The trees that hold the secrets to our past… and our future?

Tricia Moxey, today CPRE Essex vice-chairman but a daughter of Ramsgate, reviews a book that is both fascinating and concerning  

Trees grow well in Kent and in recent years enthusiasts have been out and about measuring and recording the tallest, oldest and more unusual specimens.
There are some wonderful tall and large-girthed oaks and beeches in the parkland at Knole and other long-established parks. The Majesty Oak standing in Fredville Park, Nonington, was a well-established tree in 1554 when it was called the Fredville Oak – and people travelled to admire it then! Today its girth is 12.36 metres and it is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest maiden oak in the United Kingdom.
As a tree grows, it lays down an annual ring of new woody tissue just beneath the bark. The width of each ring will reflect the growing conditions of each specific year – wider in a year of warmth and rain, narrower in dry years. Using many sections of wood from different species, it is possible to chart the relationship between tree ring growth and changes in climatic conditions.
This study is called dendrochronology and can be used to date timbers from buildings and wooden objects. Linking these patterns of growth rings in different species with many and varied datable sources of historic information, it is now possible to plot warmer or colder decades and use these to theorise about the impact of such changes on past civilisations.
In her recently published book Tree Story, The History of the World Written in Rings, Valerie Trouet, an ardent dendrochronologist, details her fascinating story of locating some of the oldest living trees around the world. Once found, their rings were sampled and examined to reveal detailed records of how changes in climate shaped their growth pattern over several centuries.
She discussed her findings with historians and archaeologists and in this eloquently written book poses theories about the link between changes in climate and the rise and fall of earlier civilisations as agricultural production either prospered or failed with dire consequences.
This summer, UK farmers recorded the worst wheat harvest for 40 years due to the recent changes in weather patterns. Fortunately, this is unlikely to lead to widespread famine in the Home Counties thanks to our ability to import grain from other countries.
However, the increasing numbers of devastating hurricanes, plagues of locusts, unseasonal late frosts, summer droughts and increasing levels of soil erosion are some of the challenges facing agriculturalists around the globe. We should all be concerned as food security will become a major issue in the years ahead as climate instability increases and we should seriously consider ways to reduce our own carbon footprints and food miles.

References
Trouet, Valerie. 2020. Tree Story, The History of the World Written in Rings John Hopkins University
Berners-Lee, Mike. 2019. There is No Planet B CUP            
Berners-Lee, Mike. 2020. How Bad are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything. Kindle Edition

Tuesday, February 24, 2021

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