Lost amongst the trees

Casting a blanket over the shivering earth, ticking the sky, turning bleak land into a rich, shaded world: the woodland fills with life, and fills us with life.

The forest that once covered Europe is mainly lost, but enough stands to give a glimpse of the old continental blanket. The woodlands of Britain are largely plantations, but on the downs are ancient woodlands, and wherever land has been abandoned the trees come to reclaim their own.

It was written (and I cannot find where) that at a deep, cultural level the Germanic peoples and Mediterranean peoples are divided in their views of the forest – to the Germans it is a place of wonder, of joy and liberation, of regained youth; but for the Mediterranean peoples, descended from the culture of Rome, the forest is a dark, threatening place, the place in which the untamed tribes burst from the trees to slaughter Varrus and his legions. I do not know how true that is, but I do know that for Britons the woods bear a wonder not found in anything else.

Before there were farms and society there were the woods. Hobbes observes of man close to the state of nature:

For as there were Plants of Corn and Wine in small quantity dispersed in the Fields and Woods, before men knew their vertue, or made use of them for their nourishment, or planted them apart in Fields, and Vineyards; in which time they fed on Akorns, and drank Water:

Now all the political parties are talking of planting trees. That spoils it somehow. A million? Four million? Two billion in twenty years (clearly Diane has been at the figures: taking a four-month growing season and an average 8 hours of daylight, working a six-day week, that is 8.5 trees every second without ceasing and a staggering acreage and cost). It also depends on what sort of trees they are: in terms of growth and coverage a birch is worth a fraction of a percentage of an oak, and an oak a small percentage of a redwood.

I cannot tell if planting trees will make even the smallest difference to the changes in the world’s climate, heresy as that must sound to those who prefer soundbite to science, but they are more than drinkers of carbon dioxide, and spillers of it after they fall. They bind the soil, drain the ground and change the local climate, and they make a home for the tiny creatures which serve the rest of the land.

In Bengal, three hundred million people live in floodplains, and since the upstream forests were felled, the land has been drowned too many times to count. It flooded before the forests were felled in Bihar, but the intensity has only worsened. Plant your million trees in Bihar.

I wrote before of how the trees are beginning to heal Ethiopia – when the were lost the land dried and the thin soils blew away, and the people starved. Now small patches of forest are bringing the life back, and the bees to pollinate the plants which will grow again, and the moisture for field and pasture.

Even at home the landscape has been transformed by trees. Samuel Johnson described Scotland as largely treeless, and asked the lairds he visited why they did not create plantations, as their southern neighbours did. Defoe said he barely saw a tree between Berwick and Dunbar. Today Johnson or Defoe would not recognise the Middle Shires, wreathed as their are in woodlands, and the Highlands too. The forestry plantations were a despair to Highland landowners once as they swallowed grazing land, but between the plantations the land is now richer and the flocks are doing very well.

If a tree grows all its natural life, drinking the rich carbon dioxide about it, all that carbon dioxide is released again when it falls and decays – the net gain is nothing. A strong oak though may not fall for a thousand years, and a redwood for three thousand. Active forestry cuts the wood before it decays. Living among trees is a give-and-take and the best course it not always the natural course. We should tread lightly in places, but we should tread.

Maybe plant a tree for Christmas, in Ethiopia or Bihar? Do not do vain virtue-signalling though. Virtue action, by all means.

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Ethiopia, mending paradise

It is hard to express how beautiful Ethiopia can be, and how harsh, and the two are complementary here. If we can think only of the hellish picture of famine, we do not know the land at all. It is as if all of Africa were compressed in one corner, with its lush forest, bare desert, grassland, and vertical mountains.  Here antelopes, giraffes and zebras leap across the plains, and lions, cheetahs and unique wolves hunt; here eagles and vultures soar from peaks above scorched land seeking the living and the dead, and beyond them verdant forests echo with joyous monkeys. In the waters crocodiles wait. Camels ply ancient trading roads in the desert. Here too are the unique churches of the Ethiopians, some carved whole and in one piece out of the living rock.

We know little about the land except the snatches we hear and see, and those do not do justice to this bewildering land.

When Napier was dispatched to Abyssinia (to punish the Emperor Theodore for his misdeeds) it was an unknown land and the expedition was in all received opinion doomed to disaster as no army could march in order through a trackless land where every advance was blocked by a razor-edged mountain range, and he was assured he could not even land his boats without their being sunk by herds of hippopotamus. What he found was a harsh, wilderness land indeed, but one of beauty and ancient culture through which he advanced to his task without loss.

