Physical Address

304 North Cardinal St.
Dorchester Center, MA 02124

Review: Twelve Trees by Daniel Lewis – A Global Arboreal Odyssey
Rooted in time … the General Sherman tree, Sequoia National Park, California.
Photograph: Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Ten fathoms deep below the Gulf of Mexico, and several miles off the coast of Alabama, lies a submerged cypress forest adorned with sea anemones. More than 60,000 years old, the cypress trees – some stretching 6ft in diameter – were buried for millennia before being exposed in 2004 when waves driven by Hurricane Ivan scoured the sea floor.

“Although the trees were dead, they were still standing in place,” writes Daniel Lewis in his global arboreal exploration, Twelve Trees. Cypress samples retrieved from the watery forest provide clues about the effects of ancient climates on wood. But after discovering the ancient forest, salvage companies sought permits to dig up the logs and turn them into furniture.

Throughout human history, trees have been revered as wondrous beings. We admire them, conjure myths from them, and find solace in their presence. However, corporations view them as commodities: sources of timber, rubber, fuel, and even toilet paper. Trees are essential not just for these products but also for food, medicine, shade, and habitats for birds, insects, small mammals, lichens, mosses, and ferns.

Most critically, global forests absorb approximately 7.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide annually, sequestering it in roots, leaves, branches, and trunks. A recent paper in Nature suggests that restoring and protecting fragmented forests could potentially remove an additional 226 gigatonnes of carbon from the atmosphere. Despite this, forests burn at an alarming rate of 22,000 sq ft per minute in the Amazon, and 10 million acres of trees disappear every year in Central Africa.

Lewis, an environmental historian at the Huntington Library in California, examines our urge to both conserve and consume trees. His journey, documented in Twelve Trees, takes him around the world to contemplate the beauty and vulnerability of 12 tree species, including redwood, sandalwood, baobab, and ebony. Even the humble bonsai gets a brief mention.

For instance, in Cameroon, Lewis focuses on the Central African forest ebony, Diospyros crassiflora. Its jet-black heartwood is highly prized for crafting piano keys, guitars, door knobs, and pool cues. Ebony faces threats from illegal logging and the conversion of forests into plantations. Lewis highlights an initiative led by Taylor Guitars to transform ebony growth and harvesting in Cameroon.

In 2011, Bob Taylor, co-founder of Taylor Guitars, bought a dilapidated ebony mill in Yaoundé, Cameroon, and refurbished it to supply wood for instruments. Five years later, the company partnered with the Congo Basin Institute to develop ebony nurseries and a community-based planting program. This initiative replants ebony and fruit trees that buffer the Dja reserve, a Unesco world heritage site. Lewis reports that 27,810 trees were planted in 2022.

Trees serve as crucial habitats for numerous plants and animals. Sequoia sempervirens, the redwood that grows along North America’s Pacific coast, can reach heights of over 100 meters. Its canopy supports crickets, beetles, molluscs, earthworms, and amphibians like the wandering, skydiving salamander, Aneides vagrans.

Coast redwoods can live for 2,000 years. The olive tree, though shorter, can also reach an impressive age. One tree in Bchaaleh, northern Lebanon, was recently carbon-dated to be more than 1,000 years old.

Lewis sometimes delves into extraneous details but charms with occasional flights of ecstasy, such as his encounter with the mighty ceiba tree, Ceiba pentandra, in Manú National Park, a biodiversity haven in southwestern Peru. He describes it as “the most gigantic tree I have ever seen” with “enormous buttress roots radiating out in all directions.” His interaction with the tree, touching its rough bark and climbing its branches, aimed to bring its world more fully into his own.

Many of us wish for more trees in our world. They represent stability and continuity. As Lewis notes, forests “feed the planet through a profusion of fruits, vegetables, nuts, spices, and other edibles.” They offer splendor, cooling, coherence, and deserve their own rights and dignity.

Twelve Trees: And What They Tell Us About Our Past, Present and Future by Daniel Lewis is published by Simon & Schuster (£22).

Source: The Guardian