A line from Sand and Foam by the poet Kahlil Gibran published in 1926. It continues, “We cut them down and turn them into paper that we may record our emptiness.”
The great challenge of the 21st century is how to save the environment from total disaster. As an essential part of creating a low-carbon economy, trees are the key.
Deforestation has crippled ecosystems the world over. Much of it took place before global warming was recognised, but it has led to more than 80% of the world’s old growth forests vanishing. The newer forests that still abound are being destroyed by logging companies and farmers. Forests still cover about 30% of the world’s land area, but swathes the size of Panama are lost every year. Some experts argue that at the current rate, the world’s rain forests will disappear in less than a hundred years.
Trees capture and store excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and give off oxygen. They regulate the climate, filter water, and provide foods, medicines and a habitat for living creatures. Replanting forests on a massive scale and with species of trees that are most likely to survive is critical to mitigating the impact of the global environment. In addition, saving the genetic information of the great trees that survive (and which have lasted aeons) may hold additional benefits.
This is the mission of groups like the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive based in the USA: to propagate the world’s most important old growth trees before they are gone; to archive the genetics of ancient trees in living libraries around the world; and to reforest the Earth with the offspring of these trees to strengthen the ecosystems essential for life in all its forms to thrive.
Archangel says that about 98% of old growth forests in the USA are gone and that “We are essentially down to 2% percent of our ‘life savings’. It’s time to do something.” The organisation locates and propagates trees with ancient and robust genetics that have the best chance of survival. It reintroduces them into the environment and works to preserve the genetics of the last remaining representatives of old-growth forests so that scientists can study them before they become extinct – a worst case scenario.
The British writer George Orwell is best known today for two novels critical of the moral dissolution of society: Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) – both a favourite of English teachers in the UK. But he also wrote essays on politics, literature, language, and culture and was a prolific journalist. In an article titled “‘A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray” published in the democratic socialist fortnightly Tribune (26 April 1946), he said:
“The planting of a tree, especially one of the long-living hardwood trees, is a gift which you can make to posterity at almost no cost and with almost no trouble, and if the tree takes root it will far outlive the visible effect of any of your other actions, good or evil.”