“Great oaks from little acorns grow”

The world needs more trees!

The trees in the Amazon rain forest take in a quarter of all the carbon absorbed by the Earth’s forests in a single year. Deforestation (which in May 2019 surged to the equivalent of two football pitches a minute according to data from Terra Brasillis) hinders that process and accounts for 12% of the carbon emissions that aggravate global warming. Scientists believe that tropical deforestation could actually lead to an additional 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming even if fossil fuel emissions ended tomorrow – which we know is not going to happen.

So, when Brazil’s autocratic president Jair Bolsonaro declares that he is going to open the rain forest to development, Brazilian conservationists are more than alarmed. One estimate of the potential damage says that over nine years, Bolsonaro’s deforestation would release into the atmosphere the equivalent of 13.12 gigatons of carbon. The global annual output is approximately 40 billion tonnes.

The amount of carbon dioxide a tree can hold is called carbon sequestration. Trees sequester carbon dioxide by storing it in their trunks, branches, leaves and roots, so the best trees for carbon dioxide absorption will have large trunks and dense wood. Fortunately, many trees fit this description: pines, conifers, oaks, the common horse-chestnut, the black walnut, the London plane, and the American sweetgum.

People should be planting trees, not cutting them down. As George Orwell wrote in his essay “A Good Word for the Vicar of Bray”, first published in the socialist magazine Tribune (26 April 1946):

“A thing which I regret, and which I will try to remedy some time, is that I have never in my life planted a walnut. Nobody does plant them nowadays – when you see a walnut it is almost invariably an old tree. If you plant a walnut you are planting it for your grandchildren, and who cares a damn for his grandchildren? Nor does anybody plant a quince, a mulberry or a medlar. But these are garden trees which you can only be expected to plant if you have a patch of ground of your own. On the other hand, in any hedge or in any piece of waste ground you happen to be walking through, you can do something to remedy the appalling massacre of trees, especially oaks, ashes, elms and beeches, which has happened during the war years.

Even an apple tree is liable to live for about 100 years, so that the Cox I planted in 1936 may still be bearing fruit well into the twenty-first century. An oak or a beech may live for hundreds of years and be a pleasure to thousands or tens of thousands of people before it is finally sawn up into timber. I am not suggesting that one can discharge all one’s obligations towards society by means of a private re-afforestation scheme. Still, it might not be a bad idea, every time you commit an antisocial act, to make a note of it in your diary, and then, at the appropriate season, push an acorn into the ground.”

“Great oaks from little acorns grow” is an English proverb. It seems to be a variation of “The greatest Oaks have been little Acorns” found in the physician Thomas Fuller’s bottomless collection of sayings titled Gnomologia published in 1732. Taking the long view, and in the teeth of rampant climate change, we still need to plant as many as we can.


Published by

Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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