Trees Research Paper

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Trees are vastly older than the human species, and the study of trees is itself a vast subject. With its focus on human/tree interaction through the ages, this research paper considers trees as objects of human veneration, as sources of food or obstacles to agriculture, and as wildlife whose “behavior” is affected by human actions.

Trees evolved some 360 million years ago, long before the humans whose cultures venerated them throughout history for spiritual or aesthetic reasons. Human interactions, however, from the earliest hunter-gatherers in the forests of the Paleolithic, have posed threats to forests and woodlands. Today the most serious involves the “mixing up” of diseases and pests from one part of the world to another.

Trees before Humans

Trees are wildlife. They have existed for very much longer than people. Over 360 million years ago they evolved their own diverse agendas in life before they ever knew human contact. There are now tens of thousands of species of trees, each doing its own thing. All trees form partnerships with fungi, and many with ants and pollinating insects and birds. Different species grow from the tropics to the fringes of the arctic. Some grow in forests, some in savannas (grassland with scattered trees). Some are eaten by animals, some are distasteful or poisonous; animals evolved in turn to depend on trees in a multitude of ways, from the super-elephants that could break down and devour a big tree to the primates (forerunners of humanity) and birds that live on tree fruits and seeds. Some trees will burn and sustain forest fires (many trees depend on fire for their continued existence or propagation); others are incombustible. Some grow from seed, others from root sprouts.

In the last two million years, climatic changes of the ice ages, which rendered much of the world’s land area incapable of growing trees, disrupted this story of gradual change and adaptation. Trees found themselves having to make do with environments into which accidents of history thrust them.

Trees before Farmers

Next appear the hominids (other species of mankind) followed by the human species itself. In Africa, their land of origin, people probably dwelt in savannas, but over tens of thousands of years they came to inhabit both forests and the treeless landscapes of cold or dry climates. Humanity at this stage—small numbers of hunter-gatherers—would have interacted with trees in four ways:

  1. Tree fruits and other products presumably formed part of the human diet; thus Mesolithic people took advantage of the nuts in the vast extent of hazel woodland in Britain.
  2. People developed tools for felling small trees, which provided firewood and the material for wooden artifacts. (The name Stone Age is misleading because the stone tools that have survived were probably far less numerous than the wooden objects that have not been preserved.) As yet, the quantities involved would have been insignificant in comparison with the growth-rate of trees.
  3. Wherever savanna or forest happened to be flammable, people used fire in land management, manipulating the vegetation in favor of those animals and plants that they preferred.
  4. Early humanity was probably responsible for exterminating the super-elephants and other living bulldozers, which survive in an attenuated form in Africa. In turn this would favor the growth of trees.

Arguably, the last two examples represent the greatest effects that the human species has had (until now) on the world’s vegetation. Whether Paleolithic and Mesolithic people interacted with trees in cultural and spiritual ways, and whether this made any difference to the trees themselves, it is impossible to say.

Trees before Metals

Further interactions came within the last 10,000 years. After the last ice age, trees returned to northern countries like Britain; traditionally they are thought to have generated a continuous “primeval forest,” which in practice may have been more savanna-like, with areas of grassland. Then people acquired the Neolithic arts of farming, keeping livestock and growing crops, building permanent houses, and indulging in pottery, temples, graveyards, and all the trappings of settled civilization. These were invented separately in various parts of the world and spread slowly almost throughout the globe, except in Australia.

In temperate climates trees are the farmer’s enemy, because arable crops will not grow in shade. Common domestic animals require open grassland. They live in forests only in small numbers: they eat the low vegetation and when that is gone they starve. Hence farming began in savanna or grassland, since cultivation of forested lands required a great investment of effort in digging up trees and making fields. This is documented with European settlement in America; presumably it happened also in northern Europe in Neolithic times, but without the metal tools and labor-saving devices available to settlers in historic times.

In the tropics, matters would have been somewhat different because some tropical crops grow in shade and some of the trees themselves have edible fruit. So forests were not necessarily destroyed but sometimes converted to orchards and cultural savanna.

