Ancient Trees

In ancient trees, dendrochronology, logging, oaks by Kate Innes

Old Knobby – from Ali Martin Arboriculture –

On familiar paths through the woods recently I have been knocked out of my walking trance by the glaring absence of trees. On four of my favourite routes, widespread ‘harvesting’ operations are taking place, involving indiscriminate destruction of the deciduous trees around the harvesting area, widening the tracks to allow large diggers and cutters, crushing bluebells and other wild flowers and, of course, cutting down hundreds of trees in their prime.

I have plenty of wooden furniture in my house, as many people do.  I use paper.  I have a log burner.  I do understand that many species of trees are grown for timber, and I do understand that farmers and foresters must keep their tracks clear to allow access.  My head understands all these things, but the rest of me is unable to accept the results of this economic activity.

Behind my feelings about logging is my belief that these remarkable plants, which are able to create  air, beauty and fertile habitats, should be cut down, when necessary, carefully and without collateral damage to other well-established native trees.  Areas of woodland beauty, such as glades and wooded tracks, should be considered as more than just the sum of their parts.  Specimens of particular importance and age should be protected and not treated as though they were weeds.

Some species, such as sweet chestnut, oak and yew, are capable of living for over a thousand years. Ancient trees in the UK tend to survive in the old medieval forests and parks, or because they were once boundary markers or local meeting places.  The Woodland Trust record and protect these trees;  these links explain their work:
ancient tree hunt link
what are ancient trees and where to find them

Besides their compelling presence in space and time, old trees are also able to help people understand their own history. Tree ring width can be used as a measuring tool to reckon the age of timbers found in all sorts of intriguing objects including: ships/houses/panel paintings/dug out canoes. These ancient survivors of variable climate and human requirements contain a record of our shared experience.

The relationship between tree rings and the characteristics of a particular year’s weather was first commented upon by Leonardo da Vinci (unsurprisingly) and the many applications of this link were developed gradually over the centuries.  The science of dendrochronology is now commonly used to date wooden objects found in archaeological excavations and to calibrate radio-carbon dating. Thanks to the careful work of scientists around the world, there are now several sequences of tree ring data stretching back thousands of years.  These sequences show us variations in climate within countries and across continents.  They help us to understand the context of human material culture and written narratives.  They show us what pressures were at play in the distant past.

Our impact on the environment, our experiences, are also being recorded by the trees growing all around us.  But if we keep cutting down trees in their prime, how will these sequences develop?  If we do not value and care for the ancient ones, how will we know where we fit into wider history?  If trees eventually across the world are principally grown only for timber, will any ancient trees remain stretching back to this time, for our descendants to decode in a thousand years?

The Silton Oak, Dorset from bespoke green oak website

From this distance it could be dead –
the trunk crazed, limbs drunk,
sparsely haired, clutching
at its scattered leaves.
Inside the hollow oak, the years’
marbled, directionless lines
stretch, contract – are petrified.
Deluge and drought
and the many steady seasons –
a geological section in miniature.
When I put my hands on the inner rings,
I feel a force – not history, but experience.
How long since it was acorn?
How long till I am oak?

Kate Innes