When I was a kid, my British mother insisted we take down the Christmas tree before New Year’s Eve saying, “its bad luck to have an old tree in the new year.” This year, in contravention of Medieval European superstition, I have left my lime-green tinsel-branched tree standing. Although I consider myself a neo-pagan, atheistic heathen, I do celebrate Christmas. I do so to honor the multi-millennia human instinct to worship sun, trees, and planetary motion. But this year, I too, bow to trees.
Christmas trees, historically, came from this same impulse. Although Christmas-tree history was long ago mislaid amid myriad dusty files, we know the ancients venerated trees. From Roman evergreen boughs hung during the winter solstice Saturnalia festival to the pine, spruce and fir branches draped above windows and doors worldwide to deter witches, ghosts, evil spirits, illness and the like, people have long sought reassurance in mid-winter’s conifer green.
But long before December ensnared our imaginations with pine scent, trees enchanted people. European ceremonies performed today from dim memory—May Pole dances, Jack O’ The Green ceremonies, English tree dressing, Green Man Festivals—speak to a long history of arboreal reverence and respect—respect, that is, for trees that escaped the ax. Because, for as long as we have esteemed trees, we have felled them.
Humans clear-cut prehistoric forests worldwide as soon as they figured out how—stone axes, bronze, iron, steel—our technologies ever more efficient. Woodlands retain only a tiny roothold on once vast territories, and the trend has always been downhill. Except. Except for three small periods in human history when forests, joy of joys, vigorously rebounded.
We know forests convalesced AD 200 to 600, 1300-1400, and 1500-1750 because ice cores record plummeting CO2 levels during these periods. Of the CO2-absorbers—oceans, trees, and intact soils—only regenerating woodlands account for this change. The next question is, of course, what revived these forests? The answer isn’t very pretty, but gives us hope.
Now you know just how much I love nature, but I find great comfort in William Ruddiman’s research. It means we have a chance; something I have doubted for a long time. After a pandemic, people: burned less carbon, cut fewer trees, and, in their own absence, accomplished immense forest rejuvenation. Let’s see: burn less carbon, cut no trees, and recreate forests. We can do that! And I’m not talking about miserly, Ebenezer Scrooge forests; I’m talking majestic, obese, enormous, heroic, gigantic, native forests!
So, to echo Michael Pollin’s omnivores advice (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”); I offer: “Plant trees. Anywhere you can. As soon as possible.” It’s time we worshipped trees again.