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.