Trees

On a recent visit to Oxford, I happened upon a bold symbol of the history I mean to write. It was a wet spring and the Cherwell River had flooded. Since I was spending just a short time with family between a workshop on hazardous chemicals in Munich and getting home to my wife and children in Ontario, I didn’t have with me the necessary footwear to tromp across the soggy fields that separate the town and colleges from Marston, where I was staying. The Romans might have marched straight across the fields, but they would have been better shod. So I stuck to the pavements, making a more circuitous walk towards Summertown and then down the Marston Ferry Road. The route took me past the Museum of Natural History, which had on its front lawn a rather striking exhibit called “Ghost Forest,” a collection of massive tropical forest tree stumps, mounted—lying down—on stone slabs. I tarried. It was late afternoon, and as I wandered from installation to installation, reading each plaque—which indicated the tree species and its full height in a manner that felt more like eulogy than informative display—the world became rather quiet. The traffic and bustle of the road, not twenty feet away on the other side of the waist-high stone wall, was muted. I was in a mausoleum, or the silent aura one associates with entering a church.

The exhibit was surprisingly moving: less, perhaps, the explicit ghost forest message, and more, simply, the massive remnants of once-living things. Shelley might have written a less arrogant version of “Ozymandias” for them, where just the stumps remain. I was transported back to childhood holidays on Vancouver Island and trips to Cathedral Grove. There’ Douglas Firs older than the Oxford colleges, through which I had roamed prior to discovering the ghost forest, still stand protected from the axe, accessible to visitors. Equally massive, awe-inspiring. In reflecting upon both Oxford and Vancouver Island, the word “majestic” belongs in this piece.

A significant portion of environmental history’s mission is to highlight human trespasses into nature. Themes of resource extraction, landscape despoliation, scarcity, and sustainability abound in the literature. Global analyses of these topics also investigate the social, economic, and historical factors that explain the more rapid rate of deforestation in the tropical world in relation to the increased protection of old-growth stands in the northern, more prosperous parts of the world (a far from simple, perfect, or complete distinction). The ghost forest was a warning—a testament. But in Oxford, I was especially struck by the sadness I felt. Maybe it was the fatigue of travel catching up with me, combined with mounting homesickness. But the sadness seemed to be born of a kind of kinship—very distant cousins, as it were—with those stumps. It felt more like a palpable reminder of the larger community of life, to which we are all connected.