People and Trees

The traditional role of human beings is to look after trees. When one lives in an area that has been farmed for a long time, and which, until recently, has had a fairly dense human population, it is obvious that all the trees that are there, are there because people chose for them to be there. There are no randomly self-seeded trees. What is not so obvious, is the fact that the same probably applies to other less-densely-populated areas, where there are more trees and large forests.

From our modern, machine-dominated perspective, we imagine that people who did not have access to our modern technologies were fairly helpless in the face of nature, and did not have the means to shape the environment to suit their needs. But, in reality, it has always been relatively easy for people to clear vast areas of land – for example, trees can be felled or burned, and then goats set to graze around the stumps to prevent re-growth; it is possible that this was a practice followed by pastoralists in many parts of the world.

So, where there are trees, it is where people found them to be preferable to an open landscape. This is particularly easy to appreciate in areas where people’s basic diet was one form of cereal or another. Land close to dwellings was divided into small fields, each of which was, typically, surrounded by banks planted with trees. These trees would have been useful in everyday life – coppiced trees for firewood, fruit trees, nut trees, wood for crafts, etc. – and they would also have acted as wind breaks, helped with water retention, and maintained fertility in the small fields. Further afield, trees could be allowed to grow bigger, and could be managed to produce timber for houses, and for larger projects. Areas that were not suited for cultivation, and not ideal for grazing, such as steep slopes, were stocked with more trees which could be coppiced or felled, and provided a reserve of wood when necessary. A typical subsistence gardening landscape supported a dense human population: settlements were centred around secure sources of water, cultivated land surrounded the settlements, land between settlements was grazed , and there were lots of trees. It was the trees that made this form of lifestyle sustainable; they helped to provide the conditions that supported a rich level of biodiversity – possibly richer and more diverse than in areas devoid of human beings – and the wealth of insects, birds, small animals, soil organisms, wild flowers, mosses, lichens, etc. ensured that a self-regulating ecosystem was maintained at the same time as crops were being grown for human use.

This sort of countryside can only be maintained if the people living in it are capable of taking a very long view. A tree may be planted with a view to it providing a beam for a house, for example, not for oneself, and not for the next generation, but maybe for the one after that, or the one after that. In the early days, you have to ensure that the tree has enough water, and is protected from deer, and you have to ensure that it grows straight, if necessary by pruning trees on either side. Later, people will have to cut off side branches up to a certain height, to ensure that the wood is straight and knot-free, and this work may have to be continued for a hundred years, or more. Finally, before the tree is felled, there has to be an agreement that there is a use for the wood worthy of all this work; and people have to feel inspired to ensure a new tree is planted, and the cycle recommenced.

It seems that for locally-based communities of subsistence gardeners are capable of taking this long view. The rules about which trees are to be used for what, make sense to everyone, and everyone wants to be able to pass on their gardens to a future generation, who will continue to care for them, and to profit from them.

In our current world, we have moved as far away from this model as it is possible to imagine. Our system of land ownership means that there is rarely any continuity between one owner of a piece of land and the next; and our economic system is becoming increasingly short term, with returns on investment being sought on an annual or quarterly basis, rather than over a period of centuries. Centralised systems of government are inherently more short term in their outlook than de-centralised systems: democratic systems take this to an extreme, with governments finding it hard to plan beyond the next election, but any people working for a centralised government will always be one step removed from nature; their priority will be to preserve the system they work for, even if it leads to a degree of environmental degredation at a local level, which often involves a loss of trees.

This is something that has been happening in Europe for a long time. European history is generally told in terms of empires, kings, queens, conquests, and countries. All these institutions put a certain type of pressure on countrysie management: the emphasis shifts to producing a surplus to feed an urban, or non-farming population, fields are made larger, animal traction is employed, trees are felled for non-local use. Perhaps there are advantages to this type of system, in terms of the technology that emerges from it, or benefits that come from larger numbers of people working together on a common goal, but it is not self-regulating in terms of sustainability of farming and tree management, and, over time, it has led to a decline in the tree population, and a loss of soil fertility.

The industrial revolution is often cited as being a definitive break with what had gone before, but viewed from the perspective of tree management, it appears rather as a continuation of a process already in course. The over-exploitation of the countryside led to a shortage of wood for fuel and for industry, so people turned to coal for fuel, and increased the use of iron in manufacturing and construction. In more recent times, coal has been partially replaced by oil and gas, and almost everything that was once made from wood is now available in plastic. Instead of being the foundations upon which the human economy was built, trees are now seen as of only peripheral importance, prized more for their sentimental value than anything else. While this state of affairs persists, no tree is safe, and it is unrealistic to imagine that a long-term policy to protect any tree, or group of trees, can be maintained.

According to official news reports, all experts in the field of climate research now agree that too much fossil fuel has been burnt, and that the human race has to return to a zero-carbon economy. Remarkably little has been said about how we are to redevelop a sustainable tree population that can meet our needs for fuel and craft materials, and at the same time is able to support a properly diverse ecosystem of healthy plants and animals: and how we can guarantee that those trees are going to be cared for for centuries to come. A return to subsistence gardening is the obvious solution.