WE humans are, on average, a mere eighty rings in the life of a tree. The tree that was there when you came into this world will be there when you’re gone, if all goes well for that tree. Its rings will keep on coming, cycles of growth edging outwards. This growth puts us in our place, makes us feel small, in a way that is often welcome. Trees not only outlive us as individuals, but they’ve been here far longer as species – an extraordinary 370 million years to our ancestors’ six million – and most likely will stick around much longer after our collective demise.

Time was very often mentioned when I interviewed people for my recent book. For The Love Of Trees. When we look at trees, we see organisms that tick to a different clock. What’s fast for a tree is slow for a human being. As my friend, Karen, observed, “Trees are like community elders. They’ve been here longer. If you feel like quite a frenetic person, there’s this sense that there’s something to look at as an emblem of security or stability, that is always growing at a pace different from human life.”

We pine for that slowness. In these busy times, we crave the pause that trees show to us, that they invite us into. I often think of a line from the Carol Ann Duffy poem, Forest: "The forest keeps different time; slow hours as long as your life, so you feel human."

People also talk of trees as living witnesses. Chris Packham, for instance, said of his favourite beech, “This is something that is potentially 650 years old and I will be sat beneath it for just a fraction of its extraordinary life. I think, if trees could talk, what would it tell me about all of the love, the hate, the kisses, the tears, the passion, that it’s witnessed beneath it?"

The very oldest of trees possess gravity, and a kind of magical improbability too. A tree hollowed out inside, half dead, half alive, can appear as an arboreal miracle. We can feel ephemeral compared to such trees.

Yet these oldest of trees, the ones that we so often say that we prize, have not been protected and are frequently still under threat. Only 2.4 per cent of the UK is covered by ancient woodland. Figures released by the Woodland Trust in early 2020 showed that they were aware of 1,064 ancient woodlands that were at risk of damage or destruction – the highest number since the Trust started compiling the data in 1999. Such woodlands are important not just for the trees themselves, but because they support an enormous biodiversity.

Bow to the boughs. Our special connection with trees

Wildlife cameraman Hamza Yassin, who has been filming a white-tailed eagle nest in the Ardnamurchan peninsula, described to me how important he felt older forest was. "These big, old trees that are able to house golden eagles and whitetail eagles take a long time to grow," he said. "A tree like the one they’ve nested in is between 150 and 200 years old. You can’t just plant one of them today."

Among the people who told me most about what our oldest trees reveal about our pasts, and how we should approach trees now, was Dr Coralie Mills. In an Edinburgh beachside café, she handed me a sliver of wood. This, she told me, didn’t come straight from a tree, but was a piece of timber taken from the roof of St Giles Kirk. According to her dating, the tree it came from was felled around 560 years ago and was brought from one of the last remaining extensive medieval reserves of old growth oak in Scotland, the Royal Forest of Darnaway, in Morayshire. The rings of this oak take us back through a further three hundred years of history. It’s like a snapshot from the past, which in turn tells of some other deeper past.

Mills is a dendrochronologist: she studies the growth rings in trees. She takes such pieces of wood and makes them read like history books. “You can,” she said, “find out so much. It’s remarkable. It can give you the date to a year. Radiocarbon dating can’t do that. Dendrochronology can tell you not only what country a tree came from, but which region. It’s magical. That’s why I love what I do.” When Mills studies tree rings she is not simply uncovering the age of the trees themselves, but discovering a story about our landscape and how we’ve managed our woodlands, or, as she puts it, “how we have and haven’t looked after them”.

She recalled that when she first started to work in Scotland she was keen to find “reserves of very old tree rings”, essentially historic woods, preferably old oak woods. But she found these were disappointingly few and far between. “I’ve looked at a lot of what I call historic woods across Scotland and to find anything that predates the 18th century is pretty hard. A lot of our historic woods come from the late 18th to 19th century, when there was suddenly an increased demand for home-produced timber because of the Napoleonic Wars, which cut off many of the foreign sources of materials.”

There is, however, such a reserve at Dalkeith Country Park, where, according to studies of a number of deadwood samples, there are oaks that date back to the 16th century. Taking samples from these dead oaks involved obtaining permission from Scottish Natural Heritage because the park is a Site of Special Scientific Interest conservation area owing to the presence of some very rare beetles living in the dead wood.

This highlighted to Mills something about the way we value trees. “It seemed odd to me,” she said, “that the reason that the oak wood is protected, designated SSSI, is because of the beetles and not because of the trees – they’re only indirectly protected because they are the host and habitat for the beetle. There is no universal protection for ancient woodlands and I think we humans need to wake up to that and look after what we’ve got left.” Woodland cover in the UK has improved since its lowest ebb just before the First World War, and now stands at 13 per cent and increasing.

"But,” as Mills pointed out, “the vast majority of the cover is modern plantations. The message I would love to get out there is that we really have to look after and expand more the tiny fraction of ancient woodland we have. They’re so precious for both their natural and cultural heritage.”

Mills has interests that range beyond historic oaks and their almost aristocratic rings. Her biggest passion is for “working trees”, her favourite being an old pollarded ash, which can be found in a stand of such trees by a Scottish loch.

“I did some tree ring work on those ash trees and we found that the oldest one probably went back to the 17th century. To find an ash tree with such a long lifespan is really something. And it’s a massive tree. Huge. It’s got this beautiful pollard structure.” The ash had been managed, she says, probably to provide a mixture of firewood and poles for fencing, as well as leafy fodder for livestock over winter.

Such evidence of how ordinary people were involved in woodland, is, she says, hard to find in Scotland, “because of the way land ownership has been – the laird owned most of the valuable trees and the ordinary folk had very limited access to wood”.

The age of these very old trees do, she added, make her aware of the briefness of our human lives. “It really does emphasise what short-lived creatures we humans are and also it makes me very respectful of those foresters in the past who had a view to the future beyond their own lifetime. They’re the ones who did us the greatest service because we’re still benefiting from the way they planted and managed woods. You often don’t know who those nameless foresters were. The creation of woods often gets attributed to the landowner and not to the person or people who put the acorns or the saplings in the ground, or did the coppicing. They’ll be nameless.”

When we feel such gratitude, we can also find ourselves contemplating our own legacies, asking, "Are we doing enough? Are we reforesting sufficiently, rewilding enough, protecting our threatened ancient trees?" The kind of questions inspired For The Love Of Trees. They're what I find myself thinking in the presence of both old and young trees. Will our grandchildren stand under trees like this? Will they want to thank us?

For The Love Of Trees by Vicky Allan and Anna Deacon is published by Black and White