Monday Musings – An Irish “Overstory”

Richard Powers’s Pullitzer prize winning novel “The Overstory” is about tree lovers who, as environmental activists, make enormous sacrifices in their efforts to thwart the activities of lumber companies they believe are destroying the natural forests of the North West seaboard of North America. Following a tragic accident they separate and try to resume normal lives. Years later the consequences of their earlier activities come to haunt them in various ways.

My son gave me the book for my birthday and I thoroughly enjoyed it. More than that, I recognised it as a seminal work in the way it extols the true value of trees, way beyond their commercial benefits as a building material and source of paper, cardboard and cloth.

I believe there’s a parallel with the book in this story about a woman who is waging war against the planting of Sitka Spruce as a cash crop in Ireland. She claims, in her defence, that the species is alien to Ireland, that it competes with native species. When removing them from a plantation in County Cork she planted native species in their stead.

Image of Sitka Spruce plantation in mountainous area.
Attribution unknown, found at https://greennews.ie/is-new-investment-in-forestry-really-a-good-thing-for-ireland/

Personally I would oppose the destruction of any tree. We need to be planting many millions as part of the international effort to mitigate against climate change. The case surely illustrates the complexity of ecology and the environment which activists – and the rest of us – have to negotiate.

The Irish government has an on-line information sheet about Sitka Spruce which, whilst acknowledging the species natural habitat is a narrow coastal strip in the North West of North America, points out that it was introduced to Europe, including Ireland, in the 1830s. So it is now well established in forestry throughout the country. Although it is important to add that, until recently, Ireland was generally lacking in forests of any kind and remains one of the least forested countries in Europe.

The fact sheet goes on to state that, ideally, it should be planted alongside native species; that it is important as a building material, especially when processed into MDF and OSB; and that it sequestrates carbon, contributing to the country’s Paris Climate Accord commitments.

Ms Jones was found guilty on Friday but sentencing was deferred until October 30th.

I have some sympathy for her actions, being instinctively opposed to all forms of monoculture, from palm oil to soya, and from maize to cotton.

The Irish government’s claim, in the fact sheet, that Spruce is ideally interplanted with native species, clearly shows that those who oversee our forestries agree. What is not obvious is the extent to which either the semi-state forestry organisation, Coillte, or private forest developers, follow that recommendation. The article that accompanies the photograph I used above points out some of the potential negative impacts of Sitka spruce plantations. (Follow the link in the photo caption).

The UK’s Woodland Trust does not mention interplanting, but points out that the dense canopy (one of the attributes that Ms Jones and her supporters object to), “provides cover from the wind and rain for larger mammals, while birds of prey and smaller birds, such as crossbill, tree creeper, coal tit and siskin, may use Sitka spruce for nesting.”

According to woodlands.co.uk “About 70% of Britain’s commercial tree plantations are Sitka Spruce.” This ratio is echoed in Ireland.

As for alien species, as a gardener I know that our gardens are full of alien species: trees, shrubs and flowering plants. Nor is fauna exempt: think grey squirrels, mink and coypu.

Weird fact: Archibald Menzies, the first European to identify the species, was impressed by the anti scurvy properties of a beer made from its needles. Menzies lived to 98. I can’t find any record of whether his great age is attributable to the drinking of spruce beer, or any other drink.

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