A wander through the science and symbolism of majestic oaks, as we search for a way home to forests.

Along  the country lane, a solitary row of oak trees arches towards the road  as if to offer a safe passage to all who pass. The winter branches are  bare and the rain-soaked wood is black against the grey sky. These oaks  are exposed to the full force of storms, climate and petrol fumes. They  also suffer the runoff from pesticides used on nearby farms.

As I pass the lane I feel a twinge of regret.

In  the Devon landscape these isolated oaks appear not as Tolkien’s Ents,  but as bronchial silhouettes. Perhaps like you, I have my own  perspective on trees, familiar with those in my local environment. I  associate them with breath, oxygen and life.

I now also recognise them as masterpieces of evolution.

Oak  evolution had been taking place for at least 50 million years before  our first apelike ancestors began walking upright on two legs. They  radiated and expanded across Europe, North America and East Asia,  leaving large numbers of co-occurring species in their wake, all with  the potential to hybridise and exchange genes that would prove useful as  they continued to colonise new territory.

As  the last glacial period thawed, birch and pine, hazel, elm, oak and  alder spread across all of Britain, forming an expansive wild wood. From  the Neolithic age deforestation began in earnest when half of all  forests were cleared for agriculture. Each succeeding era saw vast  depletions of trees for timber and pasture land which continues today.

Not so long ago we hunted, cooked, feasted, and created new life under the leafy boughs and canopies of trees.

If  a helicopter could fly over Britain just a thousand years ago the land  would have looked like a mosaic of dense canopy and open ground. You  would see ‘thin blue spirals of smoke rising here and there’ from the  cottages; the oaks thriving near the outskirts where they could gain  sufficient light.

Dwelling  in the forests, we forged a sympathetic connection to oaks as we lived  as part of a mutual ecosystem. As we started to migrate into the  swelling farms and villages we brought with us the folkloric oak beliefs  that for so long enabled us to live and cooperate as a species in their  world.

To  fell an old oak tree was almost unthinkable: medieval woodcutters  feared the dreadful ‘shrieks and groans’ that came from the tree as it  was about to fall. They were warned off by superstitions that misfortune  would befall those who cut down ancient oak groves.

Destroying something so old and deep-rooted has never been taken lightly.

As  the forest shared ever more of its resources with us, we grew confident  in despoiling its ecosystem until we abandoned it for good. Now we can  no longer hear the oak’s screams we have fewer qualms about cutting it  down.

As  we hurtle into a new planetary age of mass extinction, the oak trees  reveal what it means to thrive as a species. In doing so they hold up a  mirror to the human race, perhaps reflecting an uncomfortable truth.

We  formed an emotional attachment to oaks, more than with any other tree.  For thousands of years oaks stood as symbols of stoicism, strength and  the wisdom of old age. This much is evident in the many spoken aphorisms  that draw on their robustness and resilience. You could even say we  lavish them with too much human compassion.

As  far as trees go there isn’t anything especially outstanding about oaks.  Their immune systems are strong, having evolved to ‘neutralise’ many of  their natural enemies: viruses, bacteria, insects and fungi among other  pathogens. Being resistant to disease and rot also contributes to the  high value of oak wood as a building material.

The  towns and villages emerged from postglacial forests and were  constructed with oak timber. In the houses, dining tables, bookcases and  floorboards were all made from oak: the wood being preferred for its  durability, versatility and appearance.

As  the timber ages it’s said to become stronger, but this is barely an  aphorism. Rather, it becomes more beautiful as it acquires an antique  charm.

Contrary  to belief, oaks are not the longest surviving of all trees or the most  robust. A bristlecone pine claims the record at around 4,867 years. Old  Tjikko, a spruce in Sweden, is an estimated 9,550 years old!

The  oldest oak in Britain is the Bowthorpe Oak at around 1000 years — an  infant in comparison. Ebony wood is stronger than oak, ranking among  various hardwoods in the African and Indian continents. And like us,  oaks are also vulnerable to acute population decline by new and foreign  viruses.

Yet  oak trees carry a potent symbolic status that informs our understanding  and beliefs about them. For some plant scientists our romantic ideas  about oaks, and trees in general, could have unintended ecological  consequences.

As  the world wakes up to the climate emergency, rising numbers of people  are taking a stance against the ongoing deforestation rapidly wiping out  millions of species.

Evolutionary  scientist, Dr. Thibault Leroy, and his colleagues, recently published  an article on oak symbolism in the light of genomics. While pleased to  observe a growing popular interest in trees and the protection of  forests, Leroy has voiced his concern about a growing movement to resist  felling any trees.

Leroy’s  argument is that forests need to be sensibly managed so we can start  replacing plastic products (made with fossil fuels) with sustainable  wood-based solutions. He questions if an emergence of anthropomorphic  nature writing might be fuelling romanticised ideas of trees that could  compromise our ability to effectively solve the climate crisis.

One bestselling work has made quite a stir in the scientific community. In The Hidden Life of Trees,  Peter Wohlleben presents the case that trees are ‘feeling and  communicating’ creatures that live together like human families. In the  forests, tree parents nurture their offspring and provide nutrients to  ‘sick and struggling’ trees, comprising a social system.

