Three hundred to four hundred million years ago earth was toxic. The amount of carbon dioxide in the air made human and animal life impossible. Trees evolved from ferns and evergreens into what we know as the flowering kingdom, giving life to all the species on earth that need oxygen.
Trees made human life possible and as we destroy the world's forests we are unwittingly wiping out the lifeblood that sustains us. In conveying this message to the public, botanist Diana Beresford-Kroeger has written a homage to the power of trees in her new book, The Global Forest: 40 ways trees can save us.
Diana, pictured left, is one of the world's experts on how trees chemically affect the environment. Her groundbreaking research is helping us understand how trees not only breathe and communicate, but also reproduce, heal and nurture. You have simply to read one of the 40 short chapters of her book, which weaves together ecology, science and spirituality, to be absorbed into the invisible, magic world where ‘the kings of the forest' reside.
She works from her ‘laboratory' in Canada, her own garden which contains over includes over 100 species of trees and is designed to bring in pollinating insects and huge numbers of birds. ‘The book is the peak of so many things I am trying to do here in Canada. The environment is being degraded at a rate that would blow your mind away. I have a world-class garden here, I'm trying to save all kinds of species and repatriate them into my garden. The book is my song from the heart,' she says.
Replanting the global forest
Three years ago, following a dinner invite from a local businesswomen, Leslie Lee, who had read another of her books, Diana was involved in creating the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, hatched by a small group of people - some with money, others with scientific knowledge but all with a conservationist passion. Diana is the group's scientific advisor, hand picking the various species that will make up a ‘living archive' of the world's old growth tree species.
The idea is this: the world's ‘grandmother tree' species, in some cases trees that have survived up to 4,000 years are sought out, cuttings are taken from them and they are reproduced for replanting where their eco-function will do the most good for climate change, pollution, water purification and a host of ecosystem services.
The bristlecone pine ignored at the tops of Rocky Mountains, the lone Burr oak, the hickory, Africa's mahogany, the great English oak, birch, Scots pine, Australia's baobabs...
The list goes on, but some of these are the most thirsty tree species, sucking in vast amounts of carbon dioxide. The idea is to put ancient trees into forested areas so that the genome gets put into the forest, to help withstand climate change.
The team have been busying away from the base in Traverse, Michigan for the last three years, under the radar, collecting and propagating species.
An army of tree planters
How are you going to do it, I ask? ‘People,' she says, ‘ordinary people'. Her advice, her request, is for everyone to plant a tree. She says the hand-picked old growth species will be available in nurseries eventually, and some are now available on the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive website
She's got a great tip when you do plant your tree. Save your soup (beef, lamb, pork) shin bones, wash them off (and freeze if need be), when you dig a hole put the bones at the bottom of the hole, cover with a bit of soil and then plant your tree on top. She claims doing this gives you 25 years worth of fertiliser.
There are many ways trees can help benefit their local communities. Birch species are good around hospitals as they contain a natural antidote to cancer, she says. Scots Pine fit well in small towns and villages as they have anti-viral and anti-bacterial compounds and are very good for children.
As for a ‘living library' in England, she may need to wait until the dust settles after the Royal Wedding. ‘I'm hoping that Highgrove will house one living library. I asked Prince Charles whether he would be interested but I haven't heard back. I know that he's busy with Prince William's marriage,' she says.
Ways we depend on trees:
1. Forty per cent of tree compounds are medicines today, from aspirin to cancer treatment and prevention.
2. Trees release compounds into the air which feed clouds and shape current weather patterns. It's on our weather patterns that civilisation depends on. You can't put London in the middle of the Sahara Desert...
3. Trees help maintain appropriate nitrogen levels in the oceans. Too much nitrogen and there are toxic algal blooms.
4. Trees are important for birds. In particular, the giant migratory birds sit on tree limbs, thus exposing their breath to the sunlight, the sunlight changes it to vitamin D - which helps the birds clean up feathers and goes into egg laying.
The Global Forest: 40 ways trees can save us
by Diana Beresford-Kroeger (Particular Books, £14.99)