Forests, Filters & Fathometers

#04 Making sense of the world

Hi everyone.

Welcome to issue #04 of my newsletter.

Practice may not make perfect in my case, but I’ve definitely noticed a greater efficiency in composing these newsletters - which is just as well because the amount of time I’d spent on the previous three is completely unsustainable (according to my wife, kids, job, cat and overflowing wheelie bins).

This week’s main post was inspired by a tome of a book I’m currently reading called The Overstory by Richard Power. It is a tangled epic about the destruction of forests in America and reminded me of a similar situation closer to home, in Dublin, Ireland.

Chop: An Eco Polemic

On a busy Dublin street, witnesses of time stand proud in a mile long procession - chestnuts, beech and other species whose names I do not know.  Some reach higher than the rooftops, most witnessed the foundation of the Irish State.  

Yet the State wants to chop them down4,700 trees, if you include the the whole city.  That’s the price of economic progress I guess. 

A massive infrastructural project is afoot.  Roads need widening - the worker bees, we’re told, must be moved faster around the city.

As car after car creeps along the street, this magnificent parade of trees flank them on either side, absorbing their noxious gases, cleaning the foul air. 

Yet here they are on the chopping block - collateral damage from a plan borne of collective blindness.

"That’s the trouble with people, their root problem.  Life runs alongside them, unseen. Right here, right next.  Creating the soil. Cycling water. Heading nutrients. Making weather.  Building atmosphere. Feeding and curing and sheltering more kinds of creatures than people know how to count.”

Richard Power, The Overstory

The Foundation Myths

Amidst a climate crisis, the proposal remains shortsighted. By chopping down these "social creatures", we remove the softness from the hardness of city life.  Sometimes we take trees for granted - on our streets and in our parks, everyone shares them but only a few notice. 

Things weren't always this way.   

Trees were eulogised in foundation myths - Ovid in Norse mythology, Vishnu the Hindu protector of the universe, the Buddha’s Bodhi tree.

The tree is our blood relative. We parted ways 1.5 billion years ago but still share a quarter of our genes.  Indigenous peoples instinctively knew this - the aborigines, Native Americans and others.

The rest of us knew it too, once upon a time, but we forgot.

Childhood Stories

As a child, trees were abundantly represented in our favourite stories.  I felt happy in Winnie The Pooh’s 100 Acre Forest, calm in The Secret Garden, terror in the darkness of Tolkein’s Taur-nu-Fuin forest.

Now all I feel is guilty.  The Giving Tree reflects this emotion. 

It’s a fable about human’s exploitation of nature.  A boy consumes all the fruits borne of a benevolent tree. As a man, he strips it for wood, and in his dotage, all that remains is a stump to serve as his pathetic seat.  

I loved this book as a naive child , but hate it as an adult - all I can see is the boy's behaviour reflected back at me.

“Somewhere inside each of us dwells a belief in [a] central lie—that we are nothing but greedy self-gratifying machines”

Naomi Klein

New Animism

Today, a promise emerges from a grassroot's movement called New Animism.  Inspired by our indigeneous ancestors, it's a rights of nature movement, a campaign to recognise a kinship across the species divide.   

This messy idealism emerged mostly out of desperation but it is proving effective. Communities are reclaiming agency from corporations and governments all over the world.

This year, a lake became human.  

For years, Lake Erie one of Ohio's Great Lakes had been in ecological crisis. Invasive species were rampant.  Biodiversity had crashed. Fertiliser and slurry pollution was so foul, the toxic algae it nourished could be seen from space.

The neighbouring city of Toledo radicalised.  An emergency "bill of rights” granted the "Lake Erie ecosystem" legal personhood.  It now has the right “to exist, flourish, and naturally evolve”, making ecocide a crime.

In Sheffield, UK, when it emerged 17,000 street trees would be felled under the blind logic that roots were damaging footpaths, communities mobilised to prevent their city’s deforestation.  2,500 trees fell before the council cowed to public pressure.

“[We] seem to have stirred a sense of recognition…that humans were never alone, that we have always been surrounded by beings who share elements of that which we thought most distinctively our own: the capacities of will, thought and consciousness.”

Amitav Ghosh

Respect

In Ireland, the thorn tree, known locally as the fairy tree is respected, not feared.  So numerous are the tales of disaster that befell those “foolish” enough to interfere with them, no one dares disturb them anymore.

As the extreme consequences of our warming planet dawns, we would be wise to heed this superstition - if anything, to keep this 200,000 year old upright upstart in check.  

The time of manifest destiny, when nature was viewed as humankind's God-given resource to exploit, is ending. The modern world is turning back to the wisdom of our ancestors and radically reshaping human to non-human relationships, ensuring our future is one worth living.

As I peer up the same Dublin Street, rush hour has long since passed and darkness has fallen.  The trees stand in silhouette, as street lamps illuminate red ribbons wrapped around each trunk - symbolising a modest expression of our returning respect for nature.

“I take the part of trees”

J.R.R Tolkien

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Quote Of The Week

If you enjoyed my post last week on Naive Realism, you might enjoy this fantastic quote I came across the other day. It’s from an interview with the insightful Adam Scott, creator of the Dilbert comic series, on why non-fiction writing is really fiction writing.

“The people who are writing non-fiction believe they're telling you what is objectively true in the world - but we don't have that capability.

We all have this illusion that the version of the world we're seeing is The One and if anybody's got a different version, they must be wrong. It's the most common illusion we all have…most of what we regard as fact is some kind of filtered truth.

It's not just that the winners write [history] but their history is written for a strategic functional purpose.”

Adam Scott


Sometimes The World Isn’t Ready For A Good Idea

Harry Hess was an American Geologist who was put in charge of a submarine during WW2.

Even though he was at war, he couldn’t help using the vessel’s fancy new fathometer (a device used to aid beach landings) for scientific purposes.

He tasked the fathometer with scanning the sea floor and never switched it off. From this unorthodox use of military equipment, Hess discovered the seabed was not infact flat, as previously thought. Instead it was strewn with enormous canyons, trenches, and volcanic sea mountains.

Today, his discovery is seen as the precursor to two foundational geological truths:

  1. the earth’s crust moves around on seven individual tectonic plates

  2. the earth’s landmass was once a single supercontinent (Panagea).

Hess elaborated his arguments in an important paper, but sadly, his ideas were universally ignored for many years.

Sometimes the world isn’t ready for a good idea.


That’s all for this week.

I recieved an email the other day from a subscriber asking me what was the point of this newsletter. I wish I knew!!! After a couple of years of procrastination, I’m surprised I’m actually doing this at all.

If anything, writing is a great way to get all the gunk out of your head. Publishing your work online is an amazing source of motivation, accountability and most importantly, feedback so you can improve. Also, we all know it’s good to push yourself beyond your comfort zone once in a while!

As usual, I can be found on email and Twitter.

Thanks a million,

Scott