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Needed: Compassion for all nature

Old-growth deciduous forests are superior in resilience and fire resistance

Dante Alighieri opens ‘The Divine Comedy’ with the immortal lines:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita

mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,

ché la diritta via era smarrita.

(In the middle of the journey of our life

I found myself within a dark wood

where the straight path was lost)

To the medieval mind of Dante, the great forests of Europe were a fearsome spectre of numinous presences, but by entering the wood of doubt he gained a deepened awareness. We retain these competing instincts: a wariness of wilderness that incites conquest, beside reverence for the sylvan mysteries. It is this latter instinct that requires nurturing.

On a recent visit to Italy I embarked with a friend on a ramble towards Mount Sole near Bologna. This park had been the scene of a final battle in April 1945 between the Allies and Germans, along with their Italian fascist allies. Unfortunately our time was short, and as we ascended the narrow path, wending steeply through dense woodland towards the summit, a lengthy walk seemed imminent.

In order to return for an appointment we had a decision to make. We had three alternatives: follow the path in the hope it would soon loop backwards; return the way we came; or take a short cut by descending directly through the thick deciduous forest flanking us. Contrary to good sense, we chose the latter course.

Initially we divined a trail through the thickets of hornbeams and Turkey oaks – laid perhaps by the native cinghiale (wild boar) – but these soon lapsed as the descent became more precipitous. By then we were using trees, many tilted at curious angles, to lever ourselves like firemen down an increasingly sheer slope.

This is when it became slightly dangerous as a surprising number seemed dead, giving way at the slightest pressure. The humous around the trees was also amazingly loose, and over some stretches we slid down soil that felt like snow.

We had arrived in a natural sanctuary, and were cutting a swathe through it like a pair of conquistadores rampaging through an Indian village with steel. The acute angle of the hillside made this a route only the most foolhardy of large fauna would descend.

In remote areas such as these we find fragile remains of unmolested old-growth European forests, although in these conditions only hardier species are in evidence, rather than the great beeches that once dominated the continent. This was, nonetheless, an impressive ecosystem that concentrates great wealth in the soil, and where old trees are allowed to live out their days in peace. Until we arrived that is.

Then my friend’s foot came in contact with a hard metal object in the brittle soil, which on inspection proved to be a gun cartridge. Wiping away the earth revealed the inscription: “RH 1943 20mm”. A subsequent Internet trawl showed that it was a Spitfire Cartridge manufactured by the Raleigh Corporation in 1943. Bob’s Your Uncle!

By happenstance I was then reading the German forester Peter Wohlleben’s remarkable little book: ‘The Hidden Life of Trees: What they feel, How they communicate; Discoveries from a secret world’. It seems we had made another, less explosive, discovery.

“On hillsides”, he writes, “it is sometimes the ground itself that is sliding extremely slowly down to the valley over the course of many years, often at the rate of no more than an inch or two a year”. He continues: “Trees are losing their footing and being thrown completely off balance in the mushy subsoil. And because every individual tree is tipped in a different direction, the forest looks like a group of drunks staggering around. Accordingly, scientists call these ‘drunken trees’”.

Coincidentally, on returning home to Ireland stories were emerging of one of the worst fires in living memory on thousands of acres of Coilte land in Cloosh Valley, east Galway. I knew this had to be coniferous cash crop as Wohlleben points out that a deciduous forest is not susceptible to fire: it lacks resins or essential oils, and must be seasoned for two years before it can serve as fuel.

Conversely, the destruction of non-native evergreens offers a rare opportunity to use the site to reduce Ireland’s contribution to Climate Change. The great deciduous varieties are vast carbon storehouses, and incredible photosynthesisers (releasing oxygen in the process): just to grow its trunk, a mature beech requires as much sugar and cellulose as that yielded from a 2.5 acre field of wheat. This demands over 150 years, so our descendants are sure to be very grateful for measures taken today.

