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Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Browne

The life of trees…


Bristlecone pine rings: they are so fine and dense that over a century of life can be embodied in a single inch of wood

The oldest of the living bristlecone pines were saplings when the pyramids were raised.  The most ancient, called Methuselah, is estimated to be more than 4,800 years old.  As Ross Andersen explains in Aeon, their rings tell tales of climates past… and hold portents of climates to come.

The burning of books and libraries has perhaps fallen out of fashion, but if you look closely, you will find its spirit survives in another distinctly human activity, one as old as civilisation itself: the destruction of forests. Trees and forests are repositories of time; to destroy them is to destroy an irreplaceable record of the Earth’s past. Over this past century of unprecendented deforestation, a tiny cadre of scientists has roamed the world’s remaining woodlands, searching for trees with long memories, trees that promise science a new window into antiquity. To find a tree’s memories, you have to look past its leaves and even its bark; you have to go deep into its trunk, where the chronicles of its long life lie, secreted away like a library’s lost scrolls. This spring, I journeyed to the high, dry mountains of California to visit an ancient forest, a place as dense with history as Alexandria. A place where the heat of a dangerous fire is starting to rise…

Deforestation began in prehistoric times, but it was not always as brutal or efficient as it is today. Our primate ancestors practised a kind of deforestation by migration, trading the treetops for terra firma and the forests for open plains. Humans are a different story. Anthropologists suspect we have been cutting down trees for as long as we have been around, mostly to harvest raw material for shelter and fire, but also to construct crude bridges to cross rivers into new landscapes. For a time, our tree-felling was no match for the regenerative power of forests. Indeed, today’s indigenous forest peoples demonstrate the human capacity to live within a forest’s natural limits. But over the past 5,000-10,000 years, our fast-growing civilisations have developed the technology to clear trees faster than they can grow back. In that short time — a slim fraction of the forests’ tenure on Earth — we have managed to destroy more than half of them. And we are getting better at it…

Mankind’s newest deforestation “tool”– climate change:

In 2005, a researcher from Arizona’s tree-ring lab named Matthew Salzer noticed an unusual trend in the most recent stretch of bristlecone tree rings. Over the past half century, bristlecones near the tree line have grown faster than in any 50-year period of the past 3,700 years, a shift that portends ‘an environmental change unprecedented in millennia,’ according to Salzer. As temperatures along the peaks warm, the bristlecones are fattening up, adding thick rings in every spring season. Initially there was hope that the trend was local to the White Mountains, but Salzer and his colleagues have found the same string of fat rings — the same warming — in three separate bristlecone habitats in the western US. This might sound like good news for the trees, but it most assuredly is not. Indeed, the thick new rings might be a prophecy of sorts, a foretelling of the trees’ extinction…

Over the course of 400 million years, trees built up a fertile new layer on the Earth’s surface, a layer that incubated entirely new ecologies, including those that gave rise to our ancestors. But now it is humans who spread out over the planet, coating its surface in cities and farms, clearing away the very trees that enabled our origins. This forest, like so many others, has become an intersection in time, a place where narratives of geologic grandeur are colliding. A place to put your ear to the ground, a place to confirm that even here, in the most ancient of groves, if you listen closely, you can hear the roar of the coming Anthropocene.

Read this moving story in its entirety at Aeon.


As we ponder pruning our purchases, we might say both hello and goodbye to Sir Thomas Browne; he was born on this date in 1605, and died on this date in 1682.  A devout Christian doctor (author of Religio Medici [The Religion of a Physician]), Browne was also a follower of Francis Bacon, an adherent of the Baconian dedication to enquiry, and as a consequence, a keen observer of (and writer about) the natural world… thus an early partisan in what we now call the Scientific Revolution.



Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 19, 2012 at 1:01 am

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