6 earthquake [in 2005] could have been saved if there had been fewer landslides.

The officials, who declined to be named, blamed deforestation of the area for the huge landslides that contributed to a death toll that has risen to 43,399 people and left 31,069 others injured in the AJK districts of Muzaffarabad, Neelum, Bagh, Rawlakot and Palandri.

Then there are storm surges. The loss of coastal mangrove forests in parts of south and southeast Asia appears to have greatly magnified the destruction of the 2004 tsunami, according to a peer-reviewed study in the journal Science.

“The tsunami left a horrific human tragedy in its wake but also some lessons. Among them is the tremendous importance of mangroves, which are one of the world’s most threatened tropical ecosystems,” said Faizal Parish, director of the Global Environment Centre in Malaysia and co-author. “While no one could have prevented the tsunami, we can use this experience to prevent some of the destruction future events will cause.”

Unfortunately, that experience didn’t come soon enough to protect tens of thousands of Burmese villagers from the storm surge associated with last week’s cyclone. There, too, it appears that the destruction of coastal mangrove forests was as much to blame for the heavy death toll as the storm itself.

If only knowledge and experience by themselves were sufficient! But as the Garden of Eden myth suggests, we know just enough to be dangerous, rarely enough to be wise. Here in the U.S., we’ve understood the tight relationship between forests and water for over a hundred years. George Perkins Marsh’s hugely influential Man and Nature, published in 1864, used the historical example of forest destruction around the Mediterranean to finger deforestation as the leading cause of desertification. The catastrophic landslides, floods and fires that followed widespread clear-cutting in the latter half of the 19th Century here in the eastern United States seemed to many people to bear out Marsh’s prophesies, and led directly to the founding of the U.S. Forest Service. Yet today, most administrators of the USFS define “conservation” as “getting out the cut.”

The Pennsylvania state forest system, like the Adirondack Forest Preserve in New York, was established with the principal goal of preventing floods and erosion, protecting navigable waterways, and guaranteeing a clean water supply for the residents of the state. The link between intact, older forests and a steady supply of clean drinking water was very well understood, and countless studies since have only served to reinforce this insight. Preserving wide forested buffers along streams and rivers, for example, has become a standard water purification strategy, albeit one honored most often in the breach. But professional foresters are still advising municipal water authorities around the state to log portions of their watersheds “for the health of the forest” — defining “forest” solely in terms of saleable timber, and “health” in terms of profitability — with a deterioration in water supply as an inevitable result. Perhaps they figure that, since everyone buys water in plastic bottles now, it doesn’t really matter.

Marsh was right in more ways than he could possibly have imagined. Deserts are on the march all over the world, their progress greatly accelerated by, if not wholly attributable to, the cutting of trees. And as I mentioned last week, unlogged forests are an essential part of the global carbon cycle as well. I’ve seen widely varying estimates of the contribution of deforestation to global warming, but one of the most recent and conservative, again published in Science, asserts that “nearly 20 per cent of carbon emissions [are] due to human activities.” How much more evidence do we need that trees are essential to our continued life on this planet?

I am, quite obviously, a tree hugger: one of those soft-headed people who actually thinks trees deserve to live for their own sake, and who recognizes that they are the keystones of complex ecosystems supporting millions of species besides Homo sapiens, each of which has as valid a claim on the planet as we do. You can disagree with my value system all you want. The simple point I’m trying to make here is that even from a purely anthropocentric perspective, deforestation is one of the quickest, surest tickets straight to hell.


Don’t forget to submit tree-related links to the Festival of the Trees, hosted next month at the inimitable Wrenaissance Reflections. Details are here.

11 Replies to “Trees of life”

  1. Mine was extraordinary last week
    now the walk is covered with fading pink petals

    And it was so full of bees!

    Bunblers and what looked like
    a smaller darker version of honey bees . . .

  2. But then it is said that desertification was the carver who shaped our achilles tendon and terrestrial bipedal form. Desertification will be sharpening the forms of its next creations, or junking the motif altogether.

    It is said that the trees abandoned us, not we them, so perhaps our feelings for them are rather second hand and vestigial. The success of our bipedalism may have given us the feeling that we can get along perfectly well without them.

