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Tree thoughts essay, for FEA Part 1

Forest Ecology Alliance is made up of ecologists, botanists, environmentalists, and citizen scientists who are working together to safeguard Country and native forests in this area.                27 Dec 2021

‘Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed —chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides, branching horns, or magnificent bole backbones.’ John Muir[i]


Before there were trees there were fungi (Prototaxites) that looked like trees, growing 8 metres high. One of the earliest forests from the cross over period (380MYA, Devonian) has left fossil evidence. The dominate tree was the tall Wattieza, palm-like with a crown of branches. At this time, forests began to dominate the planet and extract carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere (15 times today’s levels). Since that Devonian forest, evolution has created more than 60,000 species of trees.

We wouldn’t be here without trees. They terraformed the planet, creating varieties of habitats suitable for a wonderful diversity of flora and fauna. Neanderthals started to cut back trees and began slowly reshaping the European landscape 125,000 years ago.[ii] Around 50,000 years ago, indigenous Australians altered the landscape by removing undergrowth, thinning trees and opening up clearings to promote grasses through fire stick farming.[iii]

An estimated 3 trillion trees exist today, despite massive deforestation in parts of the world.[iv] However, that is half the number of trees that existed 12,000 years ago, at the beginnings of agriculture.

Most of us take trees for granted unless living in a desert or on a windswept island. They are ignored. This short essay looks at how special trees are.

Trees have hidden lives

As much as 40% of the mass of the tree is hidden beneath the surface. Most trees don’t have a taproot, and most roots travel through the top half metre of soil – the richest – but roots can extend radially from the trunk two times the height of the tree.

Science has recently shown that a forest is an underground network of mycorrhizal / tree mutualism. Trees create a unique and dynamic support system for fungi which fulfil a variety of roles within cells, between cells and on the surface of leaves from the canopy down to the root hairs. The plant donates organic molecules such as sugars by photosynthesis to the fungus and in return receives water and mineral nutrients from the soil.

An even more recent discovery is that trees communicate. Trees help each other, share nutrients and warn each other of danger.[v] Suzanne Simard has found that trees perceive each another, recognise neighbours, learn and adapt their behaviours, remember the past, and claims they even have a sense of the future.[vi]

Taking trees seriously

Trees are significant in many of the world’s mythologies. The Sumerian epic ‘Gilgamesh’ offered the vision of an immortal garden centred on a sacred tree. In Norse mythology, Yggdrasil is the centre to the cosmos and holds together the nine worlds of Norse cosmology. The Druids’ sacred tree was the oak. They used a tree language for divination with each letter named after the tree or shrub of which it is the initial (Beth B Birch; Duir D Oak; Luis L Rowan).

Photograph NSW, 1890s. Carved tree, www.joseflebovicgallery

Aboriginal groups in central NSW (mainly Gamilaroi and Wiradjuri) marked important ceremonial sites with complex designs carved into trees. Ronald Briggs has curated an exhibition of photographs and survivors of these works in museums and says, ‘I think of them as a warning to people walking by that this is a special area, a warning to you that the site is spiritually significant. They’re really quite powerful.’

The Bloodwood is a Gumbaynggirr sacred tree. The sap-like kino heals wounds and stopped bleeding during ceremony. Language groups and clans all had Totems, but personal Totems were usually given at birth, and/or during initiation. The late Gumbaynggirr elder, Mark Flanders, urged me to choose a personal Totem. After his untimely death, I dreamt I chose an angophora, so I did. Though my totem will never have the same force and power, or responsibility.[vii] We can never share their world, for their sense of time alone.

Pink Bloodwood, Jagun NR

The poet John Clare despaired of the loss of a pair of old elm trees growing near his cottage: ‘My two favorite Elm trees at the back of the hut are condemned to dye it shocks me but tis true the saveage who owns them thinks they have done their best & now he wants to make use of the benefits he can get from selling them . . . I have been several mornings to bid them farewell—had I £100 to spare I would buy their reprieves—but they must dye.’[viii]

William Blake hit the nail on the head: ‘The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.’[ix]  In an early spring just over a hundred years later, the English activist and fellow visionary, Edward Carpenter saw an isolated leafless beech tree: ‘Suddenly I was aware of its skyward-reaching arms and upturned fingertips, as if some vivid life (or electricity) was streaming through them into the spaces of Heaven, and of its roots plunged in the earth and drawing the same energies from below.’[x]

