Trees and Human Ecology

By Jeff Joseph
Trees are such a ubiquitous part of our local landscape that it is all too easy to forget their essential involvement in our lives. It was for this reason that the first Arbor Day was celebrated in 1872. Each state chooses the date for this holiday to coincide with the optimal season for tree planting. In New York, Arbor Day is celebrated on the last Friday in April, which this year falls on April 27. While it is largely overshadowed by Earth Day, Arbor Day provides an opportunity to consider the varied roles that trees play in sustaining the planet and its inhabitants.

An inevitable consequence of our ‘modern’ way of life has been an ever increasing alienation from the  natural world. Another is the loss of historical perspective in determining our actions. Having moved beyond a subsistence lifestyle, our survival is no longer linked directly to the local environment. For our ancestors, life primarily revolved around the procurement of food, water, shelter, clothing, and fire, each of which was drawn from the local landscape. For us, participating in our highly industrialized culture and a globalized economy have created the possibility of living without regard for the ecological systems that support life or for the consequences of that disregard. This bargain has not come without a price.

While surrounded by material wealth, many of us feel a profound loss of purpose, meaning and connection, both to each other and to the natural world. In addition, we face two immense and largely unknown challenges in the coming years: the end of cheap fossil energy, and the potential for abrupt and severe climate change.

Having grown accustomed to the material base of our lives coming from “elsewhere,” we have largely lost sight of what the local resource base is, as well as how to use it in a truly sustainable way. As fossil energies become increasingly expensive and/or scarce, we need to continue to rediscover local knowledge and to recreate the deep relationships between ourselves and the local landscape that served countless generations prior to the oil age. These relationships are predicated on intimate knowledge of one’s home and its inhabitants, and on deliberate and sustained stewardship of it.  In our part of the world, that home is largely defined by its dominant vegetation–trees. If managed properly, our local trees and forests have the capacity to sustainably provide for many of our needs. 

Here in the Northeast we are, quite literally, surrounded by trees. Left to its own devices, the land on which we live wants to and will inevitably become a nearly continuous forest. This ease with which the land blankets itself with trees is due to a fortuitous combination of climate, soils, and precipitation that is the exception rather than the rule on our planet. It is a fragile balance that is highly susceptible to human impact. This fact is borne out in the land use history of our state.

 Prior to European settlement, circa 1800, New York’s landscape was over 90% forested. In seeking to remake the New World in the image of their European homelands, settlers of this land disregarded the highly evolved and ecologically appropriate subsistence practices of the native inhabitants and set about relentlessly destroying the forest to make way for row crops and livestock pasture. By 1880, forest cover in the state had been reduced to 25% of the overall land area, constituting a loss of nearly 20 million acres of forest. This loss of trees was accompanied by massive topsoil loss and loss of fertility, and soon thereafter, many farmers began to abandon these lands. With the widespread demise of the family farm, a dramatic rise in urbanization, and the transition to fossil energy, the forests began to reclaim territory and currently cover approximately two-thirds of the state. While this regrowth is a highly positive development, the health of these forests is another matter. Degraded soils, acid rain, the importation of exotic insects and diseases and unsustainable harvesting practices such as high-grading, in which only those trees with high monetary value are cut, leaving those of lesser value or genetic quality to repopulate the forest, have all left our forests weakened, less diverse and less resilient than they should be.

Any one of us can take a more active role in tree and forest stewardship, and spring–now–is an optimal time to work with trees.
Forest landowners can do much to enhance their properties, starting with learning what grows there now, as well as gaining information about soils and topography to help determine what species are best adapted to the specifics of the site. From there, a sustainable management plan incorporating tree planting and/or timber harvest can be developed based upon owner priorities, such as sawtimber, wildlife habitat, or biodiversity. Both the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the New York Master Forest Owner Program offer free information and consultation to aid in this process.

For the owner of a small or non-forested property, tree planting is an easy and highly effective way to provide food (fruit and nut trees), firewood, shade, windbreaks, bird or other wildlife habitat, leaves for mulch or compost, privacy, erosion control, and beauty, among many other benefits. By using permaculture or forest farming techniques, trees, shrubs, and garden beds can be planted in vertical tiers, allowing even the smallest of properties to provide significant quantities of fruits, nuts, vegetables and culinary and medicinal herbs.

This being said, owning land is hardly a prerequisite to enhancing one’s relationship with and care of trees. Anyone can use locally harvested and milled lumber for indoor and outdoor construction and can hire local craftspeople for this purpose. Additionally, many foods, medicines, fibers, and other craft materials can be wildcrafted sustainably from trees on public lands (or private lands with permission). Done properly, this type of caretaking enhances the abundance and diversity of the landscape. Trees and their products were essential to the lives of the native inhabitants of this area, and learning these skills is a highly fulfilling way to revive lost knowledge and begin the process of becoming native to this particular place on the planet. Primitive Pursuits is a local program that educates both youth and adults in these and other ancestral arts.

With respect to climate change, tree planting provides perhaps the easiest way for any individual to offset his or her carbon emissions into the atmosphere. As a growing tree photosynthesizes, it absorbs and stores atmospheric carbon, releasing oxygen for us to breathe while countering the effects of  the burning of fossil fuels. Globally, the annual net loss of forests amounts to over 18 million acres per year. Amazingly, this loss of forests contributes more to total carbon emissions than the entire global transportation system. Due to this dire need for tree planting, Dr.Wangari Maathai of Kenya, founder of the Greenbelt Movement and winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, has challenged the world to pledge to plant one billion trees in 2007 (see below).

In developing a caretaker’s attitude toward our trees and forests, it is essential that we avoid two of the most extreme fallacies that have hindered many efforts to date. If the natural world is not an inexhaustible source of resources destined for human consumption, neither is it a museum to be avoided or appreciated only from afar. Only through re-immersing ourselves into our local ecologies will we naturally begin to reclaim our place as members of the broader ecological community.
 

Jeff Joseph is a woodworker and Master Forest Owner volunteer from Willseyville.

Resources:
arborday.org (The National Arbor Day Foundation)
forestconnect.info (Connecting users with the information necessary to ensure the sustainability of private forest land productivity and ecological function.)
primitivepursuits.net (Connects participants to their native environment through the study of earth living skill and nature awareness)
greenbeltmovement.org (Wangari Maathai);
unep.org/billiontreecampaign (United Nations Environment Programme)
dnr.cornell.edu/ext/mfo (Master Forest Owner program);
dec.state.ny.us/website/dlf (Department of Environmental Conservation)

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