At this stage if not earlier, people made the momentous discovery that some trees sprout from the stump or roots when cut down, and the resulting poles are more useful than the original tree-trunk. Thus woodland management originated, of which the first certain evidence comes from the Neolithic of the Somerset Levels in England, some five thousand years ago. People could (with difficulty) fell forest giants, but big trees of most species have only one use before the invention of power tools—making dugout boats. The human population, although increased from hunter-gatherer times, was still too few to have more than a local effect merely by cutting down trees.

Thus began the characteristic ways in which settled people influence forests:

  1. Digging up trees in order to use the land for farming.
  2. Cutting down trees in order to use the timber or wood, either for carpentry or as firewood (including fuel for making pottery).
  3. Managing the remaining woodland in order to produce a permanent supply of trees small enough for one or two men to handle.
  4. Exterminating or reducing many of the wild herbivorous animals.
  5. Replacing wild beasts with domestic livestock, often in large enough numbers to hold back the regrowth of felled trees.
  6. Moving tree species around the world, for example the cultivated apple, brought to Britain by the Romans from its native Kazakhstan.

From small beginnings in the Neolithic these spread around the globe. It has been claimed that even in prehistory the reduction in forests was sufficient to have a significant effect on the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere. However, the land area involved seems too small to account for the known carbon dioxide anomaly—unless, perchance, the equation needs to include the efforts of Australian Aborigines and American indigenous populations in preventing forests from overrunning the vast areas of savanna in those continents.

A less familiar use of trees is pollarding or shredding, that is, cropping the branches to provide leaves on which to feed livestock. This began in the Neolithic, as cattle and sheep were introduced into forested regions that lacked grassland. It still continues in parts of the world where the growing season for grass is brief. Trees so treated are often very long-lived and grow into characteristic shapes.

Trees before Intercontinental Travel

In later prehistory uses of trees multiplied, especially in those cultures that invented metals. Bronze and iron made it easier to cut down trees and also greatly increased the need for fuel to smelt and work metals. The Romans had an abundance of fuel-using activities—baths, brickmaking, glassmaking, as well as domestic heating and making throwaway pots. Increasing population as well as developing technology multiplied the demands on the woods. Only locally, however, was mere human labor yet sufficient to cut down trees faster than they could grow again. It was possible to transport and work great trees for exceptional purposes, such as the roof timbers of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, but this was a rare achievement: in most cultures trees small enough to handle were the stuff of everyday uses.

By late prehistory humanity had come to affect virtually all the world’s mainland forests and savannas, at least by interfering with the relation between trees and herbivorous animals and (where applicable) by altering the frequency of fire. Islands such as those of the Mediterranean, which already had native mammals, were probably not much affected by human settlement; but particularly devastating was the later effect of introducing goats and pigs to oceanic islands like St. Helena, where the vegetation was not adapted to any sort of land animal. The last large areas without human contact were Madagascar and New Zealand, reached by humanity around 2,000 and 800 years ago. The world’s very last “virgin forests,” unaffected by humanity, were probably on some remote island in the eighteenth century.

Agriculture gradually spread from its homeland in the sparsely tree’d regions of southwestern Asia into the much more wooded and less congenial regions of Europe. Even now, little is known of how, still less why, forests were converted into farmland. Although arable farming in Italy was well developed from the Neolithic onward, even in imperial Roman times the great city of Rome transported most of its food supply from North Africa, leaving Italy to supply most of its timber and fuel.

England followed an apparently unusual pattern with its high density of population. By the Iron Age (the last few centuries BCE) most of the wildwood had given way to farmland or moorland, and the pattern of the modern countryside was already developing. Domesday Book, a survey of 13,418 English settlements commissioned by William the Conqueror in 1085), gives uniquely detailed statistics of a landscape in which only 15 percent of the area was woodland, less than France has now. This was reduced still further, to only about 6 percent by 1349, when the Black Death put an end to increasing population.

Woodland conservation probably originated from the need to maintain a continuous supply of smallish trees, but gained a further impetus as woods acquired scarcity value (i.e., the less of a commodity in existence, the more it is worth). In England many woods mentioned in medieval documents are still there today; they are recognizable by their distinctive names and shapes, by banks and ditches protecting the boundaries, the massive bases of coppice stools (trees that have been felled and have grown again and again), and special plants that do not spread into recent woodland.

Trees also grew in hedges and other non-woodland situations to supply timber and underwood. Orchard culture developed from Roman times onward in Europe and independently in other continents.

