Scandinavia 2011

Day 18: They Can’t See The Forest

It’s warm today. I can tell because it takes ages for my ice-beard to crispen up. At ‑20°C and below, my facial hair is as stiff as a board within a couple of minutes. But today I have few problems with nasal outpourings. The sun is shining, a few morning clouds receding, and it’s looking to be a lovely day.

Morning camp

So I make the most of it. And as I ride through the endless forest, I catch occasional sight of branches spontaneously shedding their payloads of snow. Having spent a few months in the Alps I’m aware that this is a sure sign of a thaw; the silent trees, reaching up motionlessly into the sky, suddenly animated — were anyone there to watch — by a subtle change in the climate.

But these trees, I think as I cycle through the midday hours of this perfect winter Sunday, are more than just a backdrop to the ride. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I am in awe of these spindly pillars of timber that coat the landscape in every direction.

Because these trees have enabled people to do so much. And this is in part due to an evolutionary quirk which affects all species in competition for natural resources. Trees don’t have to be so tall, but these forests surrounding me reach tens of metres into the sky, purely because of the simple fact that if one tree decides — through genetic mutation or recombination — to grow a little taller, it’s no longer a level playing field, and all the neighbours have to play catch-up. Little by little, the entire forest rises from the ground en masse, each individual receiving no direct benefit for its efforts.

The height and almost miraculous straightness of these pines in particular makes them very, very useful for practical beings with inventive minds and opposable thumbs. So off they went in huge wooden seagoing vessels to invade and colonise countries like Britain. Meanwhile we invented charcoal and tar, which we used for smelting metal to produce all kinds of useful stuff with which we drove civilization forward.

Later, we discovered that we could strap planks of this wood to our feet and use them to travel quickly and easily over snow. And one day someone discovered the remains of trees that had been buried for millions of years, and that the resulting black, oily lumps really burned rather well when trying to generate steam. Let’s not forget to what that led.

Even more inventive uses for these trees were discovered — just look at an Ikea catalogue (since we’re in Sweden). And I’ll never forget watching Ray Mears fell a Lapland pine (on TV, not in real life), cut a notch in the stump and set light to the pine tar that oozed forth, before placing a tin mug atop the stump and brewing a cuppa. Once the flame died down, he simply cut off the burnt slice of stump and repeated the process — nature’s very own Primus.

All of these thoughts pass through my head as I journey north and east on the fringe of Swedish Lapland, which I’ll enter tomorrow. These boreal forests are a symbol of our dependence on nature and our inventiveness with her provisions. But it’s important to remember our responsibilities: Almost all of Scandinavia’s forest is new growth, the original virgin forests clear-cut by earlier civilizations in their enthusiasm to create and use.

It really seems a shame that the handful of motorists up here seem so eager to blast their way through these iconic landscapes at an ever-increasing rate of knots, passengers asleep, heads propped up by inflatable travel pillows. After all, these trees are just so booo-ring.

Proof, if any was needed, of the value of travelling slowly, and allowing the mind to wander. You never quite know what you’re going to discover.

Bike shadow

Endless taiga

Pine needles and snow

Sprouting pine

Tree trunk detail

Pine needles

Floating forest


Schwalbe bicycle tyres, Extrawheel single-wheel trailers


6 replies on “Day 18: They Can’t See The Forest”

Hey Tom,

I love the musings about the pines…
If you only copy and paste blogposts into your book and arrange them that’ll already be worth reading:)
I really look forward to that book now.
Your posts are at times pure poetic while at other times very practical. I love them.
The pictures are amazing.
You never stop inspiring me.

All the best.

Hi mate, nice post. I think that you have invented a new type of writing so uber descriptive that I actually feel like I could smell the pine, lick the bark, and feel the snow fall on my head. Sure it’s a shame not to look at the trees too.

Loving the blog. Amazing pics!
The end of your natural selection paragraph you say that each individual recieves no direct benefit for its effort but the only reason why natural selection occurs is that the mutations provide a benefit to the individual directly! 😛
Bet you’re crooning for a sauna every day now eh?!

OK — didn’t explain that one too well! I meant that the entire forest could be, say, 10 metres shorter and each tree be no less efficient at using photons to rearrange water and CO2 into organic compounds… in fact they’d each expend far less energy that way, having 10 metres less trunk to grow.

But selection pressure encourages the trees to reach for the stars to keep up with mutations/recombinations in their competitors, and thus we benefit from their collectively futile upward surges in the form of long bits of wood!

The point is that it’s an evolutionary arms race — positive feedback. It’s very well explained in Ch. 12 of “The Greatest Show On Earth” by Dawkins. Here endeth the geekery 😉

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