Trees and humans in the new Wood Age

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Humans are a technological species. We imagine objects that do not yet exist and bring them into being; we experiment with existing tools and devices and try to improve them. Sometimes we come up with something totally novel: the wheel; the smelting of metal; the artificial stone we call pottery; the fore and aft rigged sailing ship.

It starts with the basic devices, some of them so old that they belong in the repertoire of our ancestors, Homo Heidelbergensis and Homo Erectus: wedge, spring, windlass, cordage, float, snag, hammer and lever. From the humble digging stick used to find roots and fend off predators to the axe, spear and snare, they mastered the material world around them. With such technologies humans achieved evolutionary advantages over their rivals in the animal world; began to explore and adapt; eventually to dominate. These devices were discovered by exploring the properties of trees and woods over many thousands of years. If trees were not our teachers, we were certainly their pupils.

The first carpenters used stone tools to split, trim, chisel, gouge and plane. They learned to fashion shelter from the materials they could harvest sustainably from their local woods: they lived in and belonged to an organic, concentric world. They knew the properties of the trees in their woods and used them for medicine, food, building materials and tools; for fuel and storage and much more. In Trees of Life I explored how communities around the world value and nurture the trees that sustain them – those whose roots feed their soil or whose leaves shade their crops; trees with bark they can use as paper or cloth or to make canoes with; trees whose fruits are rich in nutrients and flavour for cooking; trees that can play a central role in their spiritual and cultural world views. Those cultural ecologies are our most precious and enduring legacy.

When I write about trees, woodlands and our relations with them, I am writing just as much about our cultural achievements as I am about nature. Shakespeare’s Globe theatre was as much a model of society as it was of his imaginary Forest of Arden; and when he asked his audience rhetorically if his players could ‘cram within this wooden ‘O’ the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt’, at the start of Henry the Fifth, he was consecrating his new theatre as the semi-natural setting for the complex psychodrama of human life set in a thoroughly wooden world. The same might well go for those unnamed communities who came together thousands of years ago to build the enigmatic seahenge or carved idols to stand in their sacred groves. And is there any more marvellous and sophisticated achievement in human history than the violin? From a split log used as a wedge to a thunderously grinding watermill or the magnificent roof of Westminster Hall, wood is the material of our technological evolution. In The Museum of the Wood Age I argue that all of human history has been one long Age of Wood, right up until the late 18th century when iron and steam became the dominant material technologies of a new, onrushing world.

In 2020, during a brief window between lockdowns, I spent a week in the densely wooded Sussex Weald with Ben Law, famous for having built that marvellous wooden house in an episode of Grand Designs. The house still stands and Ben is still a passionate advocate of woods and trees and their value as the material embodiment of a new Wood Age. To spend time in Prickly Nut wood is to watch people and trees working in harmony, each sustaining the other. I envy him his acres of sweet chestnut, cut on regular cycles from trees that have been sustainably managed for hundreds of years and will go on dong so. They too are cultural artefacts.

My own working relationship with trees has taken a different direction,as I recounted in The Wisdom of Trees. I know – as an archaeologist and as a woodsman – the value of ancient woodlands: their veteran trees supporting hundreds of species; their incredibly biodiversity – the enormous biological richness stored in their precious, irreplaceable soils. My journey is undertaken in the company of young trees – sometimes grown from seed, sometimes taken from nurseries, sometimes adventitiously turning up on my land. I used to think that new plantations were inferior – they don’t have many of the habitat and carbon-trapping virtues of their elders; and they don’t feel the same, for sure. But I have come to see native woodland plantations as something special in their own right: unique social ecologies. Like one’s children, they are learning to be what they will become; they are fragile, easily damaged and need plenty of attention.

But when a ten-year-old oak produces it first acorn or wasp gall; when a hazel is old enough to yield cut rods to make a hurdle; when the first bird comes to pluck the seeds from a Scots pine you have grown from the seeds of a Scots pine you planted yourself, you are experiencing a special sort of magic. And, better, all this is going on at a height and scale matched by the children who come to play and learn there. They grow up together. Plantations offer a unique window over fifteen or so years when they invite people in to share their childhood.

Sheep farming, wheat-growing, potato-cropping and cattle-rearing are part our our cultural tradition and our economy, too. But they are mechanised and exclusive, uninviting. Young woodlands are places where volunteers, school pupils, nature-lovers and those needing to heal parts of their soul can come and share in the life of trees. The social ecology of young woodlands is an underestimated resource. That’s why it is so frustrating to see the South Field scheme fall victim to such narrow-minded fundamentalism.

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