He would find a great change today:  the former Communist government ravaged the land in the name of progress, and recovery is slow. Seeing the sights of Biblical famine in the 1980s you would disbelieve Adam Smith’s observation that “a famine has never arisen from any other cause but the violence of government attempting, by improper means, to remedy the inconveniencies of a dearth”; but Smith was recounting recent history in Europe and not the unforgiving capriciousness of the African climate.  Still, here in Ethiopia it was human stupidity and malice which caused it.

There will always be poor seasons, drought and locusts, and misgovernment, and the latter is deadly. The Emperor was overthrown for reacting too slowly to a famine, but a year’s dearth was as nothing compared with what the Communists did. Their disruption of farm life and collectivisations did as they have done throughout the world – starved the people, and no worse famine has been seen in that land. Felling the forests denuded the land and left dust. Worst of all the afflicted places was Tigray, once the cultural heartland of the nation. It is struggling to recover even now, but there is hope.

If anyone is tempted to believe that humanity, crawling small upon the face of a vast Earth is incapable of destroying the climate and ecological system, he should look on Ethiopia. Forest were felled to produce fields for crops but just produced dust as the light soil blew away in the winds. The trees held it together, and made a home for wildlife. The trees made their own local climate which allowed man and beast to live – but when the trees were gone, the land died.

Now there is regrowth. The BBC’s Justin Rowlett recently reported on an effort to regrow destroyed forests in Tigray, in the north of Ethiopia. The land is transformed and the bees are returning. (African bees, he found, and as I could have told him, are more aggressive and sting more violently than softy European bees – even elephants are afraid of African bees.) Without bees to pollinate plants, life struggles, so their return presages rebirth.

Worldwide forest are being felled, and we have the luxury here in Britain to be aghast at this, safe in the knowledge that we have already felled our islands’ own lush forests for farmland, millennia ago. There has been new plantation though – the Forestry Commission for a hundred years now has been busy filling with trees areas once bare – Daniel Defoe or Samuel Johnson who described trees moorland in the north would not recognise the lush pine forests there now, and it was done not from some care for the environment let alone ideas about climate change (not back in 1919) but because the Government needed wood. That is the key to success: a practical motive and a plan for sustainable forestry following over generations.

In America forestry is massive business, but the more successful forest plantations are those which plant as much as they fell, looking two hundred years ahead. If we know that our children will benefit, we care for the future, but if all our effort is taxed away at the end, we have no motive for sustainability.

In the meantime though, Ethiopia is making steps to recover Eden where once there was Gehenna. That is far, far more practical than marches and petitions. The efforts in Ethiopia to replant the lost forests and restore life, efforts carried out by Ethiopians to benefit their generations to come, are worth the praises of the world.

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Ultima Thule at the woke frontier

An invisible star has a new name. In the unfathomably far outer solar system, in the Kuiper Belt, the NASA New Horizons probe encountered, passed close to and photographed a body with the romantic name “(486958) 2014 MU69”. Even here, four billion miles from the Earth, where heat is unknown, mindless political correctness can reach its fingers.

There no criticism from me of the International Astronomical Union, nor ever has been, and for NASA nothing but awed admiration. The concept of sending a probe so far and fast and reaching an invisible object with pinpoint accuracy goes anything we can imagine. The New Horizons team have achieved the unimaginable with the first exploration of a cold, classical Kuiper belt object.

Its new name is ‘Arrokoth’, which is a good name. ‘Arrokoth’ means ‘sky’ in the Powhatan/Algonquian language which used to be spoken in Maryland, where the team is based. It is good to hear at the new frontier an echo of a language once driven out of its ancient homeland, to hear its honour restored in this small way.

When first found though, observers gave (486958) 2014 MU69 the nickname “Ultima Thule”, and used that name for months. It is an uneven dumbbell shape and they even named one end “Ultima” and the other “Thule”. This name is of course a widely used metaphor for ‘a land beyond the farthermost’, and a natural thought when considering the farthermost object visited by man, or at least by his probes.

The came the objections.

The press release said that “Ultima Thule, one of Arrokoth’s first names, is a term used in ancient times in accordance with a place beyond the known world. However, the term was also used by Nazis and right-wing extremists when referring to a mythical place for the Aryan race.”

Here we have it – the neo-Nazis are ruining another thing for the rest of us. They have form in this: there is an ancient Indian symbol used not just in Hindu culture but across the world in many ages, usually with a positive, even celebratory implication and which became suddenly popular as a good-luck symbol in the west in the early twentieth century – but then the Nazis nicked it and it can never, ever be used without an implication of mass-murder drawn in the darkest corners of human nature. I do not even name it. It is irredeemable. I refuse to lose Thule though.

