Reforest The Tropics is proud this month to offer an essay by our friend and fellow tree advocate, Richard Higgins. Mr. Higgins is a writer, editor, and public speaker on Thoreau’s lifelong passion for trees. His book, Thoreau and the Language of Trees is due out next year. He is the editor of five books and the co-author of Portfolio Life. – Greg Powell, RTT Director
The discovery of the biochemistry and dynamics of the carbon cycle has made the work of Reforest the Tropics possible. Scientists know how much CO2 new trees absorb from the atmosphere, down to the quantities that different types of trees store in their roots, stems and leaves. While that science is impressive, it is helpful to remember that, long before the facts were in, wise people throughout history intuited the necessity, beneficence and saving qualities of trees.
One was Henry David Thoreau. The decimation of the New England landscape, which peaked about 1850, during his lifetime, angered him. Even the woods around his beloved Walden Pond were ravaged for fire wood during the unusually cold 1850s. “Thank God, they cannot cut down the clouds!” he fumed. Thoreau hated losing woods that he knew, but his anger was the greater because he knew that without trees, nature would wither, and human life would as well. What we now know about trees makes Thoreau look clairvoyant. They were “rivers of sap and woody fiber” flowing “from the atmosphere and emptying into the earth,” he wrote. A century before nurse logs became a concept in forestry, Thoreau called pine trees “nurses” to the oak saplings that take root beneath them. He described trees as “fountains of water” and knew that their decomposition enriched the soil. He knew also knew, from the German botanist Kurt Sprengel, about the transpiration of leaves. “A thin column of smoke curls up from some invisible farmhouse,” Thoreau wrote “as silently and naturally as the vapor exhales from the leaves.” Before the term ecology was coined, Thoreau saw forests as whole landscapes that transcend any public or private boundaries. He urged that they be preserved as such. And despite the deforestation he witnessed, Thoreau had the foresight and faith in nature, to write that “one day they will be planted and nature reinstated to some extent.”
Thoreau also knew that trees were essential to the human spirit. “From the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind,” he wrote in “Walking.” A town is saved, he said, “not more by the righteous men in it, than by the woods and swamps that surround it.” Every tree “sends its fibers forth in search of the Wild,” and in such wildness “is the preservation of the world.” Thoreau was not only the wise person to see these things. “Forests precede civilizations and deserts follow them,” the French diplomat Chateaubriand wrote in 1820. “What we are doing to the forests of the world,” wrote Mahatma Gandhi, “is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another.” And a biblical author didn’t need to know about stomatal pores and chloroplasts to write, in Revelations 22.2, “The leaves of the trees are for the healing of nations.” Looked at this way, scientists should see it as an honor to provide the empirical evidence that these people were right. It’s even a greater honor to turn their words into action, which is just what Reforest the Tropics is doing.
Richard may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org