Wandering Tree People
Imagine that you possessed a magic potion that provided super-human powers of vision. If you dabbed a drop on each eyelid, your perception could soar high into the sky, where you could look down on an entire continent. Imagine that this trance allowed you perceive, in fast forward mode, the appearance of this landscape over the passage of many thousands of years. You would quickly notice that forests exist in a state of continuous change. In ordinary reality, you can’t notice this, because the tree people live much more slowly than we do. They almost appear to be frozen in time, as old as the mountains.
Grandmother oak was old and wise when I was born. She was old when my mother was born, and my grandmother too. She’ll be a bit older on the day when I cross to the other side, but she might not have yet reached the midpoint in her life journey. Humans, on the other hand, zoom through life like hamsters frantically galloping on treadmills, and we blink out in just a few decades, like sparks floating away from a campfire on a starry night.
Over the centuries, as climate trends gradually zig and zag from warm, to cool, then warm again, the tree people are always on the move. They expand into open lands during warm eras, and retreat with the return of ice ages — up and down, over and over, like the tides of the ocean. Dinosaurs still exist today in the form of birds, winged creatures that can quickly escape to distant regions when changing conditions threaten their survival. Trees can’t fly, but they can and do migrate — but far more slowly than winged dinosaurs.
Peter Wohlleben noted that a strong wind can carry some seeds a mile (1.6 km) away. Birds can carry seeds several miles. In ideal conditions, a tribe of beech tree people can advance about a quarter mile per year. Compared to trees, the human genome has little variation. We are like seven-point-something billion Barbie and Ken dolls. Tree genomes are extremely diverse, and this is key for their survival. Some trees are more drought tolerant, others are better with cold or moisture or fire. So, change that kills some, is less likely to kill all. Evolution has fine-tuned them to courageously endure the challenges of life.
Like the trees, animal species also ride the climate roller coaster. Retreating glaciers exposed soil which then became tundra — high quality habitat for wooly mammoths, reindeer, horses, and hunters. If the warming trend continued, tundra might transform into steppe grassland, and maybe later to forest. The expansion of forest created challenges for both our ancestors, and large grazing animals.
Barry Cunliffe noted that there were far fewer food resources in woodlands. The total biomass of forest herbivores was just 20 to 30 percent of the total biomass of tundra herbivores. So, woodland hunters had to live in smaller groups, and more dispersed. As forests recovered, growing larger and denser, folks likely migrated to where there was more adequate food, like sea coasts, streams, lakes, bogs, swamps, and river deltas. In some regions, large areas of unbroken forest may have been uninhabited.
When the climate trend reversed, and ice ages returned, forests retreated, displaced by expanding steppe and tundra. This open land was far better habitat for large herbivores and the folks who hunted them. One day, a very clever person had a shocking revelation. Wow! It wasn’t necessary to patiently wait centuries for climate changes to diminish forests and make their hunting grounds more attractive to herds of game. They could achieve the same results by killing some trees, creating openings in the forest where the grass people could expand and thrive. So they did. By creating more and larger grassy openings, hunting clans could attract more and larger game.
Later, when outsiders smuggled in domesticated livestock from other lands, traditions changed. Herding had some advantages over hunting. By milking the livestock they could, over time, extract four times more calories from their enslaved animals, compared to simply killing and eating them. Milk was produced every day. Nutrient dense cheese could be stored for later use. Naturally, if some livestock is good, more is better. Herders couldn’t eat trees, so they devoted more effort to encouraging stuff they could eat. Of course, wolves and other livestock-loving predators had to go bye-bye.
In addition to smuggling in livestock, devious outsiders also brought the seeds for domesticated grasses, like wheat, oats, barley, millet, and so on. These, of course, required open land, abundant sunlight, and fertile pulverized soil. Consequently, tree people had to go bye-bye to make space for the plowmen.
So, over time, folks created manmade grasslands for three different objectives: (1) to encourage large game, (2) to benefit livestock herding, and (3) to enable grain production via soil mining. Naturally, the expansion of manmade grasslands required deforestation projects.
In my first book, I included a section on the Norse story of Ragnarök, the twilight of the gods. These powerful humanlike gods succeeded in temporarily subduing the four forces of nature. Of course, nature violently broke loose, and gave the arrogant control freak gods their bloody just rewards. And so, Earth was cleansed, healed, and renewed.
One of the few deities that survived the great battle was a son of Odin, named Vidar, famous for being strong and silent. Vidar’s home was surrounded by the solitude of a vast and impenetrable forest. He lived apart from humans, and had no influence on them, beyond inspiring profound awe and reverence.
Rasmus Björn Anderson wrote that Vidar was the god of the pathless forest, where neither the sound of the ax, nor the voice of man, was ever heard. “Vidar is the imperishable, wild, original nature, the eternal matter …a force which man sees and reveres….” It’s neat that my Norse ancestors, in the good old days, were filled with a deep respect and reverence for creation, in its wild and unspoiled form — combined with a deep distrust of control freak deities who got too big for their britches.
