The Longest Death
There is a scene in the National Geographic documentary Jane (2017), in which a swarm of chimpanzees in the Gombe National Park surround a banana bearing Jane Goodall circa 1960. They pace around, swinging from lush green trees, characterfully coercing the bananas from Dr Goodall. It is one of the first attempts from humans in gaining the trust of chimpanzees; it results in a lifelong friendship between Jane and the chimps of the Gombe National Park in Tanzania. Now, at almost 87, Goodall continues to champion the conservationist and environmentalist policies that made her known to the world over 60 years ago. The primatologist has long loved and connected to the animals that have surrounded her in her work. But as the years went by, Goodall developed a greater extremity in her campaigning and tone. Like many conservationists, she understood that in her line of work, a grave urgency in its messaging was required in order to translate to the masses the impending doom of planet Earth’s death.
In the New Year, Goodall spoke to Jonathan Watts of The Guardian about the need for hope in the fight against climate. She insisted there are things to be positive about. In order to achieve climate solutions, we must recognise the hopeful improvements along the way. “If you plant trees in a city,” she says, “it has enormous benefits – it cools the temperature, cleans the air, stabilises the soil against flooding and improves psychological and physical health, to mention only a few.” To put it simply, trees in cities = good. Scientists with the USDA Forest Service estimate that the US went from 42.9% urban and community tree coverage to 42.2% between 2009-2014. This figure may seem insignificant, but it translates to the loss of roughly 36 million trees in the span of five years. If that trend continues it will bring about detrimental consequences for urbanised areas. While some major European cities fair quite well compared to others in their tree coverage, the decline of the tree population, from the island peripheries to the buzzing metropolitan centres and grander forested planes of the continent, has been grave.
Their role in maintaining the basic requirements of clean air for urban spaces is simple and paramount. But the world’s attention to trees has dwindled, and their slow death is caught in a loop of recycled rejection and rapid decline.
We once held an abundance of admiration for the world’s trees. Sweeping romanticism adorned their roots, their leaves, and their shelter. The mutual respect between man and tree was apparent, and the gratitude was ample. In 1803 William Wordsworth wrote of his beloved yew-tree:
“This solitary Tree! -a living thing
Produced too slowly ever to decay;
Of form and aspect too magnificent
To be destroyed.”
Wordsworth wrote often about his adoration for nature and the land in which he traversed. From gentle love notes to longer sonnets, the sublime duty and awe encapsulated in his nature poems are a constant reminder of the poetic power of Earth and her subjects. I will glance again and again at “-a living thing”, being reminded of the opposite in today’s societal landscape.
“I will glance again and again at “-a living thing”, being reminded of the opposite in today’s societal landscape.”
Despite worsening global deforestation (the World Wildlife Fund puts the loss at around 18.7 million acres of forests per year), Europe has seen a reverse of international trends when it comes to forest cover. As Goodall says to Watts, more emphasis must be placed on the ongoing environmental restoration projects around the world; one needs to be aware of the possibility of positive change. “If you lose hope,” she says, “why bother?”. There has been encouraging tree coverage statistics emerging across the European Union in the past decade. The European Commission currently puts the forest and wooded land coverage across the EU at over 182 million hectares, which is about 42% of the EU’s total land area (with the largest forest areas being in Sweden, Finland, and Spain respectively). But where once society lauded and marvelled at this power and prowess of trees in the urban space, there is an increasingly lacklustre attitude toward trees in our cities. While the European forest coverage statistics are improving, there are only a select few cities with an ambitious and committed urban tree scheme. Only one European city, Oslo at number three, makes MIT’s Senseable City Lab tree coverage list (with Tampa, Singapore, Sydney, and Vancouver rounding out the top five). In a decade of increased conservation and climate change awareness, and big airtime for environmental activists from Thunberg to Attenborough, there is still a limp and lagging enthusiasm from politicians in turning their cities leafy green.
In Paris, Mayor Anne Hidalgo announced the city’s new “urban forests” plan back in 2019. From the Hôtel de Ville to the Opera Garnier, the city is quickly becoming one of the greenest in Europe. In contrast, a once lush Dublin city has seen many of its local politicians take greater interest in tree felling and clearing than re-planting and expanding the leafy centre.
Until his death in 1967, poet Patrick Kavanagh would often stroll around Dublin’s city streets and walkways, in awe at the voluminous branches and the tall and ageing tree trunks dotted along the canal waters and pavements. He wrote of the Grand Canal’s stillness in nature with an abundance of appreciation:
“Greeny at the heart of summer. Brother
Commemorate me thus beautifully
Where by a lock niagarously roars
The falls for those who sit in the tremendous silence
Greeny the city once was, but has since been neglected by the construction and development plans of various politicians. While there is burgeoning and positive strides in new conservation projects across Dublin in the past two years, the fervour of the city’s poets seems to have been lost on those in power.
“the world’s attention to trees has dwindled, and their slow death is caught in a loop of recycled rejection and rapid decline.”
So, what has happened to all our trees? Many have died a premature death, and others suffer from the neglect and mishandling of our leaders. While many trees are flourishing in forested landscapes, our urban areas are in dire need of leafy covering and a fresh start. Like plants, animals, and humans, the living species of our planet have time called on their lifespan like all Earth’s subjects, but the guilt of not doing enough to nurture the tree populations across the world is immortal in its longevity; the possibility of their disappearance is as big as the hope we could save them. If the former comes to pass, the longest death of the tree will be outdone by our guilt in letting them perish.
“Will there really be a morning?
Is there such a thing as day?
Could I see it from the mountains
If I were as tall as they?
Has it feet like water-lilies?
Has it feathers like a bird?
Is it brought from famous countries
Of which I have never heard?
Oh, some scholar! Oh, some sailor!
Oh, some wise man from the skies!
Please to tell a little pilgrim
Where the place called morning lies!”
– Emily Dickinson, Will there really be a morning?