On Forests

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In the Green litany of environmentalist ecohype, hyperbole about forests must shade even ‘global warming’ in the stakes for a root and branch hatchet job. If all the ‘football-fields-of-ancient-forests-lost-per-day’ claimed for the chainsaw massacre of the last thirty years were added together, not a tree would be left standing.

Yet, according to the Washington, DC-based Conservation International, 46% of the world still constitutes ‘wilderness’, including vast regions of forest, and to qualify as ‘wilderness’ an area must have 70% or more of its original vegetation intact and occupy at least 10,000 square kilometres (3,860 square miles).

This comes as no surprise. Various United Nations’ estimates have indicated for some time that between 25% to 33% of the land surface of the earth remains wooded, while recent satellite figures for the Amazon show that rain forest covers 87% of its 1950’s footprint. Moreover, in parts of North America, forest is even returning. The pioneer environmentalist of Walden, Henry David Thoreau (1817-62), would be shocked. In his time, the woodland cover of New England was less than 35%. Today, woodland, through normal economic processes, has reclaimed nearly 90% of the central Massachusetts’ countryside. Forests come and go – and the world does not collapse.

12,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age, there were no forests in New England, but, as the climate warmed, woodlands waxed and waned, moulded by Atlantic hurricanes, fire, and indigenous peoples. From the 1630s onwards, Puritans, fleeing the England of Charles I, began to clear the trees for God, striving to produce John Winthrop’s ‘City upon a Hill’. Boston grew rich, and, by the 1830s, 70% of the land was under plough or pasture.

Then the western spread of the railroad, the lure of Californian gold, and the American Civil War emptied the countryside. White pines soon re-colonised abandoned fields, creating a new timber industry for boxes, matchsticks, and toys. Following clear-cutting, the landscape seemed devastated, and you could just imagine the outcry in newspapers like The Guardian and The Independent, or on the ‘Today’ programme, had these existed then.

But, from stored seed nurtured beneath the pines, there blossomed the old hardwoods, red and white oak, white ash, black cherry, and maples. These, in turn, became valuable economic assets. And today? Now you can sit on a rough stone wall that once surrounded a C17th farmstead and watch Bostonians taking a stroll through their ‘ancient’ woods. The tale will surely be the same for the Amazon.

Change is all, and for every change there will be a new mix of economics and ecology. The deforestation of the English Midlands produced an agricultural and industrial powerhouse in the heart of our small island; it also caused erosion that helped to form the dark black soils of the eastern Fenlands, some of the richest agricultural land in Europe and a natural defence against our ever-aggressive sea. The clearance of woodland from the Downs created the deeper agricultural soils of the lower chalk bench and, through sheep and rabbit, honed one of the most treasured of ‘natural’ habitats, chalk grassland, with its orchids that so fascinated Charles Darwin and blue butterflies flitting on a hazy summer’s day.

But the idea of ‘forests’ has hegemony, enframed by all manner of pseudo-scientific and New Age nonsense. Ecology and environmentalism were born out of C19th German romantic philosophy, especially from the Ur-Wald, the brooding forest landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich and the hunting horns of Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischutz, the latter now sounding throughout the world in a neo-colonial crescendo.

Yet, deforestation has given rise to glorious civilizations – to India, Venice, and New England. The ‘campos’ and ‘campaniles’ of Venice rest on millions of tree trunks, all cut from the pinewoods of Dalmatia and then plunged into the soft mud of the swampy lagoon to ground on the solid caranto, the compressed clay at the base. And when I sit in a cafe, taking un’ ombra by the shimmering waters and reading Donna Leon’s latest Commissario Brunetti novel, I raise my glass to the men who cut the trees. “Salute!”

But, of course, as Venice sinks, the trees may flourish once again in Dalmatia.