International trade in timber—both precious timbers like Cretan cypress and ordinary timber—became significant in the Middle Ages. England, the Netherlands, and Spain drew increasing quantities of pine and oak from the Baltic: not merely because they had insufficient woodland of their own, but because the exporting countries had developed equipment and skills for processing trees.

Destruction of forests to create farmland and pasture was not a one-way process. Trees grow very easily provided they are left alone. Whenever land was abandoned through pestilence or slave-trading or because people discovered an easier way to make a living, woods returned or savanna turned into forest. Thus in England many of the great wooded areas of the Middle Ages contain remains of farms, settlements, and monuments of prehistory or Roman times.

Cultural and Spiritual Qualities of Trees

Ethnographers have described a vast diversity of relations between people and trees other than the physically utilitarian, ranging from the overtly spiritual (a tree as the home of a god) to the purely aesthetic (a tree providing a “splash of color” in a formal garden).

Veneration and love of trees are characteristic of a very wide range of separate human cultures, but largely lack a time-dimension unless there are written records. The exact part played by the trees is often ill defined, since travelers who were half-informed about (or hostile to) another culture were often the ones to record information about it. Whether trees played any part in the ancient designs of Stonehenge or Angkor Wat is difficult to say unless remains of the trees themselves survive. Archaeologists are seldom perceptive in detecting and recording surviving trees among the ruins of ancient sites.

Individual trees have been widely venerated as the home of minor gods, as with the sacred trees in the ancient city of Rome, or the innumerable sacred trees (of many species) in the Shinto religion of ancient and modern Japan. Conversely, all the trees of a particular species, or big trees in general, may be venerated. Many religions have sacred groves surrounding temples and shrines, or in which rites and ceremonies are enacted. Particular species may play a part in celebrations, like laurel in the triumphs of ancient Rome, holly at Christmas, and palms (or some northern substitute for palms) on the Christian Palm Sunday.

Monotheistic religions celebrate specific sacred trees, at least unofficially. Jews, Muslims, and Christians venerated “Abraham’s Oak,” at Hebron in Palestine. England has its ancient churchyard yews, some dating from the early centuries of Christianity. In Wales, ancient yews are associated with the saintly hermits of the first millennium CE.

Trees in parks and gardens—other than fruit trees—are a feature of many cultures. The sacred groves of the ancient Greeks, like those of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in modern Japan, could range from natural woodland to formal gardens. The ancient Romans set up secular parks and planted trees in them, preserving as well the existing trees. How far this applies to other monumental cultures that have no written records is difficult to say.

Urban trees vary enormously. Most towns and cities of the Middle Ages were small and closely packed, seldom with room for many trees, apart from trees on sacred sites embedded in the city or on flood plains. With more diffuse fashions in town planning from the eighteenth century onward, urban trees became a normal feature, to the point that many European and American cities now have more trees than the surrounding countryside.

Appreciation of ancient and distinctive individual trees is widespread in human cultures, but is not universal. In England, ancient trees were preserved as giving an air of respectable antiquity to a new country-house park: this veneration ebbed in the mid-twentieth century but has since revived with renewed interest in “veteran trees.” Notable ancient trees occur in the Mediterranean, especially olives and chestnuts. In Japan, ancient trees are venerated as memorials to past emperors, are preserved even when dead, and are imitated in miniature in the craft of bonsai. Most ancient trees are monuments to cultural activities such as pollarding or orchard culture.

Trees also have medicinal and magical uses in many cultures, although not to a greater extent than other plants. Well-known examples are quinine bark as a treatment for malaria, or the British naturalist Gilbert White’s account of the “shrew-ash,” a tree used for treating the ailment of cattle supposedly caused by shrews running over them.

Trees in the Age of Machinery

The seventeenth to twentieth centuries saw further technological development. Many inventions had begun in a small way in the Middle Ages, but now were employed on a much larger scale and taken to woods in distant parts of the globe.

Discovery and colonization let loose European-style agriculture on other continents. Destruction of forest and savanna to make farmland, which in Europe had taken thousands of years, was compressed into decades in America and Australia. Even well into the twentieth century much of this was still done by multitudes of axe men and oxen, followed by special “stump-jump” machinery for cultivation.