Trees need forests. As John Fowles, notes, ‘Evolution did not intend trees to grow singly. Far more than ourselves they are social creatures, and no more natural as isolated specimens than man is as a marooned sailor or hermit.’ [xi]

Chelsea Steinauer-Scudder exhorts us to, ‘Go outside and find a tree that you feel drawn to: perhaps in your front yard, growing in the park down the street, or newly met on a hike through the forest. Go out with the intention of dedicating time to spend with this tree. Set aside real, valuable time.’[xii]

Eco catastrophes

As we know in these Covid times, disease in plants and animals is spreading with the continual movement of people and goods around the world. What would Clare have made of Dutch Elm disease that ravaged British elms in the 1960s and 70s killing around 25 million trees. He would also have been angry at all the developments that have contributed to a devastating fall in British bird numbers.[xiii]

Forests in this region (the Mid North Coast) have experienced recent catastrophes. The fires of 2019-20 were unprecedented, burning more than 12 million hectares. For the first time, fire affected 50 per cent of the Gondwana Rainforests in northern NSW and parts of southern Queensland (from Lamington up to Main Range National Park). Only recently have the experts agreed that rainforest is the Australian forest of origins, our ‘living fossil’, not eucalypt. Though ‘no other comparable area of land in the world is so completely characterised by a single genus of trees as Australia by its gum trees.’[xiv]

Many animal species who used these forest habitats were already termed threatened (Rufous Scrub-bird; Eastern Bristlebird: Albert’s Lyrebird; Parma Wallaby) and of course the Koala. Then there are the trees, like the critically endangered Nightcap Oak (Eidothea hardeniana).[xv]

In response, an inquiry was established by the NSW Upper House, under the Chair Cate Faehrmann, MLC., to report on koala populations and habitat in New South Wales. Released 30 June 2020, the key finding was that Koalas could be extinct in New South Wales within 30 years unless urgent action is taken.[xvi] Forest Ecology Alliance (FEA) is fighting to prevent intensive logging of native forest, incorporating old growth rainforest and threatened flora and fauna habitat. Cate Faehrmann was presented with an FEA report (15 May, 2021) of scientifically driven arguments for saving Newry SF. The report collated important information of what is at stake for the future of this forest and its fauna and flora. [xvii]

The biggest threat to Koala survival is habitat loss – but logging and clearing is continuing. Climate change is predicted to exacerbate such fire events. In the light of these dangers, why are we still clear-felling native forest? Why? The committee’s draft recommendation for a moratorium on logging in public native forests did not receive majority support from committee members.

I recall visiting the Gulf of Carpentaria in 1980, when I was a visiting pom, travelling around Australia. I marvelling at the unending coastlines of mangroves that looked like they had been there for ever and would stay there forever.

Yet in 2015 a prolonged drought with almost three weeks when the maximum temperature never fell below 38.8C killed up to a quarter of the dense mangrove forests.[xviii] Three years later, two cyclones hit the area and wrecked mangroves struggling to regrow. The result was 400km of dead and damaged mangroves.[xix]

Eco catastrophes are becoming commonplace, both directly caused by human activity: the American ‘Dust Bowl’ of the 1930s, desertification in Africa, Bhopal, the Exxon Valdez Alaskan oil spill, Chernobyl – and indirectly though climate change. A study in Global Change Biology (Feb 2021) examined 20 struggling ecosystems worldwide and found 19 substantially altered and with slim chances of recovery. They are heading towards permanent collapse. ‘Our study reveals the manifestation of widespread, pervasive environmental degradation, and highlights global climate and regional human pressures acting together to erode biodiversity.’[xx]

Trees all taste different

Three genera, Eucalyptus, Corymbia and Angophora are collectively called ‘eucalypts’, commonly known as ‘gum trees’ from the kino some produce. There are over 700 species and they all taste different as Koalas know. They feed on Eucalyptus leaves and regularly browse several trees in rotation, called home trees. Their range is determined largely by available food trees. Koala populations prefer certain species to feed on. Here, on the Mid North Coast, they mainly feed on Forest Red Gum, Swamp Mahogany, Grey Gum and Tallowwood.