If we assume (conservatively) 500 such beech trees grow on one acre, this offers space for 1250 trees on a 2.5 acre site. Its (stored) energy value can be calculated as follows: over one hundred and fifty years a wheat fields gathers an energy value of 150x (where ‘x’ is one year’s sugar and cellulose from a 2.5 acre site); whereas an acre of undisturbed beech trees offers 1250x for that period.

This is both a potential energy source (that would eventually yield a fossil fuel) with over eight times more capacity than a wheat field, unsurprisingly considering heights of 150 feet. This leaves aside potential food (assuming we learn to process trees nuts better) and medicinal sources. Moreover, the expanding humous around trees contains vast carbon reserves, and trees, unlike wheat and most other crops, fix their own nitrogen. Suffice to say, old-growth forests are the leading weapon in the battle against Climate Change.

According to Wohlleben the best thing to do in order to generate growth on a site is absolutely nothing, leaving Nature (relying on birds to carry seeds) to find a balance. In Ireland this will give us a summit vegetation of oak and hazel, which given the opportunity would colonize the whole country, and offer only marginally less bulk than beech. As it is, old-growth forests are virtually absent in the least-wooded substantial European country, which, paradoxically, has some of the best conditions for tree growth.

Contrary to common perception it was not the English that stripped Ireland of its woodland. A mere 12% of old-growth forests remained by the fourteenth century on account of an accelerating livestock dependence.

Forests must be left to their own devices. Wohlleben writes that: “If we want to use forests as a weapon in the fight against climate change, then we must allow them to grow old”. Unlike animals, the older the tree the more quickly it grows. In fact trees that grow too quickly in their youth are susceptible to fungal diseases, making the use of artificial fertilizers in nurseries damaging.

Stripping away dead trees is also misguided as these serve a purpose in the forest ecosystem, with one fifth of species relying on dead wood for survival. The complexity of even our temperate forests is staggering, as just one handful of soil contains a greater variety of species than all seven billion human beings in the world. Moreover, healthy forests guarantee clean water and air quality. Researchers have even discovered that a walk in a deciduous wood lowers blood pressure.

It is also worth contemplating the arboreal wonders that Wohlleben reveals. Trees are more complex, and intelligent, than might be expected. They communicate with one another using an array of languages including scent from blossoms, and electrical signals that travel at a third of an inch per minute. This allows trees to warn their friends if they are under attack. Chemical signals are also made through fungal networks around root tips, a so-called “wood wide web”.

In a natural forest trees grow at an even pace despite differences in topography and orientation. They manage resources collectively by feeding weaker members, ensuring uniform height. This comes about because when a forest confronts adverse weather it is only as strong as its weakest member. Unfortunately cultivated trees do not possess these qualities, leading Wohlleben to liken them to street kids.

Scientists have explanations for some of their remarkable capabilities, but others remain veiled in mystery. These can be observed but not explained.

The ability of plants to learn from external stimuli has been exhibited in Dr Monica Gagliano’s experiments on the sensitive mimosa plant. Gagliano released individual drops of water on the plant’s foliage at regular intervals. At first the anxious plants instantly closed their leaves, mistaking the single droplets for the onset of heavy rainfall, but after a number of doses the plants learned these were harmless and kept their leaves open. Remarkably, these small plants could remember and apply their lesson weeks later.

The size of deciduous trees means their behaviour cannot so easily be assessed in a laboratory, but Wohlleben observes a form of learning in the way they grow sturdy trunks in response to aches and pains. Likewise he says, they count the number of warm days along with the hours of sunshine at the start of spring, before deciding when to put out leaves.

This leads Wohlleben to ask: “If trees are capable of learning… then the question becomes: Where do they store what they have learnt and how do they access the information”. He suggests the answer may lie in their roots tips but there is no evidence of any “hard drive”, such as an animal’s central nervous system.

Rupert Sheldrake’s hypothesis of morphic resonance might explain their habits. He suggests that once a particular form comes into existence it creates a non-material morphic field, that has a causal effect on all subsequent, similar forms; and the more a particular form is replicated, the more likely it is to replicate in future. It is possible that after billions of years of trees have evolved a “cloud” of knowledge through morphic resonance that is not located in the plant itself.

