Beijing, 17 August 2012
I have a fondness for trees. The memories of my life are punctuated by pictures of particularly splendid specimens I have come across: a copper beech in Somerset, a poplar in a suburb somewhere, a grove of beeches in the Vienna woods, the plane trees I mentioned in an earlier posting, an oak tree on the grounds of some historic house, sequoias in California, … When I was a boy, there was nothing I liked better than to climb a tree and be high up amongst its rustling leaves; there was always a feeling of wonderful remoteness up there. I don’t climb trees any more, as much for my dignity as for my stiff limbs, but I do love standing under them looking at the way the sunlight filters through their leaves creating an infinity of green hues – my wife gently mocks me for the tons of photos I have squirreled away of “sunlight through the leaves” – or running my hands over the bark. And there is nothing so wonderful as being outside at night in the dark and listening to the wind sighing through the trees.
This fondness of mine does not extend to pine trees. Yes, I can admire a lone umbrella pine on a rocky outcrop that plunges into the Mediterranean, but up close pine trees do not excite me in the same way that other trees do. It’s perhaps their generally more somber hue, or because the needles repel the touch rather than encourage it in the way leaves do, or the fact that sunlight doesn’t filter through the needles in the same way. Whatever it is, I am not a fan of pine trees.
This coolness of mine towards the genus pinus has been somewhat modified since my arrival in China, where I discovered, in Beijing’s parks and other public spaces, the pinus bungeana, or lacebark pine. This pine has a truly lovely bark. In the first place, it is smooth, unlike the rough, often heavily fissured, and really quite ugly, bark of the pine trees that I’m familiar with. It is also a bark that peels, like the eucalyptus or the plane tree. But the bark doesn’t hang off in unseemly strips as it can on these trees. It comes off in smaller, rounder, scale-like patches. And what is most wonderful is the colour of the underlying skin: white or pale yellow, green, brown, red-purple. It seems that the initial colour is pale but it darkens upon exposure to light. A grove of them can be a particularly lovely sight.
Spurred by my discovery, I read up on the lacebark pine. It is a native of northeastern and central China, which goes some way to explaining why I had never seen it before coming to this part of the world. It also has two cousins with the same smooth, multi-coloured bark. One is the Chilgoza Pine, or the Pinus gerardiana to give it its formal title, which is native to the northwestern Himalayas: northwest India, Pakistan, eastern Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, the species is under threat from excessive cutting and intensive grazing. The other cousin, the Qiaojia Pine, or Pinus squamata, is in even worse shape. It is the rarest pine species of the world, considered critically endangered, with only about 20 known trees in a single locality in a remote part of Yunnan province in China. It was only discovered – by Science at least – thirty years ago, in 1991. I found no picture of the tree, let alone its bark.
I’m always depressed when I hear of species which are in danger of disappearing. Like they say, “extinction is for ever”. In this case, we could be losing some beautiful trees. But that’s a very selfish way of looking at it, based on the thinking that the rest of the world is made for us. Even if we were talking about some revolting insect, it would be a tragedy to lose it. Every species contributes to the fantastically diverse ecosystems around us, which are not only beautiful to look at and be part of but also vital to our own existence. Every loss is the start of a run in the web of life. One day, all those runs will merge into a gaping hole, down which we will all disappear.