A giant sequoia in Sequoia National Park, called General Sherman, the largest single-stem tree on Earth © Susan Ruggles via Getty Images

The deep-rooted meaning of ancient trees

These longstanding sentinels have borne witness to the convulsions of global history—and to the cruelty and indifference of humankind
May 10, 2023
Elderflora: A Modern History of Ancient Trees
Jared Farmer (RRP: £20)
Buy on Bookshop.org
Buy on Bookshop.org

The village where I grew up centres on the picturesque ruins of a medieval priory, established by Valliscaulian monks around 1230. The monks were, of course, long gone, their monastery a skeleton made of sandstone, the letters of their gravestones worn away by rain. But at the gate stood a grand and intimidating tree—an ancient wych elm, thought to predate the priory.

This elm, as I remember it, was a dominating presence. The trunk grew bulbous and misshapen, ballooning outwards in a mass of knots, wearing its rough and peeling bark like a heavy brown habit. High up, thin branches struck out crookedly from this strange and tumorous body, sending up their hopeful leaves each spring.

Despite its unsightliness, the tree had gained a certain renown by the time I was a girl—the dignity of old age. Longevity had earned it the loyalty of the community that had formed up around it: generations upon generations had ducked beneath its boughs, canoodled in its shade. The elm was around the age I am now when William Wallace was born. Mary Queen of Scots visited three centuries later. By the Battle of Culloden—fought 10 miles from where it stood—the tree was barely middle aged.

In 2021, the tree was diagnosed with Dutch elm disease, and a ceremony to celebrate its life was held the following year, attended by more than a hundred well-wishers. It was with regret that I learned of its demise earlier this year, toppled during a spell of bad weather.

If it had been spared disease, this tree—rangy and ragged though it was—might have carried on indefinitely. For, as the environmental historian Jared Farmer writes in his impressive, if occasionally exasperating, new book, Elderflora, “Trees don’t die of old age, but eventually succumb to accidents.” Unlike animals, they do not accumulate proteins that lead to degenerative diseases. A late-in-life tree will spread seeds as well as, if not better than, a young tree, and lay down new growth with the same vitality. But, for trees, life is long and often eventful. Unable to move in response to threats, they may face storms, droughts, wildfires or the woodman’s axe. Stressed-out trees can slow or stop their growth for years at a time, shut down or surrender parts of their bodies, or even regrow from stumps or fallen branches.

Thanks to these regenerative, shapeshifting qualities, calculating the exact age of an aged tree is harder than you might think. Though it has been understood for hundreds of years that trees measure out their lives in rings of wood, it was not until the 19th century that it was fully appreciated that the broadest-boled trees were not necessarily the oldest—that hunched, gnarled specimens eking out a living in arduous conditions might long outlast fine cathedral columns of redwood and sequoia, laying down only the thinnest gauze of new growth each year.

Ancient trees, whatever their size or stature, are compendiums of data, setting down their biographies in their bodies. Tree rings—the layers of cambium accumulated each growing season—are a record of past climatological and hydrological conditions, albeit stored cryptically and partially. These are records that skip, missing out the hardest years completely, or restarting out of sequence if conditions are unseasonably good. 

By matching growth patterns associated with known historical events—volcanic eruptions, for example, or El Niño cycles—one might then work backwards, estimating the dates of other occasions evidenced in the wooden records if only barely in written ones. The study of these organic archives is known as “dendrochronology”, and it has brought invaluable insight to the urgent work of climate modellers and to scholars of prehistory and palaeontology. As Farmer observes, “It almost seems miraculous that the longest-living individual plants on Earth have turned out to be perfect for Earth system science.”

Ancient trees, whatever their size or stature, are compendiums of data, setting down their biographies in their bodies

Dendrochronologists often work with fragments of ancient wood of unknown provenance—preserved for centuries in peatbogs or seawater or on arid mountainsides—piecing together these postcards from the long past to create extended linear timelines. Alone, wood-time exists only as a relative quality—time from germination—but, in context (cross-dating trees with other, long-lived specimens), we can join periods together, filling in the gaps in our knowledge. 

Farmer’s book offers us an overview of the development of this painstaking discipline, from da Vinci onwards, and—as the history of science tends to be—it is a story full of humorous misunderstandings, bitter rivalries and worse, and one in which many of the planet’s oldest living beings have been sacrificed on an altar of professional ambition. We follow in detail the story of Edmund Schulman, an unappreciated American pioneer of dendrochronology unfairly passed over in his lifetime due to his Jewish heritage; Farmer also pays tribute to the “socially dysfunctional” and “obsessive” men and women who followed in his footsteps, practising “slow science on remote trees” in relative obscurity. 

The resulting book is packed with human interest and engaging anecdotes, although Farmer’s writing style can be frustratingly opaque. His opening statement has the feeling of having been written over one feverish night, perhaps during some kind of epiphanic revelation. “Personification is intrinsic to treeness,” he insists, vaguely, in the second paragraph of the introduction, the sort of sentence you hear at 4am on a balcony somewhere, amid a cloud of smoke. He soon clarifies that he wants “to emphasize the potential sacrality of elongating the now, postponing the end, and abiding in uncertainty”.