Wohlleben’s  anthropomorphic narrative is largely inspired by scientific findings  that trees are connected to sprawling mycorrhizal networks that drive  acts of reciprocity and mutual support. These discoveries were made by  Suzanne Simard, Professor of Forest Ecology, who in her ground-breaking  work also identified ‘mother trees as vital hubs’ performing a variety  of functions that place them in the role of forest caregivers to  saplings.

This  new perspective of plant interdependence looks beyond natural selection  as an unintentional chemical process. Instead, it probes the  evolutionary mechanisms which engender cooperation, communication and  kinship in nature.

Does  Simard’s science and Wohlleben’s narrative imply trees in forests are  more like human societies than previously thought? Well, there is an  important distinction to be made. For humans, social cohesion is a  complex emotional experience: something that is carried out  intentionally as well as instinctually, and is largely due to our  language skills. We know plants communicate through chemical signalling,  but do they behave intentionally? Not as far as we know.

Within  the plant science community Simard’s research is well-respected.  Neither is there any empirical problem in likening human characteristics  to trees. They compete and cooperate for survival just as we do —  although they do so very differently.

It’s  possible we have always ascribed human characteristics to trees,  wanting to know them as feeling, communicating, and sentient beings in  order to pay them respect — perhaps not to feel so alone — but in doing  so we miss an opportunity to tap into something far richer and  transformative in the light of modern science.

Oaks  are an evolutionary success in terms of diversity and abundance. Dr  Andrew Hipp, Senior Scientist in Plant Systematics, describes them as  435 species all working on solving the same problems, over and over in  different ways.’ Of all the woody plant genera of North America, oaks  have the highest number of species and most biomass. By their sheer  diversity and ability to adapt, exchange genes, and migrate rapidly,  they have come to dominate in a wide range of forest types. And,  remarkably, they often share the same community: when you find one oak  species in a forest, you commonly find at least one other as well.

But  to call this a ‘success’ is perhaps to put too much of the human into  the trees. They flourish through natural selection, migration, mating  with their own kind and others, speciating, going extinct — all of which  are natural events.

One  can try to understand these processes in relation to the human  experience, but even using anthropomorphic language we will struggle to  relate to migrating without legs, radiating across continents,  cross-pollinating in the wind and speciating over millennia. Like  mathematics, understanding trees requires us to comprehend patterns and  forces in nature that elude our senses and daily life experiences.

For  biologists, using language to accurately describe an oak species is  just as elusive. Oaks consist of so many converging characteristics it’s  difficult to tell some species apart just by observation. In this sense  there’s no such thing as a definitive oak species, but a kaleidoscope  of oaks.

Trees aren’t like us at all. They’re not one but 60,000 species.

As  humans we take pride in our large brains and talents for science and  poetry. Having mastered tools and technology we think of ourselves as  supremely successful and destined to last. But consider this: we once  inhabited the Earth with other hominid species that shared many of our  evolutionary challenges.

And now we are just one.

Alone, we face the problem of imminent extinction from a catastrophic event like the advent of a super virus. The complex and subtle diversity of tree evolution stands in stark contrast to our own.

In  a very short time, human civilisation forged an alternative reality in  conflict with the natural world. Deep in our conurbations we are a  beleaguered species, addicted to gas, coal and oil. It seems the more  efficient we become the more we compromise our natural environment.

Our  vision is narrowed by an obsession with clock time. As a species in a  hurry, we travel in the most linear way to arrive sooner rather than  later.

When  one thousand ancient woodlands are to be cleared to make way for the  UK’s new High-Speed railway, bypassing the old oaks isn’t workable. A  route which bends and detours like a snaking woodland stream adds  several unbearable minutes onto the journey.

Our  need to get places faster has presented us with a dilemma: the more  efficiently we use the Earth’s resources the cheaper they become and the  more we rely on them. Consumption levels continue to rise, as does  climate chaos, creating a rebound effect.

Hominids have been failing to arrive at win-win situations with our own and other species.

As  the last survivor of our kind we remain inescapably bound to forests,  just as the shore is bound to the ocean. Trees were once everything to  us: our keepers providing food and fuel and the timber we used to build  ships, housing and so much more. Now that we know our reliance on fossil  fuels is leading to catastrophe, we are searching for a way to return  to trees.

If  the life of oaks can teach us anything, it’s how we overthink the  problem of survival. Shall we privatise this or that service so the  strong can prosper? Or should everyone pay into a system that  distributes the benefits evenly, ensuring the weak can also thrive? At  every turn we are torn between the choice to either cooperate or  compete.

Oak  trees do not share our burden of having to make choices. They perform  their evolutionary tasks with indifference to their suffering  neighbours. As they also pay no attention to the myriad benefits they  bestow on the animals and other plants they host.

By  way of our mindset, we are locked into a contest with nature for finite  resources. But with oaks there are no contradictions: different species  live side by side in an understated unity.

The oak simply thrives, and, all things being equal, exists in the complex society of which it forms a magnificent part.

Curious for more? Sources and references for this article can be found here.