There is a better reason for not naming (486958) 2014 MU69 after Thule, because it is not the furthest humanity can reach and it will look daft when another body in the Kuiper Belt or the more distant Oort Cloud is found, and because I do not want astronomers purloining the name of Ultima Thule any more than I want murderous race-myth socialists having it.

For Longfellow this icy land as the ultimate destination was a vision of heaven:

Ultima Thule! Utmost Isle!
Here in thy harbors for a while
We lower our sails; a while we rest
From the unending, endless quest.

The mystery land, the Θούλη described by Pytheas has had many interpretations. The description of Pytheas matches the coast of Norway most closely, but the Roman sailors who saw Shetland afar off named if Thule too, and later ages placed it about the Faroes, then Iceland, then Greenland, ever further off. Perhaps it is such a place that it should never be identified, so that it can remain a place of dreams, and then even the Kuiper Belt is not far enough.

Joanna Kavenna wrote a fascinating book on the identification and the myth of Thule, and travelled to many places that have been identified with it. She saw the ends of the Earth and spoke to people of many races and tongues, and met the name in ancient texts and poetry, and in modern poetry and art. She also found the lazy salons where proto-Nazis had met who wanted to claim Thule as a mythical Urheimat for their imagined pure Germanic race, but this was a minor aside at the fringe, and if there are modern loonies who follow it, frankly, they are not worth bothering with. The woke souls who forbid others from naming Ultima Thule are not opposing the neo-Nazis; they are empowering them, and such people should not be given the power to steal for themselves an ancient myth that belongs to all of Western culture.

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Eschatological Rebellion

What makes a respectable, wealthy, middle class, middle-aged woman climb up and try to smash a window in a government ministry? What brings more white, middle class academics and children of professionals on to the street to block the traffic, vandalise buildings and run countercultural camps in the streets? It is not the environment.

The end of the world! There were once eccentric men walking the streets with placards announcing “The End of the World is Nigh!“, and how we chuckled at them; now they wear beads and flypost ominous stickers on the Tube. I would laugh, but they are scaring children half to death with their unhinged eschatology.

If your stomach was turned by some of the displays available on YouTube it may be the sight of people dressed up as hippies or students doing ‘interpretive dance’ in the street or tents with signs for mindfulness sessions. That tells you more about us outside, really. It is a culture-clash: these are the people we do not want to be like, and we are the people they do not like because we do not appreciate their way of thinking.

(There is nothing wrong with interpretive dance on the street – in fact it is positive as it identifies the people I can ignore.)

Extinction Rebellion is wrong in just about everything they stand for. Having made that point, I have to look at the attraction they have for many, and why there is anger when I every doubt them.

The cause they claim is saving the world; every comic-book hero’s quest, and who can doubt that? It is what we are brought up with. We try to ignore the incongruity when Batman destroys a city just to save a girl, because he is just a comic fantasy, and so is Extinction Rebellion’s rhetoric.

So what makes a respectable, wealthy, middle class, middle-aged woman climb up and try to smash a window in a government ministry? That answers itself – the stifling social constraints of respectability. Bursting out of the constraints, liberation like a fly escaping from a bottle – that is what it is all about. There are hammers and spraypaint and free-form dance, and at least the latter harms no one. That ever-present voice inside says ‘settle down, be good, do your homework;, but then a new ideology is available that says ‘all those things you never dared to do – do them!’

The rest of us look askance at the chaos that denies our learnt, ordered pattern of the world, but maybe with a hint of jealousy.

The odd thing is though that this gathering of thousands of likeminded or easily misled souls is itself a quest for respectability.

There are other. There are grannies suddenly finding a purpose for their time. There are junior clergymen losing their purpose. There are academics from ex-polytechnics with books and little imagination, resigned never rise to the height that demands actual intellect. They are powerless, and here they find some semblance of power. Their works will never be cited at Oxford, but here their voice can be heard for a moment, whatever unscientific nonsense they speak, and if they can persuade the government to act, as they sincerely desire, then that is power indeed. No wonder they respond so viciously when doubted: we are stealing their last chance for power.

For the rest of us, who may be doing more for the benefit of mankind and his environment than the whole parcel of the ‘XR’ mob, this is an annoyance to be cleared up like any other. What to do about it – that must be another article.

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Tempestuous climate on QT

What a show – it was horrible. The panel was more balanced on last night’s Question Time than it used to be, and the fur flew.  Before the end, I had to turn off – it was too painful.  The main issue this week was Extinction Rebellion:  for the panel included Rupert Read of that distinguished band of vandals.

