This is the second article in a series about deforestation: How it started, what it means, and what people can do about it. In this article, certified arborist Jeff Karwoski discusses how mankind used trees to propel itself into the modern era.
By Jeff Karwoski
Photo: angelsover via Pixabay
In the early days of humans, people hunted and gathered to earn their existence. They did not have cities and towns and a large semblance of tools to make life easy. This way of life began to transition in the early Neolithic period with the occurrence of the polished stone axe during the middle of the sixth millennium BC. An axe is not much of a tool without a wooden handle, so the Stone Age, as it turns out, was also a “Wood Age.” The axe in its varied forms gave our ancestors tremendous power: It gave them the ability to manipulate trees and forests as they saw fit. No longer did they need to travel out from their primitive shelters to gather food growing on wild plants. Instead, it helped them to clear the forest away and grow the plants they wanted in places outside of where they lived: a much safer alternative to facing the dangers of the wild to gather your food.
The axe could also be used to shape the wood from the trees that were cleared into useful items like beams for making structures stronger against both the elements and intruders. Having groups of these wood-reinforced structures made life safer against the wild and invaders: After all, there’s safety in numbers. The cutting of trees paved the way for the first settlements to form and for humankind to modernize.
The axe was the perfect tool for a planet covered in trees. Its design has gone relatively unchanged for thousands of years: Technology cannot improve upon it.
There’s just something about the chopping of wood that sits deep within people: It’s ubiquitous in human culture. Chopping wood is a tie that binds people together, from cutting their own Christmas trees to splitting firewood to clearing land to build houses.
At the same time that trees were giving humans the ability to transition from gatherers to farmers, they were also giving people the ability to become better hunters. Wood from trees gave people a weaponized advantage to take down prey with throwing sticks, spears, and bow and arrows—weapons that allowed the Mongol horde to conquer a land more vast than any empire ever has or will. As hunts became more successful, peoples’ intake of protein went up. With more protein in diets, the human race gained the strength they needed to increase their population.
Of course, innovation didn’t stop with the bow. The 13th century brought with it the advent of the hand cannon, a weapon that merged wood and iron in a design that would continually be perfected until this very day. Versions of this wooden-handled weapon have defined borders and shaped the course of human history as we know it.
Trees were not only useful for building shelters and killing enemies. They were also used to build a transportation system that allowed people to travel the globe. As it turns out, wood is less dense than water which makes it buoyant and able to float. This attribute comes in handy on a planet covered by about 71% water. Ancient Phoenicians understood this principle and in order to apply it, quickly destroyed forests of ancient cedar trees to build the fleets of ships they became famous for. As boat building technology progressed, the nations of the world scavenged their forests to remove the trees best suited for building their armadas. These warships were subsequently sunk or blown up and needed to be replaced by cutting more trees for their construction.
Another form of transportation—railroads—developed in more modern times that required the use of millions of wooden ties with steel rails fastened to them. Like the ships, these ties did not last forever, and many a tree had to meet its fate to provide new timbers for the rail systems of the world.
Transportation systems have relied heavily on timber resources to drive (pun intended) the industry further forward, whether it’s through ancient sailing vessels, wagons from the Wild West, or wood paneling used to manufacture automobiles,
There are so many ways trees and forests provide opportunities for people to modernize. The ability to remove forests and manipulate the wood they produce into products has been a factor that is forever altering the course of history.
On May 24, 1844, for example, Samuel Morse gathered a group of congressmen to witness his ability to send a message through a wire stretched across wooden poles in demonstration of a new method of communication: the telegraph. There are now approximately 150 million wooden utility poles in North America alone. Each is made from one tree; each needs to be replaced as time goes on. Even the ability to go online and read this article about deforestation has been made available by deforestation to supply the poles needed to hang the lines that provide people with the internet. Reading this article on actual paper… you get the idea.
Humans’ use of trees at this point is inescapable. People have forever locked themselves into an intrinsic relationship with forest products, but have they gone too far? In the next article, I will explore the “taking” of forests, the prosperity that this created, and its role in a changing culture and climate.
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].