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Feature - Issue #11

Alive and Enchanted

Words by Ben Rawlence
Photograpy by Catherine Hyland

The UK lacks forest. Regeneration offers a chance to move beyond current systems and create a soul connection with woodlands - a chance to rejoin nature.

There is something profoundly wrong with a solitary pine. Pines are social creatures; they rely on other trees for sharing resources through fungal networks. When mature, pines transport carbon underground to support young saplings, and, in old age, carbon and nutrients travel in reverse, the young trees helping out the older ones. The natural lifespan of a Scots pine is up to 600 or 700 years within the healthy network of a forest. Scotland’s surviving granny pines are mostly under 400. Major dips in the pollen record suggest this is because of the massive extraction of trees from 1690 to 1812. According to dendrochronologist Rob Wilson: “You can still see the effects of the Napoleonic Wars in the structure of the forest.” But there is another factor.

Lone trees are prone to sudden dying before the end of their normal life expectancy. Could it be that these matriarchs of our oldest forests, these stewards of our ancient ecosystems and midwives of so much industrial wealth are, in their old age, lonely? Native American stories tell of solitary trees “speaking” to humans of their loneliness, asking people to plant them neighbours. Are the granny pines missing the companionship, and the meals on wheels, provided by their children? Are they mourning the ghost of the forest?

Britain is desperately trying to increase the size of its woodlands. At 13% forest cover, the UK is far behind the European average of 37% and the global average of 30%. Moreover, much of that 13% is plantation – a single crop grown for timber – with very little diversity of species living among the trees or beneath them. Indeed, plantations are not really forests at all.

We are all, to a greater or lesser extent, the victims of historical forces that have built structures of power over centuries based on a very blunt assessment of value. For a tree, only the timber fetches a price at market, not the soil that grew the tree or the insects that pollinated it, the sun that fed it or the rain that watered it. But the community of forest that is home to so many species has no price.

‘In the forest you are part of something magical and huge where every step is simultaneously an act of destruction and of creation, of life.’

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