9 January 2016

Trees In Nature’s Economy

Excerpts from The Triumph of the Tree (1950) by John Stewart Collis (1900-1984)

[Taken from The Organic Tradition – an anthology of Writings on Organic Farming 1900-1950. Edited by Philip Conford.]

John Stewart Collis produced a number of books on literary topics before the Second World War, but is now best known for his writings about Nature. During the war he worked first as an agricultural labourer, then as a forester on the estate of Rolf Gardiner – where the Kinship in Husbandry was based – near Shaftesbury in Dorset, describing his experiences in While Following the Plough [1946] and Down to Earth [1947]. These books were republished jointly in the 1970s under the title The Worm Forgives the Plough (London, Charles Knight, 1973; Harm ondsworth , Penguin, 1975). He also wrote books of what might be described as ‘poetic natural science’, and it is from one of these, The Triumph of the Tree (London, Cape.1950) that the following extracts are taken.


Loam soil is said to be composed of one-quarter water, one-quarter air, and one-tenth organic matter – ‘it thus swims, breathes and is alive.’ So say the authorities. Whatever the exact proportion of water in soils may be, we know that it is very great, and that in fact nothing in all nature is more important than water… If John Ruskin had handled this theme, he would undoubtedly at this point have done a volume on Water. But I am all for sticking to one thing at a time. This is difficult of course, since inter-relatedness is the very definition of nature. The full theme of Water is a great subject and can lead us into many places and unveil some surprising spectacles; and perhaps if I get back to trees the reader will not refuse to join me at some future time in a consideration of water. But something must be said here and now about the hydrologic cycle since trees play an important part in the smooth working of its flow.

(The Triumph of the Tree: 138)

… there is a complication which makes a neat statement of the cycle, or the circle, impossible. In fact it makes the words cycle or circle a little dubious. I am thinking of the evaporation from vegetation. There is the evaporation from the ocean, and of rain sent up again from bare land under heat. That is one kind. There is another kind. There is the water sent up, invisibly sprayed into the sky by vegetation itself. A full-grown willow can transpire up to five thousand gallons in a single summer day. How much then a forest? Clouds can be made that way over the land, without benefit of seas. These are tree-clouds, not ocean-clouds. There is a cycle all right, and a constant amount of water in perpetual circulation. But we must not forget this cloud-feeding by plants.

(The Triumph of the Tree: 140)


We have seen how vulnerable the soil is. It could so easily be tossed about by the elements, if unprotected. Happily it is protected, in the natural state, either by a carpet of grass whose network of deeply diving roots holds it down firmly, or by trees that on a tremendous scale stake it down, the tree-roots ramifying in all directions, so that only a hundred trees occupying an area of five miles will be actually supplying, in sum, three or four miles-worth of cordage for holding the soil together. Thus when trees were regarded by the uninstructed minds of superstitious men as the guardians of fertility there was some sense in it. When they become simply ‘timber’ in the eyes of un-superstitious and instructed men who cut them down indiscriminately the consequences are so bad that modern science is busy restoring the idea that after all trees do guard the fertility of the soil.

Let us now plunge into the centre of our subject. On closer examination we find that trees perform many more offices in relation to the soil than that of merely pegging it down. By virtue of cooling the air and spraying the sky and multiplying the clouds they exert considerable influence upon the fall and distribution of rain; by virtue of sponging the earth around their feet they enormously influence the behaviour of floods, the discipline of rivers, the supply of springs, the health of fish, and (when man arrives), the welfare of navigation; and by virtue of their power to suck up moisture by the ton they dry the swamps and control the malarian mosquitoes. Forests are so much more than meets the eye. They are fountains. They are oceans. They are pipes. They are dams. Their work ramifies through the whole economy of nature.

The rays of the sun beat down upon a barren place. The naked earth becomes very hot and the temperature of the air very high. But if vegetation covers that ground the temperature will be altered. It will be considerably cooled. For the vegetation will evaporate water. It has been proved that, in terms of corn, for every pound of dry substance produced there is an evaporation of two hundred and thirty-five pounds of water; and in terms of turnips, for every pound of substance nine hundred and ten pounds of water are sent up. Under good cultivation an acre can produce seven tons of dry substance. On these terms we can calculate that a given acre will easily evaporate, during the vegetative period, about three thousand five hundred tons of water which will mount upwards to moisten and cool the regions of the sky.