Primordial forests have never been an optimal habitat for hominin hunter-gatherers. These ancient forests were far more common ten thousand years ago. Since then, it’s staggering and heartbreaking to comprehend how much forest has been lost to the herders, farmers, miners, road builders, urban developers, industrialists, and the endlessly growing mobs of radicalized consumers.
Let’s take a little joyride, and visit Western Europe 1,900 years ago. Caius Cornelius Tacitus was a Roman journalist. He wrote Germania in A.D. 98. It provided a brief overview of several dozen Germanic tribes of the era — the Batavi, Chatti, Usipii, Tencteri, Chauci, Fosi, Cimbri, Anglii, Varini, and so on. [MAP]
Germania was a vast wild frontier of forest and marsh, “a land rude in its surface, rigorous in its climate, cheerless to every beholder and cultivator, except a native.” Germanic tribes were isolated from the outer world by the Rhine, the Danube, the sea, mountain ranges, vast primeval tracts, and “mutual dread.” Germania was a region of wild freedom and fiercely independent anarchist tribes. They built no permanent settlements. Their flocks and herds grazed in the openings and edges.
Tribal warfare provided ongoing entertainment. Fearless aggressive warriors, skilled at using spears with iron blades, preferred raiding to farming. “They even think it base and spiritless to earn by sweat what they might purchase with blood.” Raiding was a common pastime in herding societies, where personal status was determined by how many animals you owned (the origin of the “more is better” mindset).
Tacitus wrote a fascinating description of the vast Hercynian forest. From the Rhine, it spanned east, across modern Germany, to the Carpathians, and all the way to Dacia (Romania). A quick traveler could cross the forest north to south in nine days, but it was very long, from east to west. Caesar noted, “There is no man in the Germany we know who can say that he has reached the edge of that forest, though he may have gone forward sixty days’ journey, or who has learnt in what place it begins.” Pliny also mentioned it: “The vast trees of the Hercynian forest, untouched for ages, and as old as the world, by their almost immortal destiny exceed common wonders.” Remember that the Hercynian forest was just one of countless primeval forests that thrived all around the world. Few still exist today, and the future for those looks bleak.
Julius Caesar roamed Western Europe 150 years earlier than Tacitus, and wrote about his heroic adventures in 51 B.C. He was the emperor of Rome, and his mission was to expand the Empire, and slap down uppity subjects. His primary attention was focused on provinces of Celtic people in what is now France, Belgium, and England.
Caesar made a brief foolish attempt to conquer the super violent Germanic tribes, and he quickly realized the error of his ways and retreated. In those days, armies didn’t haul caravans of supplies with them on their campaigns. Instead, as they marched, they simply swiped food from the farms they passed. The Germans were primarily herders who built no permanent settlements, and had no granaries loaded with food for invaders to swipe. When danger threatened, the people and their herds vanished into the dark forest mists.
German tribes built no roads in their forest, and they invested much blood and fury to surround their homelands with a wide barrier of uninhabited wilderness. In those days, raiding other tribes was a good way to improve warrior skills, grab booty, and cure boredom. Life was more secure when outsiders lived nowhere close. The best neighbors were those who lived far away, and were never seen.
Caesar’s journal reveals an interesting situation. The Rhine River was a large, treacherous, swift moving river, and there were no bridges in those days. It took a lot of effort and luck to get from one side to the other, and once you set foot on the German side, a super violent welcoming party was eager to immediately cut you to bloody bits. The German tribes were strong, proud, wild, free, and determined to remain so forever.
For the German herders, nothing would have been more stupid than eliminating the vast ancient forests that provided a valuable security buffer. The Roman legions were fine-tuned for open battlefield combat, where heavily armored lads attacked in rigid formations. Caesar learned that this approach was ridiculous when confronting the guerilla warfare tactics used in the forests of Germania, where there were no roads, no granaries to loot, and rage-crazed fanatics behind every tree.
Caesar had a similar problem in England, when he met the Britons, who did not warmly welcome the Roman thugs. Few Britons grew grain. They were herders and hunters who lived on milk and flesh. The men had long hair and moustaches, and they applied woad to turn their skin blue, causing legionnaires to wet their pants with fear. Britons were skilled at hit-and-run guerilla warfare. They would swarm out of the forest, kill disorganized troops, and return to the forest, where Romans dared not follow. There was only one place where the Thames River could be easily forded, and many sharp stakes were planted along the shore, and under the water. Caesar failed to conquer them.