Another mystery is how trees lift water from the ground up through their long trunks, a capacity scientists have, so far, been unable to explain. Neither capillary action nor transpiration untangle the riddle: capillary action, similar to our bloodstream, only accounts for a rise of 3 feet at most; nor does transpiration through leaves breathing apply, as water pressure is highest in early spring when there are no leaves at all.

Water has its own mysterious properties as a New Scientist article from 2010 acknowledges: “No liquid behaves quite as oddly as water”. It is conceivable given the length, and success, of their evolution that trees have an understanding of these oddities that exceeds our own. The cool temperature trees constantly maintain at their base, which may diverge as much as thirty degrees centigrade from the ambient temperature on a very hot day, lend credence to seemingly whacky theories, but which might relate to the ‘uncertainty’ of its quantum properties.

Another forester, the Austrian Viktor Schauberger (1885-1958) pointed to an “anomaly point” of water at four degrees centigrade as being key to understanding its behaviour. At this temperature he said that energy currents in water, not obviously apparent, are at their most powerful. This he claimed, allowed a trout to dart at lightning speed against the rapid flow of a river.

To demonstrate this he poured 100 litres of warmed water upstream from a large trout, which was unable to maintain its position in the altered temperature and was swept away. He also used his esoteric ideas on water energy to build a watercourse for the transportation of logs, a successful invention a patent for which he was granted in 1931.

Perhaps trees operate a similar system, based on the temperature differential between the crown of a tree and its roots. This is all, naturally, speculative.

Exploring the majesty of tree life should bring us into sympathy with what we know of them, and their secrets. But a countervailing tendency is a fear of what we cannot understand, and control. The despicable Judge Holden in Cormac McCarthy’s novel ‘Blood Meridian’ expresses an attitude that has long animated colonial expansion and ecocide: “The man who believes that the secrets of the world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down. The rain will erode the deeds of his life”.

In contrast, he characterises Western man as “suzerain”, “a keeper or overlord”, who exerts control over all life on earth. He says that: “Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.” The Judge cannot tolerate Nature independent of man: “The freedom of birds is an insult to me. I’d have them all in zoos”. This has been one trend since the Enlightenment seeking mastery over Nature, and needs rapid reappraisal if humanity is to strike a balance in this, the Anthropocene.

We may reach back to older traditions of Pachamama in South America to confront this attitude. Thus the Kichwa of Sarayaku in Ecuador see their forest as “the most exalted expression of life itself”. More recently the Swiss Constitution requires account to be taken “of the dignity of creation when handling animals, plants and other organisms”. Hopefully we will move towards global acceptance of Wild Law: the idea that all beings have inherent rights.

Wohlleben reveals a blind spot when he suggests the distinction between a plant and an animal is arbitrary. This may offer an excuse for an unwillingness to give up environmentally-destructive animal products. Leaving aside this ethical question momentarily, Wohlleben links the historic destruction of European forests to the expansion of livestock, and the artificial feeding of deer which would not normally inhabit forests for hunting.

The best measure we can take to prevent further deforestation and even generate afforestation is to give up animal products. Deforested land around the world is used for grazing, and indirectly to grow crops to feed domesticated animals, representing a significant wastage in food resources. Therefore, excluding animal products leads more space for (sentient?) trees.

Moreover, the moral equivalence between killing a plant and an animal for our consumption does not stand up to scrutiny since, as notwithstanding their intelligence, plants lack the central nervous system of an animal. It is clear that a tree does not feel pain in the same way as an animal, or ourselves. The challenge is to extend our compassion even further to embrace all of Nature, rather than withdrawing it from animals.

In order to survive as a species, human beings must reserve land for farming at least until our understanding of food sources in Nature greatly increases. But in so doing there is much that we can learn from trees, and their environments, to improve the quality and resilience of our crops. In the Anthropocene we need to counter the tendency of the Judge Holdens among us towards subjugation of Nature, and instead, like Dante, enter the sylvan mysteries in search of Paradise. 


Written by Frank Armstrong