The future of koalas here, with such fragmented habitat from development and so many cars and dogs, appears bleak. In serious decline in NSW and Queensland, populations thrive in Victoria and South Australia but are a different sub-species using different food trees.

Tress provide food other than foliage: seeds, sap and other exudates, woody material, and nectar and pollen for animals, birds and insects.

The nature of eucalypt trees, their dense foliage, bark crevices, hollows and cavities, and their fallen limbs (logs) and foliage (leaf litter) provide shelter, refuge and breeding sites for a large proportion of the vertebrate fauna of forests and woodlands. In fact, hollows and crevices in eucalypts are used as refuges or breeding sites by more than 300 species of vertebrates in Australia.[xxi] There is a paucity of mature trees in Australia and it takes a hundred years for mature trees to create holes suitable for gliders, owls and such like. The dead wood also provides a rich habitat for bacteria, fungi, invertebrates and the animals that consume them, from centipedes to echidnas.

The ongoing cumulative loss of individual trees in farmland, urban and other developed areas has serious ecological implications. Farmland has become a desert for trees, yet adding one tree to an open pasture can increase its bird biodiversity from almost zero species to as high as 80.[xxii]

Just to note, trees smell different as well as taste different. Biologist David Haskell explores ways to experience trees through the sense of smell.[xxiii]


[i] John Muir, Atlantic Monthly, Aug 1897.

[ii] The evidence comes from an archaeological site called Neumark-Nord in Germany. ‘Neanderthals may have cleared a European forest with fire or tools’, Science Advances, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abj5567

[iii] See Bill Gammage, The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines made Australia, Allen and Unwin, 2012.

[iv] E. Benech et al., ‘GlobalTreeSearch: The first complete global database of tree species and country distributions’, Journal of Sustainable Forestry, vol 36:5, 2017.

[v] Peter Wohlleben, The Hidden Life of Trees, What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World, Greystone Books, 2015.

[vi] Suzanne Simard, Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, Penguin, 2021.

[vii] Bill Gammage writes, ‘totem is a life force stemming from and part of a creator ancestor. An emu man does not have emu as a mere symbol: he is emu, of the same soul and the same flesh. He must care for emu and its habitat, and it must care for him.’

[viii] Letter to his publisher John Taylor, 1821. See Jonathan bate, The Song of the Earth, Harvard UP, 2000, p172.

[ix] William Blake letter to the Reverend John Trusler, August 23, 1799. British Library,

[x] Quoted in, Richard Mabey, Beechcombings: The Narratives of Trees, Chatto & Windus, 2007.

[xi] John Fowles, The Tree, Little, Brown & Co, 1979.

[xii] Chelsea Steinauer-Scudder, ‘Befriending a Tree’, Emergence Issue 7

[xiii] Losses in just 30 years: Common Bird Census between 1970 and 1999: Tree sparrow  -95; per cent; Corn bunting  -88 per cent; Willow tit  -78 per cent; Spotted flycatcher -77 per cent; Woodcock  -74 per cent. As someone who began birdwatching while living in England, this makes for hard reading.

[xiv] Tom Griffths, Forests of Ash: An Environmental History, Cambridge UP, 2001, p1.

[xv] Gondwana Rainforests of Australia, State of Conservation update – April 2020. Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment.


[xvii] Forest Ecology Alliance (FEA), ‘Citizen Science, Preliminary Report, Newry State Forest, 2020-2021’, May 2021.

[xviii] Adam Morton and Graham Readfearn, ‘The disaster movie playing in Australia’s wild places – and solutions that could help hit pause’, The Guardian, 6 Mar 2021.

[xix] Graham Readfearn, ‘Shocked scientists find 400km of dead and damaged mangroves in Gulf of Carpentaria’, The Guardian, 3 Oct 2019.

[xx] Dana M. Bergstrom, Barbara C. Wienecke et al. ‘Combating ecosystem collapse from the tropics to the Antarctic’, Global Change Biology, 25 February 2021.

[xxi] P Gibbons & D. Lindenmayer, ‘Tree Hollows and Wildlife Conservation in Australia’, CSIRO Publishing, 2002.

[xxii] Russell McLendon, ‘15 Astounding Facts About Trees’, 14 Jan, 2020.

[xxiii] David Haskell, ‘Eleven Ways of Smelling a Tree’, Feb, 2020.

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