Category Archives: History
A story of gaps in the understory
Philadelphia has a whole host of missing trees and none are more famous than the Great Elm of Shackamaxon. Jon Spruce journeys to the hereafter and back…
At the time of its toppling, it was 283 years old, eight feet in diameter and twenty-four feet in circumference.Its final height is in dispute but, if it was still alive, and even if it hadn’t grown an inch since 1810, it would stand above us all, today, as the reigning champion elm tree of Philadelphia.Its place is commemorated with a statue of brother William Penn himself, right off Delaware Avenue, in Penn Treaty Park.
How demand for wooden drinking cups diminished an ancient yew
Ash, at treeblog, gave himself a tree-tour of a birthday trip. In the first part of the journey, Birthday Tour (Part 1): Loch Rannoch – the Fortingall Yew – Bridge of Balgie, he meets a truly charismatic ancient tree in a post rich with historical illustration:
The Fortingall Yew is one of the oldest known trees in Europe. Allen Meredith (whose estimates according to The Tree Register Handbook “are as well-informed as anyone’s”) has suggested it could be as old as 5,000 years (along with the yews at Discoed in Powys and Llangernyw in Conwy), which is certainly something to think about. But what I find truly incredible is the gargantuan size it once reached. Forget the Yew as it stands today, so small, so utterly destroyed by ‘tourists’ in the 18th and 19th centuries, and try to wrap your mind around this: in the mid-1700s the Fortingall Yew had a girth of 56 and a half feet (17.2 m): a diameter of 5.5 metres (18 ft)! Consider that the thickest tree in Britain today is probably the Marton Oak with a dbh of 446 cm when measured around the three remaining sections of its trunk (although there are giant sequoias 7 m thick where their flared boles meet the ground). A five-and-a-half metre thick yew is phenomenal!
The New Sylva
Authors Gabriel Hemery and Sarah Simblet have a blog following the progress of their work in progress, The New Sylva. This aims to be an updated version of John Evelyn‘s famous work seventeenth century survey of British trees Sylva, or A Discourse of Forest-Trees and the Propagation of Timber :
Three hundred and fifty years after Evelyn first published his tour de force, we again realise that there is an important if not unprecedented role for trees, forests and timber in our lives, and with this, an imperative need to refresh our view. As society continues to experience increasing environmental change, trees will become more valued and needed, not only as beautiful plants shaping our landscapes and city parks, affirming our sense of place and heritage, but also as our most green renewable resource, and one of our most important environmental protectors. Trees provide carbon-lean products for construction, heat and energy, while at the same time they can control flooding, soil erosion, and reduce the destructive power of winds. Woodlands help to maintain the quality of our drinking water, provide habitat for wildlife, and play a crucial role in helping biodiversity adapt to climate change.
The New Sylva will bring the essence of John Evelyn’s most celebrated work to a new readership. It will integrate sensitively parts of his original, visionary and very beautiful prose, with a much-needed contemporary review. It will deliver authoritative scholarship in a style that is brief, clear, accessible, and pleasurable to read, and for the very first time, it will be copiously illustrated. The New Sylva will celebrate mankind’s relationship with trees through a creative integration of history, science and art.
One of their blog’s recent posts shows a time lapse film of one of the illustrations in progress – six hours of work reduced to two concentrated minutes!
The Polish Soldier Beech
The exiled Polish government succeeded in negotiating training and recruitment efforts in North America. In Canada, over 200 men were recruited and here’s the local connection: they received basic and mechanized infantry training at a camp that ran in Owen Sound from May 1941 to May 1942. This wood, or rather the one that existed before it but was logged after the war, formed part of their training ground. And this beech, part of that earlier forest, bears an inscription carved over 70 years ago by one of those soldiers. Though distorted by weathering and the expansion of the tree’s trunk, the words, “Polska” and the year “1942″ can be seen clearly. The rest of the wording is less clear, but has been deciphered and translated to reveal the soldier’s name and the words, “Poland shall not perish” (the first words of the Polish national anthem).
Making a living from ancient olive trees
In more traditional American forestry circles, one can still hear “old growth” being used as a synonym for “over-mature,” the stage in the life of a tree or stand at which it begins to lose value as saw-timber. It’s worth remembering, however, that trees have many other economic values (to say nothing of cultural and ecological values) besides wood production — and sometimes these values actually increase with age. Examples include carbon sequestration, water storage and purification services, and the size of fruit or nut crops for certain species. Both sugar maples and rubber trees give more sap the older they get, so maple sugar and natural rubber production can take place within virtually unaltered old-growth landscapes. And many species of prized mushrooms do best in old-growth forests.
A less wild but still impressive example of the economic usefulness of ancient trees is exemplified by a new post at Spicelines blog, “Spain: From the Time of the Romans, an Ancient Olive Tree Bears Fruit.” The author visits a small-scale olive grower in Andalucia.
At least one of these ancient trees, which he calls “the millenary olive,” is estimated to be 1,800 years old, and may been planted in the time of the Romans. It’s an Hojiblanco and from a distance, it is an ungainly creature with branches, some broken or split, jutting at awkward angles. Only as we get closer do I see how massive the trunk is and how it spreads over the ground. It’s pockmarked with holes and deep crevasses, and on one side, where the wood has rotted away, there is a child-size hollow. “This is where I would hide myself when I was little,” Fermin says, laughing at the memory. “I would stay here for hours.”
This handsome relic still produces olives which lend their peppery, almond-like flavor to Vizcantar oils.
I’d heard that olive trees of great age were still producing oil all around the Mediterranean, so I was pleased to get this virtual tour of one such grove. Read the rest.
Rubber trees and the Mayan ball game
The rubber tree has played an important role in modern industrial society, but its influence on human history stretches back 3600 years, as a fascinating post at the Lower Dover Field Journal makes clear.
Von Guérard’s traveling grass trees
From Ian Lunt’s Research Site comes a story about the challenges involved in studying old paintings to learn how Australian forests have changed over the past 150 years. It seems that a 19th-century painter named Eugene von Guérard, fired by Alexander von Humboldt’s plea to artists to paint landscapes, fauna and flora as accurately as possible, resorted to some interesting strategems to make his paintings look especially authentic — and these tweaks present special challenges to modern conservation biologists trying to use his paintings for restoration projects. Most egregiously,
Von Guérard included grass trees in many of his paintings. Not only that, but he repeatedly drew grass-trees in pairs, with the base of their twin trunks obscured behind a shrub or log, as though hiding a large pot plant that he’d carted around the countryside just for this purpose. Indeed, he plonked his pot plant down in almost exactly the same place in his paintings of Tower Hill and the Warrenheip hills (see paintings above).