Imagine a World of Trees — Without Us

Bloomsbury's Object Lessons' installment, Tree, brings to the fore our complicated relationship with this life form.

Matthew Battles’ Tree, another book in the excellent Object Lessons series, starts perhaps a little slowly but beautifully. Battles’ descriptions — phrases like “trunks are sinuous, gracile, with grey speckled bark that seems to luminesce in shade…” — make it easy to image being in a park, meadow, or arboretum in the spring, even if you’re reading the book in a flourescent-lit office in the middle of winter.

I imagine it would have been easy (and perhaps more fun) just to write a book full of these descriptions, a book that just focuses on the beauty of trees. Battles doesn’t do that, though; instead, he shows how trees — and perhaps more importantly our relationships with trees — are incredibly complicated. Even dappling — that wonderful light that comes through a tree’s leaves — is not as simple as it seems.

For Battles, dapple is an important word, as he states that his approach to the tree will be “dappled”. Our dappled world, as philosopher of science Nancy Cartwright describes it, “is a world rich in different things, with different natures, behaving in different ways.”

Some of the differences Battles explores include the concepts of wild, feral, tame and domesticated and how these concepts relate to trees. He’s particularly curious about whether or not trees can be feral and opens and closes the book with this question.

Stories seem to be important to Battles as well, and he makes clear that trees and their data have important stories to tell. That is if we let them.

And that seems to be a key: humans letting trees tell their stories. In the United States, trees occupy a somewhat strange space. On the one hand, trees don’t always seem to live in privileged places. Americans talk about valuing green space, but at times, highways, housing developments, and strip malls all seem to be more important. On the other hand, frost and the possibility of Washington D.C.’s cherry trees not blooming as expected is a newsworthy event, and most recognize that without trees and their ability to absorb carbon dioxide, life as we know it would cease to exist.

Perhaps trees would occupy a more stable space in the United States if more of us embraced science writer Ross Anderson’s idea that: “Trees and forests are repositories of time; to destroy them is to destroy an irreplaceable record of the Earth’s past” (this also seems like a good time to mention that Battles’ research is impeccable).

Battles includes many of these records — or more simply put, stories — from literature and from history in Tree. He goes back to medieval times to talk about the term “forest”, a word that today is most often partnered with “rain” or discussed in terms of “vanishing”. Once upon a time, though, as Battles explains, forests had to fit a very specific criteria. According to an 1883 text by John Croumbie Brown, forests of bygone eras not only had to “contain animals for the chase; trees or underwood for the shelter of them”, but they also had to “belong to a sovereign”. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the “political economics” of the forest led to the creation of the Magna Carta.

Another story relates to Henry David Thoreau, his essay “Wild Apples”, and his theory that the “feral apple’s demise” was “in part at the feet of the temperance movement”. Feral apples were often used to make hard cider, one of the most popular beverages of the 19th century — until the temperance movement took root. While Thoreau didn’t drink, he still lamented the loss of the feral trees and worried “I fear that he who walks over these fields a century hence will not know the pleasure of knocking off wild apples. Ah, poor man, there are many pleasures which he will not know!”

Of course, hard cider is popular again today, but it doesn’t come from feral apples or feral trees. In 2017, orchards are planned, organized, mapped, categorized, and even engineered. Regular cider (the non-alcoholic kind) is nearly impossible to find, as it is perhaps “too wild”, and many American grocery stores cannot sell beverages that haven’t been pasteurized. And let’s face it: pastured cider is really just glammed up apple juice. Apples that don’t brown (but don’t seem to be technically considered GMO) are set to hit the US market in 2017 (and may already be available in select markets). Somehow, I don’t think Thoreau would be pleased, and perhaps Americans shouldn’t be, either.

Despite the strange things Americans do to trees — wanting them to grow around highways and homes, asking them to inhale unthinkable amounts of carbon dioxide, expecting them to “keep to their own edges” — Battles seems to believe the future of trees is pretty secure. Our future, well, that’s another story. After all, Battles notes “the tree was already ancient when humankind entered the world”, so now thousands of years and unimaginable amounts of carbon dioxide later, perhaps it’s not completely surprising that “we’re forced to contemplate a world of trees without us.”

RATING 8 / 10