If this is true of crops, how much more does it apply to forests. And further, we must remember that leaves do not become heated nearly as easily as rock or open soil, while the ground under the shade of trees can never be greatly warmed. The result is that forests exert a moderating influence on temperature. That great mountain, the Brahmaputra, has not many trees; but its middle part is covered by forest – and there the temperature is less than at the bare parts by twenty degrees! The largest forest area in the world is at the upper Amazon, six hundred and twenty miles from the Atlantic on one side, and cut off from the Pacific by high mountains. So far from seas, so near the Equator – will not the temperature be very high and very dry? Yet no, it is not greater than at the coast, and not as high as some temperatures in the middle latitudes. This remarkably moderate temperature is attributed to the enormous transpiration of water from plants in the tropics. The rainfall-down is about sixty inches a year. The rainfall-up (or evaporation) amounts to forty inches a year. Between the two lots the air is considerably cooled.

(The Triumph of the Tree: 140-2)


This capacity of trees to moderate the temperature, besides being so agreeable, is also a factor bearing upon the quantity and distribution of rainfall. Water comes down from the sky in the form of rain or snow or hail, and is further found as dew, hoar-frost, and other condensations of moisture which form on the surface of foliage, branches, and trunks. And before it comes down, as everyone knows, it is tanked in clouds, or as clouds. What induces the exchange? Cold obstruction. That is why mountains promote precipitation. But wooded mountains are still more effective in deflating the fleeting vapours. Denuded hills do not always induce rainfall, while tree-clothed hills do. Dr. Paul Schrieber, a noted meteorologist, after giving elaborate data for Saxony, reached the conclusion that in a district completely covered by forests the influence’ of the forest in increasing rainfall would be equal to elevating the region six hundred and fifty feet. We cannot easily raise mountains when we wish to increase the rainfall. It is therefore worth realizing that by judiciously planting trees we can lever-up a mountain about six hundred feet. This cold obstruction induces greater condensation in the air-currents – and hence precipitation. But also, forests, whether on mountains or not, add to the weight of clouds by the evaporation we have been speaking of. And since they add to their weight they induce their downfall. The amount of water evaporated, that is, thrown off by forests into the air, is so enormous that they have been given the name of ‘the oceans of the continent’.

(The Triumph of the Tree: 143-4)

Supposing that tomorrow there were no vegetation over the face of the earth – then much less rain would fall over the continents; the clouds would frequently pass over without unloading. If on the next day trees covered the same space, then the rainfall would be enormous in comparison. Therefore if continentals (we are not thinking of islanders such as the British, at the moment) wish to be sure of their rainfall, they should be careful about their forests. They have not always been thus careful. The result is that in some places after reckless lumbering, men have looked up to see the clouds steadily passing them by day after day without discharging their moisture, like ships refusing to put into port. The primitives were nearer the truth when they paid special honour and made peculiar sacrifices to certain trees as the producers of rain…

…it is clear from the foregoing that if we are entitled to say – Put up some trees and you can pull down some clouds (always supposing the actuality were anything like as simple as that!) we are certainly not entitled to think that this will always add to the moisture of the soil on which they stand. On the contrary, they suck up moisture, as we have just seen…

And from this it also follows that trees could be used to suck up swamps and bogs. Swamps are agriculturally useless and often the breeding-places of malaria and swamp-fevers. In fact trees have already been planted for the purpose of draining swamps. It has been done with great success in Landes and Sologne. It would be delightful to see the half-useless peat-bogs of Ireland’s Calary Common in County Wicklow transformed in this way.

The above considerations, then, entitle us to say that trees have a decided influence upon temperature; that by offering obstruction to clouds on high places they increase rainfall and in effect raise the height of mountains; that though forests promote a greater fall of rain than do open spaces, they themselves give back almost as much water as they receive, raising invisible oceans which moisten the pastures of the sky and favour afar-flung distribution of rain; and that this very fact enables them to soak up swamps and cleanse their malarian pollutions.