On the panel, presided over loosely by Fiona Bruce, were Grant Shapps, speaking for the Conservatives but increasingly acting as the only voice of reason that evening; Lisa Nandy of Labour, who became increasingly detached from any semblance of reality as the evening wore on; Rupert Read of Extinction Rebellion, of whom more later but who made even Lisa Nandy look reasonable; Theo Paphitis as the voice of the frustrated rest-of-us; and Julia Hartley-Brewer, the rent-a-mouth whose sole virtue is being able to expose hypocrisy by being rude to everyone else.

We kicked off with the environment, climate change, and the actions of Extinction Rebellion, and voices rose to fever pitch such that you might imagine the rise in global temperature was solely caused by the Question Time panel. There is no logic in debate anymore. No one on the panel was arguing for climate change being a fantasy or unimportant. No one was arguing against its being hastened by mankind, so you would have thought all would be sweetness and light. It was the very opposite.

Maybe it would have been easier if they could just have said to Read that he is a nutcase and taking such complete nonsense it is only a surprise that he does not laugh at himself, but instead this was in form a civil debate, and as a result it turned into a shouting match.

It takes a lot for me to be on Julia Hartley-Brewer’s side, but she made the unchallengeable point (which Grant Shapps missed) that the Industrial Revolution was the greatest and most beneficial thing ever to happen to mankind.  It is a pity that the point could not be taken further, to analyse the anti-industrial rhetoric of Extinction Rebellion, to compare their (unscientific) protest that millions, or even billions, will be killed by climate change with the utter certainty that millions would die of disease and starvation were the Industrial Revolution to be reversed anywhere in the world.  Again Hartley-Brewer nailed it with her characteristically undiplomatic approach, that Extinction Rebellion is a “quasi-religious death cult”.

Rupert Read believes himself, which is worrying. He said that he wants the government to start by’ telling the truth’, but every statement he made was wrong, and he must have known it. When Grant Shapps demonstrated that Britain has cut carbon dioxide emissions mare than any other country, Read said the figures were fiddled (they are not); he made wild claims on what ‘the science’ says which bore no relation to any scientific papers; he said that no one was talking about acting on climate change until the Extinction Rebellion began – somehow ignoring decades of work and public concern on the subject, begun incidentally by Margaret Thatcher.  ‘XR’ must have a point, he said, because they are invited onto QT: well so was Nick Griffin of the BNP, mate. His knock-down proof of the rightness of Extinction Rebellion was that a sixteen year-old, traumatised autistic girl supports them. He even compared himself to the suffragettes and Martin Luther King.  There is delusion there of the highest order.

Even so, Read was cheered from the audience, which he took as validation. The audience may indeed care about the future of the environment – don’t we all – but does not mean accepting every contradictory madness proposed by his cult.  After that I was not convinced by Julia Harley-Brewer’s description: there is nothing ‘quasi’ about their religion.

We were also introduced to Lisa Nandy, a Labour Party star – she has been tipped for leadership. Please put her on television more – she discredits herself and her party wonderfully. She castigated Hartley-Brewer on the environmental issue (don’t feed the troll, Lisa) saying that environmental catastrophe would harm the value of pension funds – but somehow omitted to say how sudden deindustrialisation, or Corbyn, would not.

It was a relief to get off climate change, and the climate in the studio could cool.  Of course the next topic was Brexit, for some light relief.

On Brexit, out came Lisa Nandy, coming into her own.  She accused Boris Johnson of junking a deal with the EU:  she insisted that there was a deal agreed but somehow it had never been allowed to go before parliament. Well, the rest of the country know perfectly well that there was a deal, for we have memories going back more than five minutes, and that it was put before the Commons three times and each time Nandy and her colleagues voted against it. Challenged on this by Grant Shapps, she claimed there was another deal agreed by all parties (presumably known only unto her and not to the government nor the EU) which was not put.  This was fantasy. Just repeating the same untruth again and again makes enough people believe it to vote, but it is horrid to watch except in morbid fascination.

At that point, Rupert Read came back in with his one good point of the evening:  Brexit, deal or no deal, is not the end which will allow us to get back to normal politics: from that point the Government must start negotiating more trade deals with the EU, so it goes on. It sounded a bit odd after he had just been castigating all and sundry for using ships, aircraft and lorries – surely he would want a complete, self-sufficient autarky to keep those environmentally harmful ships in port?

With no sign of reality breaking out from anyone but Theo Paphitis and Grant Shapps, I finally gave up.

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