One of the great traditions I have learnt to endure as a new(ish) Canadian living in Toronto - enjoy is too strong a sentiment - is the final scramble to gather up the remaining harvest of leaves in time for the last yard waste collection of the year. This year the leaves are still falling (it’s early December) and a stubborn few remain green on the trees and bushes, unusual even for this most temperate of Canadian cities. Still, faced with the prospect of a three month collection drought, I managed to gather the piles of brown and yellow detritus, already turning to mulch in the late autumnal rain, into eight giant brown-paper bags. It is always a time for contemplation and, I must admit, I marvelled at each of the discarded little engines I was raking up: The size, shapes and colours dictated by their species, but all with the same goal, turning Carbon Dioxide into Oxygen. Turning what we now consider pollution into breath.
To the north of me lies the biggest land-based biome on the planet, the Taiga, that vast forest that stretches around the globe through North America, Asia and Europe. Like their city cousins, the deciduous brethren of the Taiga are now denuded. They sleep, waiting for the return of spring, when their photosynthesis begins again. This is the breathing of the planet, a year at a time. The breathing that supports most animal life.
To look at them, trees appear to be the most solitary of living entities. Each stands in its own immobile, quiet and permanent isolation. More akin to infrastructure than an active and vibrant member of a vast society. It seems, however, that such appearances are deceptive. Research now shows that trees cooperate with each other, forming a giant underground network of communications, that spreads not only across individuals, but across species. Using symbiotic underground fungi, trees pass nutrients to each other and offer protection against bacteria, bugs and other invaders. In the summer, when conifers can be shaded by the broad leaves of the maples, silver birches and oaks, those trees will pass carbon over to their sunlight depleted comrades. In winter when the deciduous leaves have fallen, the conifers, still photosynthesizing, return the favour.
Cooperation such as this, though without the medium of buried fungi (truffles excepted), is part of the wider human experience too. Evidence suggests that cooperation forms a crucial part in the development of the social networks of hunter-gather societies. New studies show that as we moved to create permanent settlements through agriculture, as we plowed up the forests for crops, as we domesticated animals, our own egalitarianism faded. This permanent taming, then ownership, of the land, seems to have been the starting point of the inequality and social hierarchies we see today.
One of the most interesting countries my wife and I travelled to on our honeymoon, was Jordan. We wanted to see Petra, but in the process of visiting that amazing city we also got to see some of the other wonderful sights of that beautiful part of the world. I specifically remember the Mosaic map in the Byzantine church we visited in Madaba. This map of the holy land has Jerusalem proudly dominating its centre stage, as it still does today in the politics of the region, but it was the map’s periphery that most interested me. Shown in tile form was the treed expanse of the Jordan Valley, replete with lions and antelope. The fauna of the savanna of Africa living in what is now a rather dry, harsh and forbidding environment. When I asked about this, our Guide was clear as to what had led to this desertification: Deforestation by the Romans. Whether this mass removal of trees was to punish the population for the Jewish revolts of the First Century AD, or to provide Pompey the Great with timber needed to build his armada to defeat the Cilician Pirates, or just to cope with the increasing urbanization of the Roman Empire, he could not say. The effect was there to see in the countryside around us, though. Jordan is now one of the least forested countries on the planet with less than 2% forest coverage compared to 15% globally. The Jordanian lions and antelope are no more.
Of course, even closer to home, similar deforestation is everywhere to be seen around us. Every farm, every town, every city in Ontario, below the tundra, is occupying land that used to be forest. It is this rapid ‘taming’ of the environment, deforestation in centuries rather than eons or millennia, all on a global scale, that has put such stress on the fauna and flora that surrounds us. My seven year old daughter recently asked me what was causing so many animals to become endangered or even extinct… “And don’t say us.” she said, with a sad finality. I smiled, handed her the perfect apple slices I had cut for her snack, and went back to reading The Lorax.
* with apologies to Hogarth