(The Triumph of the Tree: 147-8)


Imagine if you can – it is not something we could ever see in the state of nature – a long mountain slope consisting of soil without grass or trees on top. When the rain-storm beats down upon it, what happens? Some of the water sinks in and is sponged up; and a great deal more runs down into the valley below to form a torrent making for the lowlands and the sea. The rain-storm continues: and now the water is hardly absorbed at all and ninety per cent of it runs down, taking with it a proportion of the top of the soil. The process continues. This very unnatural erosion continues and the rivers increase, while their freight age of soil and silt piles up in the regions far away. The process goes on until all the top of that soil has been carried down. Then the bottom of it follows, the stones, the rubble follow and pile up on the soil which went first, so that matters are now upside down in the valley beyond. The storm subsides. The rivers decrease. The beds dry up. There is a period of drought. Then once again the storm breaks out. This time the water rushes down so unhindered and so swiftly, that what with inadequate river banks and gross siltage, floods sweep over the land.

This never happens, of course, in the Natural Order. It could happen if someone came and rolled up the carpet of grass and pulled out the cover of trees.

Now let us imagine the same area of mountain slope covered with forest. Again the storm breaks out and the rain pours down. This time it does not reach the ground all at once. It must first fall upon the leaves and the branches of the trees, and thence trickle to the bottom where it is easily absorbed. There is no running straight down the hill into the valley. For not only is there so much less force in the rainfall by virtue of the living-leaf obstruction which cushions the blow, but the dead-leaf and twig obstruction, the litter, serves in the nature of a colossal sponge, a single acre of which can sometimes harbour forty-six tons of water. This absorption on the floor is the chief thing and a very great thing: but the check first received at the roof is also important. This is particularly evident in the case of snow, the rapid melting of which is so often a cause of sudden flood where there are no trees. In a dense forest only half the snow-fall reaches the ground. A white roof is formed on top of the trees, so that airmen passing across forest lands have sometimes confused the foliage with the floor. When the false upper floor melts it must first trickle down the barks or fall in lumps to the ground. This capacity of litter to detain moisture is called seepage, which in many places on the steepest slopes has been found so marvellously absorbative that it ‘creates conditions with regard to surface run-off such as obtain in a level country’. It can turn almost a perpendicular into a flat in terms of gravitation.

It is this seepage which promotes the discipline of rivers, the always wonderful sight of water running on and on all the year round, neither flowing over its banks nor drying up nor becoming clogged with silt. It is seepage which makes severe floods extremely rare in the natural state. It is seepage which preserves the water clean and wholesome for the fishes. It is seepage which keeps the rivers dependable for navigation when men arrive on the scene. Indeed it is already a well-known truth that if we strike at our trees and thus at seepage, we strike at our inland ships: thus (to anticipate the Argument for a minute), at the period of Roman rule in France the river Durance was perfectly navigable, while now, the watersheds being cleared of forests, you can hardly float a skiff on it; and the Loire, once a navigable river of the highest order affording communication between Nantes and the Central Provinces, so that in 1551 the Marquis of Northumberland, Ambassador from England, could sail from Orleans to Nantes panoplied in a magnificent suite ‘in five large many-coloured boats’, is now unnavigable above Saumer, owing to the detritus brought down from the mountains with every flood.

Moreover, this seepage provides such a system of sieving, such a network of small tributaries, such a check on too swift surface evaporation, that it not only regularizes the rivers but creates and maintains the springs. There is a world we know little about, we dwellers on the upper earth; a world open only to the eye of the spelaeologists, those daring travellers into the nether regions in which are discovered underground rivers and lakes and wells in the silent majesty of mighty halls and the total darkness of long winding corridors and caves. Here is the beginning of rivers. Here is the fountain -head of the flow, the primal source of the glittering glory we behold far away in the valleys and the plains: And it is maintained. It is fed slowly and continuously from the great sponges that cling to the mountains. This is the protection against drought no less than the only true damming against flood.

(The Triumph of the Tree: 150-3)


The consolidation of mountains and the just administration of water do not exhaust the offices of trees in relation to the earth. There is an invisible agent we have to reckon with; necessary and beneficial in the motions of the sphere, but at times a most blasting bane, an unseen foe that needs no cloak of darkness. We must consider the wind on the plain. It is not so drastic an element as water, but it can be a fearful one. Its invisible whips can be the scourge of man and beast and plant. The only thing to do is to break it. An impossible task, we might think. It is easy to break hard things, by simply tapping them or by elaborately blasting them to bits. It is very difficult to break a really soft thing; and when that thing is the unseen element of wind whose arm is yet strong enough to raise up liquid mountains on the sea or cast down houses on the land, the only thing we can do is to wall ourselves away from it. We cannot wall up the open country, so we must try and break that fury. Again we call trees to our rescue, and speak of Wind-breaks. And it is astonishing to how great an extent they do break it. I have stood on a field protected by a line of poplars when almost a hurricane was blowing across the country, and I have felt hardly enough wind to blow my hat off; while the difference in the temperature between my side and the far side of the trees was remarkable – no wonder, since it is found that even a hedge of only six feet high can raise the average soil temperature three or four degrees to a distance of four hundred and fifty feet.

