Ecological Lessons From History: Where Did The Trees Go?

Everything is not as ecologically sound as it looks.

Things were better in the old days. People were more in tune with the natural world, the air was cleaner, the land less harassed by our demands upon it. The world was, in short, greener. We’ve all heard it before – but is it true? Of course it is – except when you start looking at the details. Don’t go putting our ancestors up on a pedestal of eco-friendly excellence…

Today we start a new series looking back into human history for traces of our enduringly complicated relationship with our planet’s eco-system, good and bad.

First up? Let’s talk about trees.


In recent decades, human beings have so lost touch with our need for healthy forests (the lungs of planet Earth) that they’ve started destroying them, squandering the long-term health of the biosphere for short-term economic gain. This didn’t happen in the old days. It’s a sign that historic and prehistoric people understood the natural world in a way modern people never could.


Since the birth of agriculture, humans have been razing forests for all sorts of reasons. It’s a great way to free up super-fertile soil for crop cultivation. It’s how land is opened up for hunting – both by encouraging fresh vegetation for game to snack on and by allowing hunters to easily get at that game. It’s a way of controlling pests. It’s ideal for creating “no-man’s land” for dividing political territory. And on and on. Think this only applies outside North America, thanks to the benign, nature-loving impact of ancient Native Americans? Think again. Large-scale landscape alterations didn’t just come with the Spanish explorers and missionaries. There is widespread environmental evidence for the use of fire as a land-management tool. It’s even been argued that the savannah or prairie was the natural state of the land with an established Native American population, and so the spread of European settlers led to the growth of forestry…

The Great American Forest may be more a product of settlement than a victim of it.

References on the American Indian Use Of Fire in Ecosystems, Gerald W. Williams, USDA Forest Service

But if you want to really see a smoking gun for prehistoric forest clearances, go to England. The heaths and moors so beloved of Emily Brontë and Thomas Hardy are Britain’s most extensive form of natural vegetation, with soils too acidic to hold forest growth. They’re rugged and beautiful – and in most cases the work of prehistoric human beings, fire-clearing huge amounts of land for hunting or agriculture and moving on when the soil couldn’t support them. Today moors and heaths are spectacularly diverse eco-systems that are carefully maintained by organizations like The Moorland Association. They’re a national treasure – but they’re also the remnants of Britain’s first environmental disasters.

How many of our modern forests are set to end up this way?

Images: James Whitesmith and *Micky

Mike Sowden

Mike Sowden is a freelance writer based in the north of England, obsessed with travel, storytelling and terrifyingly strong coffee. He has written for online & offline publications including Mashable, Matador Network and the San Francisco Chronicle, and his work has been linked to by Lonely Planet, World Hum and Lifehacker. If all the world is a stage, he keeps tripping over scenery & getting tangled in the curtain - but he's just fine with that.