    I have an idiosyncratic notion that sin is more invested in the great beasts, now for the most part missing; that it was only they who could be counted on as being actively interested in absolving us of the weight of our existence.

    The notion of a pre-lapsarian state I find utterly bizarre. I can’t imagine any utility for it, other than a mode for priests to gather power and credit to themselves, through the rhetoric of “choice”, so establishing themselves as central in the action of our wills.

  3. suzanne – Yes, ours is looking quite bedraggled now, too. After just a couple of good, sunny days, rain and cold descended and have kept all but the bumblebees from visiting it. (So much for paradise, eh?)

    Bill – I don’t think a slow global climatic shift toward dryer conditions is exactly the same as desertification, but in any case there’s no consensus yet on the precise ecological context of early hominid evolution:

    An examination of the data obtained from pollen analyses reveals that there is no clear way to characterize the environment of early hominid sites. A high degree of variability exists with respect to ecological conditions at these sites. Plant ecosystems at early hominid sites range from subdesertic steppe to Afro-alpine heath moorland, but do not show any evidence of closed rainforest (Bonnefille, 1995). This diversity in ecology and plant resources fits well with the generalized mixed-mode of subsistence presented earlier (utilization of a wide variety of plant and animal resources) for these early hominids.

    The origins of bipedalism are even more hotly disputed. Suffice it to say that we are habitat generalists and scavengers, I think.

    “The notion of a pre-lapsarian state I find utterly bizarre.” Me too, if by “pre-lapsarian” you mean “wholly innocent,” as in traditional interpretations of the Eden story. However, versions of this story may be found in radically different societies all over the world, including some with no priestly class.

    leslee – You bet. (I thought of adding in a Mom’s Day reference, but it seemed like too great a tangent.)

    Black_Pete – Thanks for visiting.

  4. ” I don’t think a slow global climatic shift toward dryer conditions is exactly the same as desertification”

    Right. I dramatize and lack sobriety. Thank you for the detail and nuance.

    “The origins of bipedalism are even more hotly disputed. ” Of course. Visualizing evolution requires an awful lot of “bandwidth”, generally more than I have online. I feel very lucky in the moments when, in the dark, I brush up against “evolution’s” furry hide. It is spine tingling just to get a momentary sense of the some of the vastness that is hidden. For me, “evolution” is a state of mind I rarely visit. It is the opposite of pat, or understood. It has an incorrigible dynamism, like electricity or the atom. It is impossible to engage when in an everyday state of mind. At the height of my acuity I can only get a sense of how far it is beyond my comprehension. I think “evolution” is misjudged when thought of any easier to “get” than string theory or general relativity, or, for that matter, any plainclothes everyday mystery, like birth, death, the seasons, photography, automobile radiators etc. I’ve used scare-quotes around the word because, though a believer, I really don’t get it.

  5. Another breech birth, + 30 minute comment continues:

    I find it exceedingly tedious when the science campers pound the creationists over the head with “evolution” as though it were a unitary hammer. I feel the “creation” much more closely describes these ineffable, awful processes than does “evolution”. I think “science” has a hard time accepting itself in its role as a religion. It’s largely in denial about the degree to which it begins and ends in belief, only unfolding through acts of imagination.

    Interesting to reflect on how widespread the innocence myth is, thanks.

  6. I feel the “creation” much more closely describes these ineffable, awful processes than does “evolution.”

    I might agree with you on that. It’s very difficult to eradicate the popular notion equating evolution with progress, for example. But we all understand how, in the process of creation, “shit happens,” and retooling and retrofitting is almost a given.

    Incidentally, I was myself a breech birth.

  7. Especially nice to hear that your red eye vireo is in, and your common yellowthroat, and your wood thrush.

    Was I supposed to concentrate on reading after that?


    Spring birds are such a joyful distraction!

  8. Well, I think the reading is optional in these kinds of contentious posts anyway. You might be interested in my mother’s account of the 2008 Plummer’s Hollow IMBD (I was doing road work, and my brother was attending to a broken-down car, so she was on her own this year).

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