Woods increased in other countries, especially where the ground was too infertile or too steep for mechanized farming. In eastern North America in the nineteenth century and in the Mediterranean in the twentieth, huge areas have reverted to forest.

Shipbuilding had previously had a local influence on woodland. But as ships got bigger and more numerous, went to distant continents and spent long periods rotting in tropical waters, and as European navies indulged in arms races, timber shipbuilding increased until for a short period (1800–1860) it was a major influence on European woodland and even affected tropical forests.

In the nineteenth century international trade turned intercontinental as North American pines and tropical hardwoods were widely used in Europe. People developed technologies for felling and converting big trees. Sawmills, another medieval invention, became more widespread and bigger until (with the help of railways) a use was at last found for rain-forest giants. In what was presented as a triumph of technology, the giant trees of the Pacific coast of the United States, of southwestern Australia, and of the more accessible parts of the tropics were converted into railway sleepers, fence posts, and paving blocks.

Forestry plantations—or areas of trees for timber— were invented in medieval Germany and independently in Japan. From then on it became possible (in theory) to grow trees for specific uses—assuming that those uses would still exist by the time the trees had grown. There have been several attempts at planting trees on a huge scale in dry countries, in the belief that this would restrict the spread of deserts. In the nineteenth century plantations became the staple of modern forestry; German or French forestry ideals and practices were imposed on countries like India and later Britain, marginalizing local practices and skills. By the late twentieth century native forests were being destroyed and replaced by plantations, in countries like Chile and Tasmania, on a scale that gives rise to great concern among conservationists. There is a risk that natural forests will become confined to steep slopes, nature reserves, and other areas beyond the reach of machinery.

Ancient management practices were neglected. In England competition from the increasing use of coal, transported by railways to rural areas, led to woods being abandoned as sources of fuel. Japan, like England, took to plundering other countries’ wildwood for timber supplies while neglecting its own woods.

Forests and savannas are threatened by the effects of humanity on mixing up all the world’s animals and plants. A famous example is the frivolous introduction of the grey squirrel from North America to Britain, where it has multiplied to an extent which threatens the very existence of some indigenous trees; it has also reduced the native red squirrel to near-extinction.

This applies to plants also. Why is it so easy to destroy tropical rainforest? Felling the marketable trees might not matter much: the redwood forests of Pacific America have grown again (although they have probably not recovered all the plant and animal life of the original forest). When trees are felled now, however, the site is often taken over by one of the giant “elephant-grasses” from another part of the tropics; these interfere directly with the regrowth of the trees, and also are very flammable, introducing fire to forests that previously did not have it and are not adapted to it.

Climate change has some effect. Tropical forest trees are growing faster than before, possibly in response to increased carbon dioxide in the air. Trees confined to mountaintops, as with some tropical cloud–forests and the “sky islands” of the southwestern United States, are threatened because they have nowhere to go in the face of warming climate. But the most significant effect of global warming is probably where trees have been introduced into places where they do not withstand increasingly hot summers, as with some beech and spruce plantations in England.

In the late twentieth century big game increased in many parts of the world to the point where plant and bird life, and even the existence of woods is threatened. England now has more deer than for over a thousand years, and more species of deer than ever before: deer eating woodland have become the top conservation problem. The same happens in much of North America, partly because hunters demand artificially huge numbers of deer to shoot, and even in Japan.

Probably the greatest threat to the world’s trees and woods is the effect of twentieth-century humanity in mixing up all the world’s pests and diseases. In the state of Ohio, in less than a hundred years, chestnut, most elms, many oaks, flowering dogwood, and fir have been removed, each by its accidentally introduced European or Asian fungus parasite. This leaves ash as the commonest remaining tree; the United States has spent millions of dollars in a vain attempt to keep out an Asian insect that destroys it. Such a story can be repeated in many other countries. At this rate, how much will be left in another hundred years?


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  2. Fairhead, J. & Leach, M. (1998). Reframing deforestation. London: Routledge.
  3. Frazer, J. G. (2007[1890]) The golden bough: A study in magic and religion. Charleston, SC: Biblio Bazaar.
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  5. Juniper, B. E. & Mabberley, D. J. (2006). The story of the apple. Portland, OR: Timber Press.
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  11. Williams, M. (1989). Americans and their forests. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

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