It’s an unfortunate way to set the tone, as the book that follows is well-researched and set out. Often the arguments that lead us to these stoner conclusions turn out, in context, to be perfectly reasonable—although at his most impassioned Farmer is at his most obtuse. (At one point, in conversation with a Mexican activist, he describes how he “felt viscerally what I knew intellectually: In the modern world, ancient trees exist in multiple media on multiple scales.”)

Throughout he uses his own neologisms (“placetime”, “timewood”, “placeways”) and the technical terms of his field (“perdurable”, “monocots”, “lignophytes”)—all of which might be surmountable in isolation, but combine to build a barrier for the non-specialist reader. Farmer relates editorial comments sent by National Geographic editors to one of the scientists he writes about, warning that a “technical padlock” was weighing down his prose; in places, one could make the same criticism of Farmer’s own work.

But then… is it not refreshing to meet an author who takes his audience seriously, and expects them to keep up? Hilary Mantel advised writers to trust their readers, to give them the credit of “being as smart as you at least”. And this feels like Farmer’s aim, even if the effect is sometimes one of academic grandstanding. If it were a less interesting book, Elderflora’s more impenetrable sections (where, for example, he pontificates on whether “the modern cult of arboreal monuments could conceivably serve as a cross-cultural foundation for geotemporal thinking”) might have been enough to make me sigh and lay it down. But the book is filled with so many strange stories and counterintuitive facts—and such naked enthusiasm for his subject—that they are easily forgiven.

Thousand-year trees might be chopped down to make fenceposts or railway sleepers, or primeval trees preserved for millennia unearthed and split into roof shingles

Too often, the lives of the planet’s most venerable plants have come to untimely ends at the hands of humans. Farmer relates a most shameful history of our interactions with these “elderflora”, in which thousand-year trees might be chopped down to make fenceposts or railway sleepers, or primeval trees preserved for millennia unearthed and split into roof shingles. Many of the worst horror stories emerge from 19th-century America, where a combination of early scientific appreciation and rampant capitalism saw the greatest trees ruthlessly exploited. In the 1820s, the “Big Black Walnut Tree” of Lake Erie was “carved into a public house” that might accommodate “thirty standing guests”; later, a giant sequoia—a “living monument” to the fullness of time and nature’s longevity—was felled, hollowed out and turned into a bowling alley, while a “dance gazebo” was erected on its stump. Others were tunnelled through while still living to create novelty roadways, with tourist trinkets fashioned from their excavated heartwood.

Even at the time, commentators were complaining of the sacrilege of it all—the destruction of colossi “that would have been deified in heathen ages”. But these cases symbolise a wider wastefulness of that era, when across the colonial world private enterprise was ripping through old growth forests in the name of profit. In northern California, giant redwoods displaying “five to twenty centuries of growth rings” were being felled despite little to no demand, with an estimated wastage rate of around 70 per cent. In New Zealand, about half of each felled kauri tree, which can live to 1,500 or 2,000 years, would be turned to sawdust. The foresters themselves could be brought up short by the enormity of felling a goliath. Farmer spoke to one man who, returning to a fallen trunk, found “birds fluttering around there, kaka and kereru, that had nested in that tree for generations”. Unable to live with the shame, he packed in the job and later became famous for his botanical art. 

The price of novelty: tourists driving through a man-made tunnel in the famous Wawona Tree in Yosemite National Park, California © Patti McConville / Alamy Stock Photo The price of novelty: tourists driving through a man-made tunnel in the famous Wawona Tree in Yosemite National Park, California © Patti McConville / Alamy Stock Photo

Sometimes the dendrochronologists themselves have been guilty of arboricide. When our hero Edmund Schulman stumbles upon a grove of bristlecone pines in the Californian desert, each more than 4,000 years old, he swiftly decides that one must die in the name of science, returning in the cover of darkness with a cross-cut saw and his nephew to provide the muscle. Later, the “discovery” of the metasequoia—a Chinese redwood previously thought by western scientists to be long-extinct—sees a group of American researchers descend on the site, to the surprise of the villagers who had lived alongside the tree all their lives. The interlopers immediately fell one mature specimen, bore holes in another, all without permission from the locals who revere the plant and soon come to believe that the visiting scientists have brought a curse upon their community.

This dubious mission—“a hybrid of imperial botany, publicity junket, and doom tourism”—represents many of the ethical dilemmas of dendrochronology, which Farmer, to his credit, clear-sightedly explores. The discovery and dissection of ancient trees has brought us a great deal of scientific knowledge, but at what cost? It is not only the loss of these singular giants that we should mourn, notes Farmer, but a more general demystification of nature’s wonder and the loss of deference that has come with that knowledge.

The brash and exploitative interaction of colonial incomers stands in contrast to the reverence of the ancient shown by indigenous groups, and Farmer details many examples from around the world. Today, the California Yurok—“once and still the most populous indigenous group in the golden state”—are still working to “buy back stolen land, parcel by parcel” using the proceeds of carbon offset sales and charitable donations.

Being a researcher himself, Farmer believes in the value of study and science. But he grieves the “abstraction and datafication and despiritualisation” it entails. Is there an answer? Perhaps not, but he reminds us of the necessity of respecting our elders—those who live long upon the earth, human or otherwise.