A long time ago, probably before anybody really thought about what they were doing, our ancestors lived in the trees. Trees gave them everything they needed then. But everything isn’t always enough, especially when your only dreams are of falling. So eventually they came down, their dreams evolved to include world domination, and they went on their merry way, migrating across the land. I think many people today would agree that this was a wise decision. I know I have a hard time imagining nearly eight billion people still living in the trees. It might be fun for a while, but when the trees lost their leaves in the fall it would have to be a pretty disturbing sight.
The thing is, trees were there when our ancestors needed them. Now, it seems, trees aren’t there. They’re somewhere else. Or so says Songlin Fei, professor of Forestry at Purdue University, who has been going around warning us that many trees are migrating. Now I’m aware that this might be viewed favorably by those who believe that the only good tree is a log. Some time back, President Reagan spoke pointedly for this side when he said, “A tree’s a tree. How many trees do you need to see?” And truthfully, nobody had an answer to this question. But it was enough to get others to ask, How much oxygen do you need to see? So perhaps thanks to this unexpected interest in zen koans, at least both sides could agree that when it comes to trees, numbers matter.
I must confess though that this news took me completely by surprise. I just wasn’t prepared for migratory trees. I guess I’ve sort of gotten used to trees being where I remembered them. And if it comes to it, I’m especially not prepared for scientists going around putting tracking tags on the 60,000 tree species of the world to see where they’re going. But if history tells us anything, I think we need to be prepared for the worst.
Sure, things have been getting bad for the trees for quite some time, and we’ve been looking the other way. I guess that’s why we didn’t see them moving. But from 350 million years ago when trees first became worthy of the name, to 12,000 years ago when axes first became worthy of the name, trees had it made in the shade. All the best paleobotanists agree there was no better time to be a tree. They were perfectly adapted to their environment and they knew it, though there might have been some who wished for a few less beavers. Who doesn’t? But you would not find trees trying to eke out a living in the desert for instance, or in the ocean. They knew their place and the world was better for it.
Around 12,000 years ago, humans finally realized their place in the world too, and it was to take every other plant and animal’s place. Axes and agriculture helped, and so did their new philosophy that adapting to the environment was a sign of weakness. But there were only four million people in the world then, and over six trillion trees. As this meant that there were about 1 ½ million trees per person, the numbers game still strongly favored the trees. Humans, however, had something else the trees apparently didn’t have then – freedom of movement. So before you know it, 12,000 years had passed, along with 54 percent of the world’s trees and any chance they would take humans back. Their numbers are now shrinking so fast they should be forgiven if they were to ask, How many humans are too many?
While we’re all engaging in fun riddles and playing the numbers game in one way or another, what I want to ask is, How many trees CAN’T we see? At the rate things are going, if you’re one of those people who hasn’t been able to see the forest for the trees, you could soon be asking, How many trees does it take to make a forest? Forty percent of all tree species are expected to go extinct in the next 25 years. Fifteen billion trees are cut down per year, primarily for industrial agriculture, mining, timber harvesting, and human infrastructure expansion. Even trees can do the math with these numbers.
Today, with three trillion trees in the world and 7.75 billion people, there are now only 347 trees per person. Hug them while you can, because at the current rate of deforestation you will soon have to join a tree safari to find them. And that’s not factoring in wildfires or other climate change induced losses. Which brings us back to Professor Fei and others who have observed that due to climate change, many of the remaining trees are migrating poleward. Fei himself studied 86 tree species in the Eastern U.S. and noted that in the last 35 years, 62 percent are heading north. If they’re making for the Canadian border, I hope they have their papers ready, because the risk of being turned into paper remains high.
I wish the trees all the luck in the world on their journeys. Trees take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, thus doing far more to tackle climate change then we can ever do by talking about it. If they want to migrate, I’m certainly not going to stand in their way. I may even plant a few, and encourage others to do the same. However I will not buy that hammock I’ve had my eye on until I know for sure that the trees are here to stay.