Trees, me, and all of us

At age 11 I started my own nursery—horse chestnut, sycamore, birch, oak, and holly, pillaged from the World War II bomb-sites that still pock-marked South London: those baby trees would be big by now, if they hadn't succumbed to later whims. Since then I have sought them out in tropical and temperate and boreal forests, wet and dry, seasonal and non-seasonal, and botanic gardens and well-tempered parks in all the continents where trees can grow—although the one where they don't, Antarctica, probably gave rise to some of the most magnificent kinds of all in the days before the entire land-mass drifted too far south. All have brought me new insights about all aspects of life—what it actually is, and how it can be lived: biology, politics, morality. Trees are good for contemplation. Plato and Aristotle did their best thinking in the groves of olives and figs around Athens, and Buddha found enlightenment beneath a bo or peepul tree (which is yet another of the world's 750 species of fig).

In New Zealand a few years ago I experienced more cogently than ever the sheer gravitas of trees: in the presence of Tane Mahuta, currently the world's largest kauri, in the North Island. Kauris are conifers of the genus Agathis in the family Araucariaceae. Also in the family are Araucaria, the group of the South American monkey-puzzle and of the do-it-your-selfers' favourite “parana pine”; and Wollemia, the so-called “Wollemi pine”, that went missing presumed dead since dinosaur times, 120 million years ago, and then turned up in a valley in New South Wales in 1994. All these trees are southerners, so it's tempting to think that Araucariaceae as a whole must have arisen in Gondwana—perhaps in Antarctica itself. But there are fossils from the family in Eurasia, so perhaps they began in the north and migrated south. It's just one of many unknowns.

Kauris are the biggest of their family. The great trunk of Tane Mahuta rises like a lighthouse out of the gloom, five metres in diameter—it would touch all four walls in an average living room—15 metres in circumference: straight up, leafless, for 20 metres or so; and then on the great horizontal boughs rests a virtual park, a floating island, straight out of Gulliver's travels, with an entire ecosystem of ferns and flowers, lizards and goodness knows what, who doubtless would think, if they could think at all, that their eyrie was the whole world. Tane Mahuta is about 2000 years old. By the time the Maoris arrived it had already reached a thousand. For the first 1400 years of its life the moas strutted their stuff around its buttressed base. The moas included the world's tallest ever birds, like giant emus, New Zealand's top land vertebrates—though harassed by commensurately huge but short-winged eagles that threaded through the canopy to prey upon them. The moas and their attendant eagles are now long gone. Tane Mahuta lives on.

The remaining kauri forest of the North Island is vast and wonderful and yet has been horribly reduced by Europeans this past two hundred years—and by the Maoris before them. The Maoris' traditional, natural religion required them to hold a ceremony before felling a tree—not just kauri, but the other conifers too (of the family Podocarpaceae): rimu, kahikatea, miro, and the much-favoured red-timbered totara which they used for canoes. The main broadleaf was and is the southern beech, of the Nothofagaceae. They used to apologise to each tree, and ask its permission to cut it down. But as a Maori lawyer said to me, somewhat world-wearily, “They must have held an awful lot of ceremonies!”—for they felled an awful lot of trees.

But the way the modern New Zealanders look after the trees that are left to them is a model for all the world. Rimu is no longer felled but existing planks are prized and meticulously re-cycled, like the oaks of the Tudor navy that still support the roof of many an English barn: a New Zealand journalist showed me his rimu kitchen with great pride. You can follow slatted wooden paths among the vast conifers, with huge ferns for undergrowth on either side, each one worthy of a stately conservatory, and you will be led as often as not by the little black and white fan-tail birds, little minxes my granny would have called them, hopping ahead with seductively expanded tails, enticing you to stir up insects with your feet. The paths rise to form little bridges over the protruding roots, so you don't damage them; and to allow the kiwis to fossick for worms underneath. In one place I came across a platform, built over a fallen tree where visitors over the next 100 years can watch the spectacular process of decay, as fern follows moss follows fungus. That's conservation; that's intelligent ecotourism. There is no litter, not because there are notices threatening dire consequences (there aren't); but because New Zealanders, Maori and Europeans alike, regard New Zealand as their own country, and they care about it.

In China I saw what seems so often to go unstated: that it is truly one of the world's great centres of biodiversity, whose many landscapes include huge tropical forest. Ecotourism of an encouraging kind is catching on there, too. Ecotourism is harder in tropical forest than in New Zealand's temperate woods where the going is easy; or in Africa's savannah, where the big mammals line up to be photographed, and cheetahs expect each kill to end with an audience of landrovers. You can be in tropical forest for years and hardly see an animal at all. They know how to hide. But in Yunnan I look a chair-lift through the canopy and saw for myself that grasses can be forest trees too—for the bamboos are 30 metres tall: you look down and down to their bases, and up and up to their tops; and the air is thick with dragon flies, iridescent blue and smoky pink. Glorious.

China, though, like India and Brazil, attracts attention for other reasons. These giant countries are the world's coming economies. Which way they jump over the next few decades will determine what kind of a world our children will live in—or whether there's a world to live in at all. As I have been seeing for myself, all three face the same central dilemma. They might choose to try to follow the ways of the west, “conquering” nature, turning farming into industrial agribusiness, and driving people out of the countryside. Or they might contrive, as some intellectuals, farmers and foresters in their own countries and elsewhere are urging, to create a quite new kind of economy, qualitatively different from the current western model: essentially a new agrarianism, traditional in structure with small mixed farms, integrated into the wild environment, but as high-tech as is needed to make it all comfortable.

