While we were obsessing over the self-obsessive one, people who take a much longer view of things have been debating the question of whether trees talk to one another, experience pain, have sex and send out signals of distress about the eminent collapse of this little planet of ours.
Trees are sociable, it turns out, and even somewhat selfless, nurturing their drought-stricken or wounded arboreal siblings. They share nutrients. They suffer when a big arm is lopped during the growing season, or a crown is next to an all-night light. Some trees warn other trees of danger by releasing chemical drifts.
I found these relatively new discoveries not long after a giant fir came crashing down in my front yard during a freakish windstorm, nearly crushing my family and our century-old house. We were spared by 6 inches. But a question remained: What was the big guy trying to say?
Perhaps it has something to do with the 129 million trees that died from climate-change-aggravated drought and beetle infestation in California, or the 5 million acres of formerly sylvan green wiped out in Colorado by the same plague. Or maybe it’s a president who dictated the largest single rollback of public land protection in our history, putting a national monument and its ancient flora at risk from predators with political connections.
Trees are fighting back, helped by others doing the talking for them. Sadly, we are past the point when an appeal to our better angels does any good. “It is worse than boorish, it is criminal to inflict an unnecessary injury on the tree that feeds or shadows us,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. “Old trees are our parents, and our parents’ parents, perchance.” A lovely sentiment, but largely futile.
Instead, in this moment of mercenary politics, those of us who are out-proud tree-huggers have taken to citing the bottom line. And the winning argument here is simple: Trees are a vast source of wealth. A single national forest, the 1.7-million-acre Mount Baker-Snoqualmie east of Seattle, may be worth more in total value than the annual revenue of Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, according to a recent study by the Wilderness Society.
The clean water, timber, cultural and recreation opportunities of this one forest deliver more economic value than all of the failing U.S. coal industry. The entire outdoor recreation sector generates at least $373 billion in gross domestic product, more than the gas, oil and mining industry, the government reported this year.
“I have mixed feelings about monetizing the geography of hope,” said Peter Jackson, a writer and conservationist, using one of the best-known phrases of Wallace Stegner. A wilderness in the Cascade Mountains is named for his late father, Sen. Henry M. Jackson, a giant of Congress from an era when support for purple mountain majesties was bipartisan.
So why is the Trump administration trying to prop up unprofitable coal plants, in a move that could cost consumers hundreds of millions of dollars, while an unsubsidized industry based on nature’s glories has to fight the administration? Plus, coal-burning, one of the biggest producers of earth-warming carbon, is an indirect killer of those life-supporting and economy-enhancing forests.
The president is a fossil fool, but beyond that, he’s never taken a view that extends to the world that Ivanka’s grandchildren will inherit. His bias for dirty 19th-century energy is based on pleasing a coal industry that has gone from employing 883,000 people in the 1920s to barely 50,000 now. If the free-market philosophy were still the bedrock principle of governing Republicans, coal would be left to the creative destruction of capitalism.
Beyond the economic value, trees force us to measure time in epochs. In 1870, Victor Hugo planted a tree outside his home in exile on the island of Guernsey. His hope was that when the little sapling was a mighty oak, Europe would be unified. The European Union and Hugo’s plant are still standing, though the tree may be in better shape than the EU.
A spruce in Sweden, which sprouted sometime after the last ice age, is 9,500 years old, having survived all the upheavals of history and weather. But will it live through the current era?
In “The Hidden Life of Trees,” an international best seller by Peter Wohlleben, and “The Overstory,” a masterful new novel by Richard Powers, forests are main characters, crying to be heard. In the summer, Powers writes, water traveling through a single chestnut “disperses out of the million tiny mouths of the undersides of leaves, a hundred gallons a day evaporating from the tree’s airy crown into the humid Iowa air.”
Some scientists think it’s wrong to anthropomorphize trees. They aren’t sentient life-forms and can’t really “talk” like that grumpy apple tree Dorothy encounters on the way to Oz. But surely they communicate, through a system that foresters compare to the neural networks of humans. It’s worth a listen.