We take this sort of thing for granted in the British Isles where agriculture is not yet so much the enemy of silviculture that hedges at least are still in abundance. One writes ‘not yet’ because hedging is a big job in itself, as I can vouch for from personal experience of it, and does not lend itself to any mechanical instrument. But since so many hands have recently been turned into steel, so many men exchanged for machines of one sort or another, the man who looks after hedges may soon be no longer found on a farm; and thus the farmer is increasingly showing a tendency to do without hedges and to put up one long piece of wire instead, charged with electricity for the benefit of the amazed and affrighted cows. I suppose there will have to be a decade of bovine electrical education before these monstrosities are exchanged again in favour of hedges. But elsewhere in the world, on great stretches of plain, neither trees nor hedges are naturally abundant and ‘the wind which sweeps over the plain unhindered, increasing in fury and breadth, is its greatest enemy. In drying out the plain, it creates a hard soil crust. By increasing evaporation, it draws off the soil moisture and cools the soil. Then it tatters and dries the finer soil parts. A plain constantly exposed to wind pressure will be driven back to the most primitive conditions of life and growth’. 2 And should there ever come a time when large areas of level forest are cut and the land ploughed and the soil loosened, then, the hitherto, harmless wind in that region will be no longer harmless, and ruined farmers will face that cloud of dust which is their day of judgment.

(The Triumph of the Tree: 153-5)


Having conquered the Indians, they turned to nature. They found themselves confronted with a mighty host. It stood before them, erect and menacing, battalion behind battalion. But it was unarmed. It could not defend itself. It could not even retreat, for it was rooted to the ground. Being pious folk, the invaders saw that God was clearly not on the side of these green battalions. The forest was an enemy that could be destroyed. And they set to work to destroy it.

Two immediate objectives were to be gained: first, room in which to grow crops, and second, the supply of timber with which to build the new civilization and to maintain it with fuel. It was a big job, this subduing of the wilderness. It took toughness and time before the first 100 million acres of trees had been brought down. They went at it with a will. They launched a campaign against the forest with a virulence that seemed akin to hatred – (an attitude towards trees which seems to have remained with Americans to the present time, for in 1917, according to Dr. Pfeiffer, when some French peasants asked American soldiers to thin out a few trees, they were appalled by the recklessness and violence with which they set to work). They went out against the forests with the thoroughness of an invading army, attacking first one stronghold then another. For a hundred years the white pine trees of New England held out. Then one day it was found that all had fallen on that field. After the white then the yellow. The movement of destruction advanced relentlessly onwards from the forests of Maine to New York. In ten years those battalions were defeated and the lumber-troops entered Ohio and Indiana and Pennsylvania, from whence they moved in turn to Michigan, to Wisconsin, to Minnesota and thence again to the Gulf and Pacific coasts. That was the Northern campaign against the trees. There was a similar offensive in the South, through the Rocky Mountain region, through Arizona, Colorado, and Idaho, and from the Carolinas to Texas.

Such is the briefest possible outline of the onslaught. Today it is reported that seven-eighths of the continent’s virgin forests has gone, and that only the douglas fir is making a last stand along a fifty-mile front between the top of the Cascade Mountains and the Pacific.

The method throughout this tree-war was that of clean cutting, complete clearing without any policy of further yields. It was applied to areas which had no farming possibilities with as much zest as on the fertile loams. Whole mountain ranges were burned off, though quite useless for farming. The attackers advanced upon the enemy with steel and fire – with quite as much fire as steel. Burning down forests by deliberate intent was one of the quickest means of advance, for in a wind fires sometimes spread at sixty miles an hour. Speaking of the Southerners, Paul Sears says: ‘To the settler, here as in the North, the forest was a hostile thing, occupying the ground which he needed for corn and beans, even though it furnished him with game, fuel and building material. All was fair in the struggle against this handicap, and no weapon, not even his sharp ax, was more powerful than fire. So the use of fire against the forest became a ritual of the poor white. He has literally burned his way west, from the pine-lands of the Carolinas to the blackjack cross-timbers of Oklahoma and Texas.’