All three countries at present seem schizophrenic. Thus in Brazil, scientists at EMBRAPA, the country's centre for research in farming and forestry, are seeking to establish regimes for sustainable harvesting of wild trees, ensuring that each is properly identified, and no area is harvested more than once in 30 years, and so on. The endeavour includes the highest of modern science, including the Dendrogene project run by Dr Milton Kanashiro, to monitor any loss in genetic diversity as trees are extracted, by analysing the DNA of the remaining trees directly (from samples taken from the cambium, the multiplying tissue just beneath the bark). Yet the Brazilian congress is currently voting on a scheme to fell half of the entire Amazon forest. Already, Brazil's biggest agricultural export is soya for European cattle, to make Europeans even fatter. Soya is grown on a vast scale on what was once tropical forest and, heavily irrigated, is raised on the dry forest, the Cerrado, that occupies the middle of the country. Although China is frantically planting more trees and its traditional, labour-intensive agriculture can be wonderfully productive and endlessly sustainable it intends to shift 500 million people—more than the entire population of Europe—out of the countryside and into the cities within the next few decades. In China, as in present-day Britain, farming is coming to be seen as an anachronism.

If new agrarian economies come about, then trees must be at the centre of them. In the Cerrado Dr Jose Felipe Ribeiro is showing how local people could make a much better living by exploiting the native trees for their hundreds (literally) of fruits and drugs and pigments, than they ever can from the soya farms, which in any case are owned by outsiders and employ as few people as possible in the name of “efficiency”.

The ancient arts of “agroforestry” are also finding new life—one of the most encouraging of all developments of the modern world. Many kinds of crops and livestock are raised among trees, both in wild forest, and in plantations. In Kerala, South India, cardamoms, related to turmeric and ginger, are traditionally grown as undergrowth in virtually wild forest. On the grander scale, coffee and tea grow best in shade. Throughout the traditional tropics, sheep and cattle which northerners think of as grass-eaters are often raised almost entirely on browse—leaves and branches of trees. The stocking rate can be enormous: up to two cows per hectare among the ubiquitous oil-palm plantations of SE Asia. Cattle are basically woodland animals. Dr Muhammad Ibrahim and his colleagues in Costa Rica have now shown that dairy cows given shade yield up to 30 per cent more than when left to languish in the sun—trees boost yield far more effectively than injections of hormones. But there is more money in hormones. Or at least: the money derived from hormones goes to the shareholders of big companies, while the money from agroforestry should be spread among millions of farmers. No contest. The world's most powerful governments have made themselves answerable to the big companies—and they take pride in this. They call it “realism”. The world's best-paid scientists work for the big companies too. The agrarian, tree-based systems that truly could keep the world habitable have to fight for survival against the massed ranks of the powers-that-be. How ludicrous.

So although the things that need doing seem obvious, and good people are working on them, the powers-that-be—governments and the corporates whose interest they serve, and the experts including commercial scientists who advise them—have a quite different agenda. If we, humanity, want life to be agreeable or indeed to continue at all we just have to ignore the pressures from our ostensible leaders, and get on and do things the way they should be done. In short, only popular movements can do what's needed: neither reform (attempting to change the minds of the powers that be), nor revolution (head on collision, which seems bound to lose) but renaissance: building new ways of life in situ, whatever the pressures from on high. Again, trees show the way. Outstanding among the world's many popular initiatives is the Greenbelt movement of Kenya, begun in 1977 by Wangari Maathai. Initially opposed by the government of the day (although she is now a member of Kenya's government) Professor Maathai has led a campaign among Kenyan women just to plant trees—or rather to re-plant them in places they used to grow. Now they have planted 30 million. They have transformed landscapes and changed entire economies and the whole tenor of life: people in recent years have hurried to get out of the sun but now they stop and talk in the shade as they used to do in the past. This kind of thing, very simple, and achieved in the teeth of the modern economy (for who makes money out of it?), contributes far more to human wellbeing than, say, cheap white goods from China, or soya from Brazil, on which the economy of the modern world, egged on by Bush, and Blair, and Brown, is being built.

But the broadest issue of all is the challenge posed by trees to the western conceit that we can “conquer” nature, or indeed control it. This idea truly took off in the 19th century, and yet is taken still as a mark of modernity. One long look at tropical forest is enough to reveal the nonsense of it. In the Neotropics, Mexico through Brazil, there could be 30,000 different species of tree, with up to 300 kinds per hectare. Contrast the US, with only 600 or so native species: or Britain, with a mere 39. Each kind of tropical tree may harbour thousands of kinds of insects and other creatures: I found myself up an old kapok in Costa Rica where biologists had counted 4000 other species, some just passing through and others entirely reliant on kapoks. We don't even know how many kinds of tree there are in tropical forest, and are a thousand years away from listing all the interactions between all the trees and all their visitors; and even if we did list everything that's going on (an impossible task) we still would not be able to predict how any of the interventions we may make will turn out, because cause and effect in such systems is “non-linear”. The rules of chaos apply. Outcomes are intrinsically unpredictable.

In Oxford in 1879 Gerard Manley Hopkins lamented the felling of poplars: “O if we but knew what we do When we delve or hew—Hack and rack the growing green!” We still don't know what we are doing, and never can in any detail, but the hacking and racking continue more vigorously than ever. The only half-way sane approach if we want this world to remain habitable, is to approach it humbly. Trees teach humility. We need to take the world far more seriously. It would be a good idea to begin with trees.