In Sweden, forests also provided freedom and security for the common folks. Vilhelm Moberg celebrated the fact that peasant society in Sweden had remained stable and functional for 5,000 years. In most of the regions of Europe, peasants suffered centuries of misery under the heavy fist of feudalism. They were not free. They lived in lands crisscrossed with roads, which enabled their oppressors to keep them under surveillance and control. When the natives got uppity, soldiers could readily be brought in to smash them.
The big exceptions were Sweden, Norway, and Switzerland, where the peasants were largely able to remain free. The Swiss, surrounded by powerful enemies, were protected by the Alps. The Norse and Swedes were protected by their vast, dense, rugged, roadless forests. It’s simply impossible to exterminate folks who cannot be found. Moberg glowed with gratitude for his nation’s forests, which allowed the rustic peasants to preserve their freedom until the industrial era metastasized.
From time to time, there were uprisings in Sweden, and kings summoned their troops. In open country, the troops had absolute advantage, and could easily smash troublemakers. In forests they found no roads, didn’t know where they were going, and soon became perfectly lost. It was terrifying. Behind every bush might be a man with a crossbow, ready and eager to send you away to Valhalla.
The forest people knew every hill and rock in the woods. They could pick the time and place to strike, leveraging their maximum advantage. When it was not wise to strike, they vanished into the wilderness. The forest was also a safe sanctuary. When trouble was advancing, they gathered as many belongings as possible, and moved to locations where they would not be found.
In the future United States, Richard Lillard noted that early settlers from heavily deforested Europe were overwhelmed when they first laid eyes on the incredible abundance of enormous trees. Back home, many had existed on a diet that majored in porridge, but in this new land they were free to hunt as much they pleased, with zero risk of punishment. They were astonished to see settlements with wooden fences and sidewalks — an amazing luxury! Common folks were free to cut as much firewood as they wished, and keep their homes warmer than royal palaces in the old country. In America fish and fur were abundant and cheap. Folks felt like they were lottery winners.
Forest Indians, on the other hand, did not celebrate the arrival of the freaky space aliens. The natives were masters of guerilla warfare, and they took much pleasure in making life as miserable as possible for the hideous mutants. When planning an assault, they carefully calculated the lay of the land, the weather, the morale of their enemy, and where they were weakest and most vulnerable. They might silently crawl on their bellies across a mile of briars and thorns in order to strike from the most advantageous position.
Ambush was a favored tactic, according to Lillard. At the ideal moment, attack suddenly with a burst of terrifying screams and whoops. Retreat, ambush from another side, duel, retreat. Pounce and maneuver like cats or wolves. Make constant bewildering movements. Terrified soldiers often fired blindly in surprise. And then, when they were frantically reloading their muskets, natives with hatchets zipped in and euthanized the defenseless aliens. In the end, the highly contagious diseases of civilization blindsided the Indian nations.
Caesar also described the Celtic tribes who lived under radically different conditions — the Gauls (France), Belgae (Belgians), and Britons (English). The Celts lived west of the Rhine River, on the other side from the wild and free Germans to the east. The Celts were the conquered, exploited, civilized subjects of an evil empire. Obedience to their imperial masters was compulsory. Naughty subjects were reduced to wolf chow or slavery (around 30 to 40 percent of the residents in Rome were slaves). Obedient subjects had to regularly pay a generous tribute to the Romans. Families were required to provide their sons to serve as conscripts for the Roman legions (most legionnaires were conscripts, not lads from Rome).
The Celtic tribes lived in permanent agriculture-based settlements. They were chained to a place they had to defend, because the cottages, granaries, fields, and herds that they depended on for their survival were vulnerable to being confiscated or destroyed by invaders. Their villages were linked together by road systems that enabled the Romans to promptly thrash rebels, and keep their subjects under strict control.
Memorize this vital factoid: in several Western European languages, the words for “road” and “raid” evolved from a common root. In Peru, the Incas controlled a vast empire via an excellent road system — but the same roads later made it extremely convenient for the horse-mounted Spanish invaders to quickly and easily conquer them. More recently, nations have sharply increased their control via railroads, navies, superhighways, air forces, and electronic communications. When railroads reached the western plains of the U.S., the buffalo and Indians were doomed.
Anyway, Caesar’s report gives us a glimpse of two cultures. On one side of the Rhine were wild Germanic tribes that majored in herding. On the other side, were the civilized Celtic tribes of farmers, herders, artisans, technicians, and bureaucrats — the colonial subjects of a powerful empire. In earlier times, prior to conquest, the Celts were likely herders too. Earlier still, both the Germans and the Celts had been wild anarchist hunter-gatherers.
The transition from hunting and foraging to herding, farming, and civilization marked a huge and terrible turning point in the human saga, and the saga of Big Mama Nature. With sharp metal axes, they began a world war on the defenseless tree people. These destructive cultures grew and became more and more unsustainable. They kicked open the gate to a treacherous path that eventually led to the super high-impact way of life we suffer from today.