There seems to have been no sense of waste in those days. Often enough they did not stack the logs for later use – it was easier to get them out of the way by burning them at once. Thus it is told how, in the neighbourhood of Michigan, huge slabs of white pine were dumped into the open fields in great pyres and burned day and night – with such a blaze that there was no darkness in the town. Such pyres were sometimes kept burning for two or three years! Furthermore, accidental fires were extremely common, and still are in America to the extent of one hundred and fifty thousand a year. When at last this became recognized as a menace and men were engaged at high wages to fight forest fires, it only made matters worse – the number of fires increased because out-of-work men started some more in order to be paid for putting them out.

It will be seen from the above that at first the lumber trade was of less account than the actual business of clearing the ground for cropping. But the steady growth of mill-power at length made the lumber merchant very rich and powerful. When we realize that the first water-power mill in 1631 could only cut 1000 board feet a day; that in 1767 the gang-saw cut 5000 a day; that in 1820 the circular saw cut 40,000 a day; that in 1830 the steam saw cut 125,000 a day; and that the figure is now 1,000,000, we can appreciate what the lumber industry began to mean, and with what ruthlessness the Lumber Kings would ravage their way through the trees with an even greater recklessness than the farmers. Forests once covered six-sevenths of the State of Wisconsin with hemlock and pine, and by 1899 the lumbermen, employing 1033 saws, were cutting 34 billion feet a year, until in 1932 there was nothing left. We may fairly call these lumber merchants tree-butchers since wood bore no relation in their minds to the living object than slabs of meat are related to an animal in the eyes of the butcher. The trees were not trees but dollars in terms of ‘timber’ to be translated by the marvellous ingenuity of man into all the things, the endless things, required by civilization.

One of these things is paper. Perhaps it is when we turn from the saw mills to the paper mills of the factories in the towns that we get the clearest picture of such transformation. Let me bring the story up to date. At the time of writing this book – 1948 – the remarkable metamorphosis of trees into print is still in full swing and the facts concerning it are forthcoming from reliable sources of information. An average issue of the New York Times of ninety-two pages, plus book supplement and magazine pages, requires one hundred acres of forest for its production. Some American Sunday papers run to one hundred and twenty-eight pages and have a circulation of one million. This requires the pulp-wood production of one hundred and forty acres for each issue. Since this means the consumption, for each issue, of one thousand one hundred and twenty cords of pulp-wood, the operation demands the use of fifteen thousand, six hundred and eighty trees.

In my mind’s eye, as I write these words, I can very clearly see what fourteen acres of trees mean. For it was once my job, as a woodman, to thin a wood of about that size. 3 It seemed quite a large area to me. That a space of one hundred and forty acres should be needed for a ‘newspaper edition, is difficult to believe; and I did not believe it until I received an authoritative and very detailed communication on the subject from the Director of the Canadian Forestry Association – and the facts are as given above. So I must accept it as a fact that every Sunday when an American family open their weekly newspaper, they are entitled to say -Here goes another fifteen thousand trees.

We have come a long way from the conception of trees as gods.

(The Triumph of the Tree; 203-7)


… A very long way indeed. It is not a happy contrast. Could we draw back and regard these operations of our forefathers in America, with the eye, not of a human being but of an animal involved in the invasion, they would offer a fearful spectacle. Since we cannot do this we can at least try and see it as from a high place. For many centuries the land had remained under the equilibrium of the Natural Order. Suddenly it was broken in upon by a race of men from across the sea. And with what violence, with what hatred against all living things! There had never been anything like this before in the history of man and nature. There had been many civilizations. Men had grown up with nature in this place and that place. They had seldom been wise or good in their relations with earth. They had made many mistakes, huge blunders in tree-killing, soil-injury, and water-wastage for which they had been repaid with dust and sand. But there had never been anything like this that occurred, and occurs, in modern days under the sign of mechanism. When we think of the ripping up of the grass in every direction, of the crashing down of huge trees under the axe and the deliberately lit forest fires rushing forward at the rate of an express train while thousands of animals shriekingly fled in terror from the crackling flames till exhausted they were burnt alive, our minds and our hearts turn back to the primal days of religion and reverence. For what had those beauty-blind mechanical destroyers, those reality-scared lumberjacks, to do with any sort of religion? Do they not seem only as large insects, or as a plague of locusts eating everything before them without the excuse of being driven blindfold in the coils of necessity?

