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Sunday, March 07, 2021

Centre of the Earth: Why trees are better than us and deserve greater respect

On Earth Day, we look at trees — that life force which keeps us moored and reminds us why the miracle of nature will always remain a gift unsurpassed.

Written by Stephen Alter |
Updated: April 22, 2018 6:35:13 am
stephen alter Trees are some of the most tolerant species on earth, almost always willing to accept the slings and arrows of human folly or fortune. (Courtesy: Stephen Alter)

Without a doubt, trees represent a higher form of life than Homo sapiens. Of course, most of them are taller than us, but that’s not what I mean. Over numerous millennia they have evolved into supremely successful families in the plant kingdom, much like certain dynasties that still rule portions of our planet.

Monarchies, however, may not be the most appropriate analogy since trees will undoubtedly hold their ground long after the last king or queen on earth has abdicated. It is also very likely that trees will outlive most republics too, though there is something distinctly democratic about their way of life.

On display at the Forest Research Institute (FRI) in Dehradun is the cross section of an enormous deodar tree (Cedrus deodara) that lived for 704 years until it was felled in 1919. According to a timeline painted on the rings of its trunk, this forest giant was a sturdy sapling when the Qutab Minar was built in 1192, marking the beginning of the Delhi Sultanate. Growing in the Tons Valley of the Central Himalayas, this noble deodar outlasted the Mughal Empire and could have possibly survived British rule, if it hadn’t been cut down.

The timber museum at FRI, where the relic is exhibited, has been panelled with polished planks of wood from 126 species of Indian trees. These are arranged in alphabetical order from Abies spectablilis, a fir from the Eastern Himalayas, to Xylocarpus molluccensis, a mangrove found in the Bay of Bengal. Colonial foresters who founded the FRI were committed to the commercial exploitation of India’s forests and the wood panelling in the museum reminds me of hunting trophies on the walls.

Though the FRI is a fascinating place to visit, I much prefer to observe and appreciate trees in their natural habitat. We can learn a lot from these arboreal sages. Trees are some of the most tolerant species on earth, almost always willing to accept the slings and arrows of human folly or fortune. Like laconic philosophers they listen more than they speak, though recently scientists have discovered that trees communicate constantly through fungal networks connecting their roots.

Peter Wohlleben’s entertaining and informative book, The Hidden Life of Trees, presents a popular account of recent discoveries by dendrologists (tree scientists) studying spruce forests in Europe and North America, who have coined the expression, “The Wood-Wide Web.” According to their research, we might even be able to argue that conifers invented the internet.

“But wait a minute!” you cry. “Trees can’t think, or speak, or invent things. They aren’t intelligent life forms. An oak or a pine tree could never become a president or prime minister!” Yes, of course, I understand your reasoning, but anthropomorphism can never be a logical premise and we should judge trees according to the broader standards of nature rather than our own limited capabilities. As politics proves, the world over, intelligence is not necessarily an indicator of success. (Though, if every tree was given the vote, we might have better governments.) Nature’s criteria, however, is based on the simple hard-nosed calculus of survival rates and proliferation. Until, perhaps, two centuries ago, trees covered most of the land on earth, before we began to harvest them.

rhododendrons, stephen alter First flush: The blossoming of rhododendrons is akin to a sexual orgy. (Courtesy: Stephen Alter)

India was once predominantly jungle until men and livestock began the insidious process of denudation. The fact that we have had to destroy other species in order to make room for our own survival proves that we are inferior beings. Botanical studies have shown that trees and other plants compete with each other in healthy, abundant conditions but when circumstances change and resources are limited they cooperate and even collaborate with each other to share nutrients and water.

Our human bodies, as well as some of our most popular inventions like cars or airplanes, take oxygen from the air and convert it into poisonous carbon dioxide. Trees, on the other hand, absorb CO2 and using the sun’s energy they convert it into sugar, while releasing oxygen back into the air. By any measure, this would seem to be a much more sustainable and beneficial approach to ensuring the continued existence of life on earth. While we are rapidly and thoughtlessly changing everything from climates to ecosystems, trees are doing all they can to maintain the balance of nature, fighting to preserve the elements we destroy.

“But trees don’t have feelings,” you complain. “They cannot fall in love!” Well, I’m not so sure about emotions, but trees probably define love in different ways.

Last year, I was fortunate enough to visit Sikkim and had an opportunity to trek through Himalayan cloud forests in the spring, when the rhododendrons were blooming. There is no better way to convince oneself that trees are sociable species. In 1847, the inveterate plant hunter, JD Hooker identified 36 different varieties of rhododendrons in Sikkim, 24 of which were new to science. Rhododendron jungles are some of the most cohesive communities in nature. Amidst the interwoven limbs and roots, it is impossible to tell where one tree begins and another ends. The flesh-coloured branches are entwined in a collective embrace that seems to go on forever.

The blossoming of rhododendrons is a sexual orgy that continues for several weeks, gradually ascending from one altitudinal zone to the next as various species come into bloom. Labial petals open and stamens thrust upwards while pollinators move in with an ardent flurry of wings to disperse the gene pool and ensure that the forest will flourish for generations to come. Witnessing the rites of spring in plants, the philosopher George Santana reflected on the evolution of flora into fauna.

The shift from the vegetable to the animal is the most complete of revolutions; it literally turns everything upside down. The upper branches, bending over and touching the ground, become fingers and toes; the roots are pulled up and gathered together into a snout, with its tongue and nostrils protruding outwards in search of food. Meanwhile, the organs of fertility, which were flowers, sunning themselves wide open and lolling in delicious innocence, are now tucked away obscurely in the hindquarters, to be seen and thought of as little as possible.

Anyone who has walked through a rhododendron forest in full flower can’t help but appreciate the uninhibited, sensuous pleasures that trees elicit. The Lepcha people, who are the original inhabitants of Sikkim, have a rich tradition of erotic folklore that assigns gender to almost everything from rivers to mountains. One Lepcha story even suggests that human beings originally wore their genitals on their foreheads much like rhododendrons.

The superiority of trees is evident in their longevity, their integration with other life forms, their communication networks and the beautiful innocence of their rituals of procreation. By all of these standards, our species falls short. So, the next time you meet a tree, remember to show it the respect it deserves.

Stephen Alter lives and writes in Mussoorie, surrounded by trees.

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