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– What came first: the acorn or the oak tree?

June 3, 2013

monkey and sofia blog what came first, the acorn or the oak tree headermonkey and sofia blog what came first, the acorn or the oak tree

If you’ve never read The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono you’ve missed a treat.  It’s a lovely tale of nature and hope and, in the best tradition of storytelling, one which everyone who reads it, feels could be real and even that it should be.

I was thinking about it the other day when I’d started wondering about the first trees and where they came from.  The land around us, although geographically high, wild and rocky, is covered with what we call plantations; trees planted by someone at some stage for financial gain.  There are lots of pine trees planted by the local authority years ago as income for their budget and there is a type of oak whose acorns are the traditional feed for pigs.  There are cork trees which every nine years have the first 10 feet of their bark removed and sold to the cork industry.  And there are chestnut trees which were grown for their valuable crop of nuts.  So where are all the naturally occurring trees which are just themselves and don’t produce something humans need?  The oak trees do spread pretty easily, the acorns settle into the soil if they aren’t eaten by pigs and grow quickly so maybe they outpaced other trees.  They are good survivors because they manage to survive the summer’s scorching temperatures without needing water so they do well in this morbid dry environment.  Our bit of hillside had its share of these trees but there are also areas where tangles of wild fruit trees and brambles survive.  During the dry summer these shady, green patches look luxuriant.  The mixture of trees and plants protect the soil from drying out while obviously, somewhere down below the soil, there is water and the trees have sent their roots reaching down to bring it up to the surface.  It’s lovely to see the interdependence of the trees and plants providing a habitat for insects and other creatures, the atmosphere in this tangle of greenness is so different from the bone-dry hills around us with their sad ranks of uniform trees and nothing else.

I’ve asked local people about what was here before these trees but no one can tell us anything apart from what they’ve read in tourist brochures about the wonderful oak tree which has proliferated here for ages and provided well for ancient people who could grind the acorns to make flour and roast them to produce a type of coffee drink.  But surely, there must have been other trees, forests even.  Maybe there were these oaks but there must have been something else as well and anyway, where did those oaks come from?  Which beggars my question about what came first: the trees or the acorns?

There are people like us who can see that nature would never have supported monoculture.  Nature is natural and naturally occurring seeds are in the air or brought by birds or animals and when the time’s right they germinate.  Some people think that all plants and trees originate somewhere, that they are indigenous to a particular place, somewhere that some wise person has decreed that they came from, and that introducing strange seeds and plants into an area where they don’t currently exist is wrong.  But who is to say at this point in time, where plants and trees belong or originated?  After all, apple trees seem to have originated in the Balkans but do excellently well in Britain.  No one seems to have thought it wrong at some point in history to introduce them to a different country.  Apple trees are part of life all over Britain.  However, people can remember nothing other than what’s in their area now.  The collective memory seems to fail after two generations so who is ever to know about the old forests or wild woods which must have been here in Spain before?

I remember having read in Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress, which I have mentioned before, something about deforestation:

The first farming village in the world appeared in the uplands of the Fertile Crescent or the Middle East, and that mankind drove itself from this Eden in the sixth millennium BC by denuding the land.  Thousands of years later, the sad story was replayed in the Mediterranean basin, especially in the hilly terrain once thickly covered by old growth forests, an ecosystem of which hardly a trace survives today.  Once again, the principle villains across Greece, southern Italy, southern France and Spain were fires, goats and timber felling.  A herd of goats is not only meat and milk but capitol on the hoof, hoarded in good times and sold or eaten when necessary.  Able to thrive anywhere goats often create an environment in which little but goats will survive.’

This is what happens to the land when it is used and abused for profit.  It seems sad to me that people here really believe that rows and rows of pine trees or hillsides full of oak trees is a natural environment.  Should we listen to the purists who say we should wait for governments to come to their senses and change things with big programmes of cash incentives for landowners so that once again real nature is obliterated?  I don’t think we can, although many people will ask what impact two people can hope to make by on a tiny wild bit of hillside in amidst all of this?  Well, doing something rather than nothing is at least showing another way, and thinking back to the inspiring book The Man Who Planted Trees, a little can go a very long way.


illustration by Harry Brockway, taken from The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono

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