(The Triumph of the Tree: 216-17)


The whole world has heard of the Tennessee Valley Authority. What they did there, what they are doing elsewhere in the replanting of their forests and the conservation of their soil, may save them from tot al disaster and eclipse.

The story of man and trees in Western Europe has not been so calamitous in result as the American. Nevertheless nearly a thousand years war was declared against trees in Western Europe. It is not the fault of the deforesters that the land is not now in worse shape than it is – the fact is of course that the invaders of the American continent had the conditions for a real rape of the earth, not hitherto available. The European situation with regard to deforestation is too complicated to be subject to a general statement. But it is only too obvious that today, the Scandinavians, who have largely kept their trees, are in a very much better position with regard to fertility than Southern Europe, especially Spain whose once tree-covered country is now a scene of almost Eastern poverty. Again, the Germans are world famous for their forests and their foresters. Today the trees are falling fast under the axe of the occupying powers. But let us remember that it was, the Nazis who first set about exploiting German and Austrian forests without any regenerative policy whatever. They wished to use their trees as weapons of war, and did so with such thoroughness that by 1942 it could be written: ‘Clad in fabrics produced from wood, living on wood sugar, wood proteins, and meat and cheese from wood-fed cattle, with a schnapps ration made from ‘grain’ alcohol obtained from sawdust, German soldiers move to the Russian battle lines in wood-gas-driven trucks, which are greased with tree-stump lubricants and run on Buna tyres made from wood alcohol. Spreading misery ,and destruction with explosives manufactured from the waste liquors of woodpulp mills, they are assisted in their nefarious work by squadrons of plywood planes, while the German propaganda division takes a motion-picture record of selected items of the action on a film made of wood cellulose acetate. ‘ 4

The trees have had their revenge all right. And, one way or another, it will return on us, we may be sure, if we further deface the German forests.

In England forests once covered nearly the whole land. Envoys returned to Caesar saying that they could not penetrate to the end of them. In due course they also were cut down. There has been much re-growth since, and reckless cutting of the re-growths, but still many woods remain to the tree-loving British, while of course a supply of rainfall has never been a problem for the islanders.

For my part, I think that the danger to England caused by the primary destruction of her forests, goes very deep. The nemesis is very real and very terrible. It goes underground. Already by the fifteenth century so many forests had been cut down that wood as fuel was beginning to become scarce. When Aeneas Sylvius, later Pope Pius 11, paid a visit to England in 1458 he noted in his diary how pleased the poor people were when they were given stones for alms… ‘Now we have seen begging at the temples, poor people almost naked: who, when they had been given stones for alms, went away happy. That kind of rock, which may contain sulphur or some other rich material, is burned instead of firewood when the district is bare.’ That is to say already coal had been discovered, and that branch of forestry which we call coal-mining, had begun. First we cut down the forests’ standing above ground. When they were exhausted there remained the woods underground – the carboniferous forests. Coal mining is a branch of forestry and agriculture: but we dig deeper, we cut without planting, we reap where we have not sown.

Thus that great day came when the carboniferous forests were located and the properties of coal were realized. Perhaps this was the most exciting discovery of all. We are weary of such things now. Our hearts are cold and cowed. But we shall be lacking in imagination if we cannot realize what it must have seemed like in those days, the excitement which the words of George Stephenson must have held for all who heard them: ‘We are living in an age when the pent-up rays of that sun which shone upon the great Carboniferous Forests of past ages, are being liberated to set in motion our mills and factories, to carry us with great rapidity over the earth’s surface, and to propel our fleets, regardless of wind and tide with unerring regularity over the ocean.’

