How could trees be so destructive? Today, they are nature’s ambassadors. Where I live in Brooklyn, resilient London planes line the streets. Bar the weather, their particoloured trunks and angular branches are the most prominent and sometimes the only reminder of a world not made by man; unlike the weather, the trees are always welcome. When I was growing up in Britain, the copses and woods around my sorry little Essex village, a dreary fragment of suburbia, stirred the blood. If there was a gateway to another world, to something like the Middle Earth of my childhood fantasies, it would be found under a canopy of leaves. Woodland offered sanctuary and adventure, untold places to hide and hidden secrets.
Taking psychedelics as a teenager, I thought the best part of the experience was to lie on a green sward and watch the leafy castles of the Cambridge parks gently threshing the air. Decades later, woodland feels like an analogue of the mind – winding paths, half-perceived movement, the sudden intrusion of sunlight. It is an environment in which to encounter the self, a place of mental sustenance and inspiration. It was said of John Keats that he never saw a tree without seeing a dryad, which sounds pretty good to me.
Put a gnarled oak in a white cube of some fashionable gallery and you could watch the visitors goggle at its stout and deeply furrowed trunk, its broad and open crown. When my son was four, we visited Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn after a hurricane to discover an elm with a great branch thicker than an adult waist torn from its side. My little boy stopped and stared and sat thoughtfully to better appreciate the wounded giant. We weren’t in any hurry, and at his prompting I planted myself next to him. It was as if we had stumbled on the scene of some great deed of valour. It’s one of my favourite memories of parenthood: my son pushing me to recognise the underappreciated marvel of a grand city tree.
Trees are prominent in the folklore of my native Britain. The ships of a naval people and the populace itself were said to share a heart of oak. The Green Man, the mythical embodiment of English rural life and nationhood, a representative of resistance against the Norman yoke, was one with the trees. Among the rafters of old English churches, his carven face can still be found, resembling nothing so much as one of Tolkien’s Ents. As a boy, I took it for granted that pre-Roman Britain comprised unadulterated forest from shore to shore. It is a popular notion only fairly recently debunked by historians, who call this misconception the Sherwood Syndrome. In actuality, there is evidence of extensive farm cultivation going back to the Bronze Age, 3,000 years ago, when deforestation had already transformed the island’s countryside. But the power of myth persists; trees continue to represent a prelapsarian age, as if they are the silent repositories of hard-won wisdom.
William Wordsworth conceptualised the influence of the outdoors on the human spirit in his long poem ‘Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey’. I know it by heart. Reciting it is the closest thing I have to the experience the devout achieve through prayer. The most influential poem of The Lyrical Ballads, fusing Coleridge’s philosophy with Wordsworth’s imagination, ‘Tintern Abbey’ has a good claim to being the preeminent achievement of Romanticism and nature writing in the English language. The poet in those verses, reclining under a dark sycamore, captures a sense that an encounter with the natural world makes us better people, having
On that best portion of a good man’s life;
His little, nameless unremembered acts
Of kindness and of love.
With its woods that are ‘deep’, ‘sportive’, and ‘lofty’, ‘Tintern Abbey’ presents the arboreal scene as a site of wild metaphysical ecstasy, bringing
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean, and the living air
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man,
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
Such a communion with nature is something we now experience only at a distance and coloured by sadness – a plaintive, inherited memory, weighing on the mind at times, like when I sat in awe with my son in front of a broken elm. To admire a tree, to extrapolate meaning from its beauty and majestic complexity, without thinking of the ghost forests of North America killed by the rising seas or the fires raging through Australia, Siberia, and California requires a callousness that precludes the sentiments of Wordsworth as he revelled in the woods and cliffs on the banks of the River Wye. Trees today can’t help but be an augury of loss: they are refugees, the sight of which makes me want to clutch my little boy to my chest. The natural world, transformed by human action, is no longer an unchanging backdrop against which the vagaries of our lives are diminished and resolved.
. Trees today can’t help but be an augury of loss: they are refugees, the sight of which makes me want to clutch my little boy to my chest.
But if trees are the fading representatives of a once-proud landscape, how is it that when they first grew on Earth death followed? How could I explain that to my son? Archaeopteris, pioneer of the species, was a development of the late Devonian period. The planet back then would be hard to recognise as our own. Dominating the globe were two giant continents, Euroamerica and Gondwana. For most of the Devonian, life existed almost exclusively in the oceans, which were higher than today’s, since there were no glaciers or polar ice caps. Much of both continents was submerged in shallow seas, and it was there that life was to be found.
Above the water, until the time those first trees appeared, was desolation, a moonscape. There were not even any rivers, since there were not enough plants to create the soil from which riverbanks are formed. Then came Archaeopteris. The roots of the new plant life extracted calcium and magnesium from rocks below, minerals that when washed into the sea acted just as artificial fertilisers do now, creating huge algal blooms, which used up the oxygen in the water and blocked the light. Huge dead zones were created, exactly as pollution creates them today in the Mexican Gulf. Scientists know this because of the black shale left behind, sediment resembling coal, from which humanity has recently learned to extract a particularly dirty form of crude oil.
That process of rock weathering drew down carbon from the atmosphere. At the same time, the primal trees breathed in carbon dioxide, exhaling oxygen without any animals being around to benefit and redress the balance by converting oxygen back into CO2. As a result, the proportion of greenhouse gases in the air dropped and the world became colder; glaciers appeared and spread. As ice formed, the sea levels dropped, and the surviving life in those once teeming shallow oceans drowned in oxygen-rich air. Climate change and mass extinction were the result of the flourishing of the world’s first trees, which in turn, as the planet froze, became victims of their own success. Of all the trees that have ever been anthropomorphised, Archaeopteris may bear the closest resemblance to humanity.
Over a vast stretch of geological time, trees came to coexist with the rest of life; today they help hold the carbon cycle in balance, a trick we’ve yet to manage. If we can no longer look at nature with the ecstatic optimism of Wordsworth, there may still be promise and guidance in the epoch-spanning history of trees, even if the lesson is not strictly a happy one. With luck it will take us less time to find a way to share the world with the rest of existence. But if we are facing the fate of the very first trees, perhaps there is comfort in the thought that a form of humanity might appear far in the future as different from us as a modern oak or elm is from Archaeopteris, a human species benign instead of catastrophic. That’s the message I hear when the wind whispers in the leaves.
IMAGES: both images are from the exhibition ‘Among the Trees’ at the Hayward Gallery, South Bank, London.
Among the Trees brings together major works by 38 leading international artists from five different continents. Timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the exhibition explores how trees have shaped human civilisation and how they continue to play an indispensable role in our lives and imaginations. (until 17th May, though the gallery is temporarily closed).