This is the first in a series of articles in The Northside Chronicle about deforestation: How it started, what it means, and what people can do about it.
By Jeff Karwoski
Photo: Kris Møklebust from Pexels
How many of you have ever cut a tree down or had a tree cut down? If you were sitting as members of an audience and I asked that question, I think I would see a number of hands go up.
Keep those hands up. Here’s another question: How many of you have seen a tree being cut down? I’ll bet more hands would go up. Next question. How many of you live in a house or apartment; have ever been to a store, a ballgame, or the movies? All hands should be up now. If you are holding your hand up, then you have experienced an environmental condition that is referred to as deforestation. I am not pointing any fingers: My hand is up too, and held higher than most. In fact, I used to operate a business removing trees. I also live in a cabin made entirely of wood, burn wood for heat in the winter, and once upon a time, enjoyed going to the movies, although it’s been a while since I’ve been in a theater.
I’m about to engage with you over a series of articles discussing humans’ relationship with trees, what deforestation means exactly, and the ways people from all over the world have participated in deforesting the planet. Through the process, I’ll give you an in-depth look at how deforestation not only damages Earth, but can damage a vital part of the human spirit as well.
Bear with me. This is not a story of doom and gloom: It is one of hope. It is a renaissance tale of humans’ rediscovery of the natural world. It is a story of love and loss, triumph and tragedy, growth and renewal. A real cliffhanger, where people stand pinwheeling their arms at the edge of a precipice. Will the world’s population land safely on the ground or fall into the abyss? Like the children’s “choose your own adventure” books, that choice will be up to you, the reader, to decide. Most of all, this is the story of humans, how they were able to get to where they are now with the help of trees, and how they can move forward in a world that is changing faster than they can keep up with.
The story begins in the past; the distant past. It begins at a time when evolution presented one of the most perfect species it has ever created: trees. Before trees, the predominant plant life on the planet were simple vascular plants, no taller than a couple of feet high, and giant fungus called Prototaxites that have perplexed the scientific community for more than a hundred years. Simple vascular plants were the predecessors of plants with a woody structure that we refer to now as trees and shrubs. Evolution knew it was onto something good with woody plants and around 345 million years ago, large trees, ferns, seeds, and roots systems were dominating Earth’s land masses.
Until this happened, life on terrestrial Earth had been limited to invertebrate life forms—ones that did not have a backbone. As these more modern plants terraformed their way across the landscape, they created an environment that enticed aquatic vertebrates to come on land for longer and longer periods of time. With the bevy of resources these woody plants provided, such as fruits and nuts to eat and most importantly, shelter, terrestrial dwelling became desirable enough to prompt an explosion of new life forms and the evolutionary race on land was underway.
Fast forward 300 million years, and a curious life form emerged. It was smarter than other animals. It was strong too. Beyond that, it was capable of working in well-choreographed groups, which made it highly effective. This new life form is what we now refer to as homo sapiens. Modern humans had emerged, and like all living things, they came with a strong desire to survive. These prehistoric humans would have been primitive indeed, but undoubtedly used trees to make progress in life. For starters, humans had mastery over fire, which gave them a leg up on all the other species. While modern humans did not invent fire making, (who did, is up for debate) they did find more ingenious ways to use it throughout the years. The wood from trees provided the perfect fuel to burn to protect humans from cold temperatures and other animals. From cooking fires to coal-fired power plants, there are now more fires burning across the planet than it’s possible to imagine.
Trees and human survival
Trees provided other essential elements of survival for human ancestors. Benefits such as food, shelter, and medicine were not only utilized by them, but manipulated to meet their needs. For example, by taking seeds with them on a migration, they could grow the trees of their choice in a newfound area. It is believed now that the Amazon rainforest is in part a man-made collection of plants; a veritable forest garden.
Humans have been moving trees around the planet for thousands of years based on their usefulness and desirability. Even in peoples’ backyards, you can see trees from Asia and Europe. In the past, trees were treated as a valuable commodity, while in more recent times, more value has been given to agricultural crops such as soybeans, which Brazil has increased close to ninefold in the last 30 years. This brings the acreage planted in soy to 95 million acres. What that means is 95 million acres of one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world has been eradicated in favor of one single species. Do we eat soy from Brazil? You betcha. This crop has permeated its way into our food source in the form of cattle feed to supply our insatiable appetite for beef. Do I still eat beef? Sometimes, but I have cut way back.
The point is, trees have been around for a long time; long enough to make this planet ideally habitable not only for humans, but for the vast array of plants and animals relying on the benefits that trees provide. Without them, humans would not be here.
Join me next month for a discussion on how mankind was able to use trees to propel themselves into the modern era.
Jeff Karwoski is a certified arborist and the executive director of Reforest Our Future, a newly founded nonprofit focused on connecting people and trees. He works in the Pittsburgh area designing native plant installations and is a founding partner of the Leyte Reforestation Project on Leyte Island in the Philippines. You can reach him at [email protected]