We must allow a certain epic grandeur in their theme. The power was divined. The wealth was realized. The possibilities seemed boundless. Naturally there was a coal rush. Claims were staked out by the enterprising and adventurous, and messengers were sent down into the primitive forests. A strange journey indeed! Strange wanderings in those sunken lands! Pioneering down into the darkness, the travellers explored that green old world of long ago. They made perpendicular roads and descended as far as three miles into the buried woods. They carved out galleries within them. They ran trucks through tunnels chiselled from the petrified leavings of the rotten reeds. And as they passed along those corridors encased by the corrupted ferns, and penetrated ever further into the lest regions of the sunlit lands, the danger from gases obliged them to go in darkness with nothing to lighten their way save the phosphorescent gleam from dried fish…

They encountered more perils than explosive gases. In making their way through the subterranean forests they sometimes came upon tree-trunks standing erect, the interior being sandstone and the bark converted into coal, so that as soon as the stance of such trees was weakened they often suddenly fell, killing the men below. ‘It is strange to reflect’, says Sir Charles Lyell, ‘how many thousands of these trees fell originally in their native forests, in obedience to the law of gravity, and how the few which continued to stand erect, obeying, after myriads of ages, the same force, are cast down to immolate their human victims.’ But nothing daunts the spirit of man. In heaving out these precious rocks, this bottled energy, for expansion in the upper world, no effort was too much, no sacrifice in flesh and tears too great, and hundreds, even thousands of these visitors to the ancient woods gave up their lives and lay down eternally entombed amidst the sepulchres of the trees.

This enterprise was pursued with such zeal and concentrated industry that during the nineteenth century England cut out more of these forests, this coal, than was cut out elsewhere over the whole world. This changed England utterly. Her history was altered. She was forced to enter on a road all unforeseen. It caused the colossal industrialism of the country. That is by far the most important effect which trees have had upon England. They had been sleeping below. They were disturbed. When they were carried to the surface they were in the form of great potential activity. Once they had got to work they changed everything, including characters and faces. As for their effect upon population, a twenty million increase is an underestimation. Thus England became one of the most powerful countries in the world. Then the most vulnerable. And now?

Everyone knows her dilemma now. No country in the world, or in history, has ever been less ecologically sound than the England of today with its population of fifty million, ninety per ,cent of whom work at non-agricultural activities caused by the carboniferous forests. That is the fact. When food fails presently to come in from other countries how will the fifty millions get on? The question is enough to make a tree laugh. This ever hanging threat is the cause of the gloom which has fallen upon the English of late – they feel they have no footing on earth.

(The Triumph of the Tree: 238-42)


It seems to me that the time has come for Advanced Guards – philosophic, educational, poetic, scientific – to cohere for once and make their countrymen conscious of the ecological situation. It is a comprehensive theme. ‘We have learned to see in mythology’, says Dr. Pfeiffer, ‘a good deal of physiology and natural scientific wisdom.’ In this book I have tried to bring together the intuitions of the past with the factual knowledge of the present. We have reached a time when we can get our bearings. We can discard superstition without replacing it with irreverence. We can sense the invisibilities on a higher plane of apprehension. Edward Carpenter said that he once managed to glimpse at any rate a partial vision of a tree. ‘It was a beech, standing somewhat isolated, and still leafless in quite early Spring. Suddenly I was aware of its skyward-reaching arms and upturned finger-tips, 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. The day was quite still and there was no movement in the branches, but in that moment the tree was no longer a separate or separable organism, but a vast being ramifying far into space, sharing and uniting the life of Earth and Sky, and full of a most amazing activity.’ 5

We cannot all reach these visionary heights, nor can any man remain there. But we can all be ecologists. There are in England today agriculturalists with astonishing practical genius combined with comprehensive ecological insight. Trust England to produce such men! If they are supported and allowed to lead the way and show the means towards the greatest compromise England has ever been called upon to make, the compromise between industry and agriculture, then England could regain her balance. But she must make up her mind about it. The English can do anything if they make up their minds upon a course of action – but they do not like doing so, they would rather drift. Can we afford to drift any longer? If the present unecological life is continued and other countries are relied upon to support us – why, then that cutting down of the forests which led to the cutting out of the squashed and hoarded wealth of wood below, will have meant disaster. For trees always have the last word.

(The Triumph of the Tree: 245-6)


1 Paul Sears, Desertson the March.

2 Ehrenfried Pfeiffer, The Earth’s Face.

3 See Down to Earth Part 11.

4 ‘The Rediscovery of Wood’, American Forests, September l942.

5 Pagan and Christian Creeds.

The Woodland League

Dedicated to restoring the relationship between people and their native woodlands