A meditation on what we receive from the oldest living things.
While travelling in Tuscany in 2008 our family had a wonderful time, staying in apartments and agritourism sites. After several days in Firenze, a side trip to Venezia and a lovely week in a house on the island of Elbe, looking out over the Mediterranean, we arrived at Fattorio di Fubbiano, an organic winery and olive oil plantation in the hills east of Lucca.
The vineyards on this hillside were a favourite of the Roman emperors. The grapevines stretch out over acres, along with groves of ancient olive trees. During our tour of the property, following our host Simonetta, we were told that several years earlier an unexpected icy winter wind coming over the Alps had shocked all the olive trees so badly that many local growers, assuming that their trees were dead, had ripped them out. At Fattorio di Fubbiano they decided to wait and see. Sure enough, with the warmth of spring, the ancient weathered trunks sprouted new branches, and their olive trees recovered.
Olive trees can grow for many long years. When you eat an olive, it could have come from a tree more than a century old. But they are not the oldest trees. An oak tree in Dame Judi Dench’s Garden (featured in the video on this page)was determined to be 150 years old. And that is nothing, compared to the Sequoia redwoods in California, some of which are over 1000 years old. In the White Mountains of Inyo County, California a bristlecone pine tree is growing that is 4,582 years old! Trees are the oldest living individual organisms on our planet. They deserve our respect and preservation.
In 1972 I attended a conference on the Future of Forestry. I was living in Vancouver at the time, where I had been working as a consulting ecologist for regional districts. The talk at that conference was focused on “The Fall-Down,” meaning the rapidly approaching end of the old growth forests. More than ninety percent of these ancient trees were already gone.
We knew that the remaining stands were precious for their unique genetic heritage, and for the local ecosystems they supported. There was no comparison between these ancient forests and what remains, or even regrows, after the area is clear cut. So the talk at the conference was all about “what do we do now?” There were intense discussions about ways to retain the value of the remaining stands, preserve ancient forests, while still being able to proceed with some logging as we replanted and waited for second growth timber to produce harvestable wood.
Maps of the coast reveal that almost nothing is left of the original forests of the Pacific Coast of Canada. Logging of ancient cedar, spruce and fir has stripped away whole ecosystems and left only tiny stands of original forest. And suddenly now, that too is being logged. My friends out in BC report that private companies are being allowed by the provincial government to remove whatever is left.
Why is this troubling? Just as in our gardens, the preservation of ancient genetic variety makes sense in the forest. There is nothing mysterious about this: diversity allows for biological adaptation, a capacity that is essential in an era of extreme climate change. So why is this end game logging being permitted? For profit, of course, profit hugely increased by the rarity of old growth timber, wood that is so much stronger, denser and (in the case of red cedar) more rot resistant than second growth.
We receive subtle benefits from these ancient trees: not only because of the carbon dioxide they absorb, the moisture they breathe into the atmosphere and their resilience in the face of climate change. But because they remind us that as creatures sharing the planet with them, and as gardeners in our own gardens and farms, we are part of an ancient pattern of life.
The insights that emerge from an understanding of trees are many. Here is one to consider: the roots of the maple trees below our house (a mere fifty years old) are constantly reaching out, searching for food. The nutrients these roots gather move through the phloem, the conductive tissue of the trees, up the trunks and out through the branches, to settle in the tissues of leaves where they feed photosynthesis, converting carbon dioxide into oxygen, sugar and water. The leaves retain any leftover food. After those leaves turn colours and dry, then fall to the ground each autumn, we gather a harvest of rich, compostable material to feed our gardens.
And so, along with shade, climate remediation, fruit, nuts, maple sap and yes, olives, we receive a bounty of free fertilizer to help us grow even more food. All this comes to us thanks to trees, the oldest living things on our planet.