THE Scots pine. You would think, from the name, it belonged to us, in Scotland, this elegant tree with its scaly salmon-tinged bark. You would think it was part of the long history of these isles, here before us humans.

But, says Ben Rawlence, who looked into the story of the tree while researching his beautiful and affecting book, The Treeline: The Last Forest And The Future Of Life On Earth, this is a species with a more complex story.

The pine that we see across Scotland is actually of two distinct genetic lineages and was brought to our shores by humans. One was brought by the Celts from the Iberian peninsula, the other by people from Ukraine.

These two populations of Scots pines remain, thousands of years on, genetically distinct, and also separate in distribution.

The pines brought here from the Iberian peninsula cover the landscape to the west of Loch Ness, those from the Ukraine occupy the east of that line.

One of the reasons Rawlence finds them so interesting, he says, is because they are part of a much wider story, which he tells, of how humans and trees have long been interlinked.

“What I hope people take away, overall, is that the way that the boreal has evolved in lots of different places is contingent upon humans. It has always been. We have always been entangled with its destiny. We have co-evolved together. And that’s just as true for the larch as it is for the spruce as it is for the Scots pine or the birch. The reindeer grazing create the conditions for the birch. It’s all interlinked.”

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He tells the story of six key species which form the treeline, Scots pine, birch, larch, spruce, poplar and rowan, and how climate change is impacting not just their distribution but the lives of the people who have lived for millennia alongside them.

But it’s the Scots pine I most want to talk with him about. I’ve long been a lover myself of the tree – the way its branches stretch their needles this way and that seeking out the sun, throwing expressive shapes. I can remember the realisation that this tree that cloaked the edge of Scottish lochs, was the same that filled the air with pine scent between holiday campsite and beach in France.

That was an early glimmering that this tree we call Scots may not be ours, later confirmed when a Swedish friend Jannica Honey talked to me for my book, For The Love Of Trees, about a pine she called simply the Tall, which, when she found it here, would remind her of home. The tree we call Scots has many homes, and many peoples have a relationship with it.

You only have to go back around 8000 years to find a history in which Scots pine is arriving as an invasive species, brought here from the Iberian peninsula and Ukraine. The name tells us little about where it really came from, and more about the colonising role that Britain had in global history.

As Rawlence puts it, “All of this stuff is tangled up with everything else – the dominance of Britain and colonialism; how we see and name things.”

Research into genetics and archaeology has uncovered these stories of the tree’s past.

READ MORE: Fellowship of the rings: Why we must protect our ancient trees

“The provenance,” says Rawlence, “of the western group of Scots pine is quite well established. They were brought from Iberia by Celts moving up the river estuaries. There’s quite a strong archaeological record of the pines moving up the west coast of Britain and then spreading into Caledonia on time scales which were much faster than they would have been had they been regenerating naturally. The only plausible explanation is that they were brought by humans.”

The Celts from Iberia were, he says, effectively travelling “with their own habitat, the pine”, the tree that provided them with food and other resources, with flour even, which could be made from its bark. Meanwhile, people from Ukraine, where a refugium of Scots pines had lingered since the previous Ice Age were also taking their special tree with them. Recent research has shown that the eastern population of Scottish pines is genetically very similar to those pines. Again, it was people who brought the tree, as they migrated across to the Sami territories of Norway and then over the North Sea to Scotland.

HeraldScotland: Autumn reflections in Loch Beinn a Mheadhoin, Glen Affric, Scotland..

The tree and the people have both left their mark on the Scotland of today and its gene pools. The red hair of the Ukrainian migrants, and the black of the Celts, exist alongside the trees that they brought with them. Rawlence says that we even find traces of this migration in folklore and oral history. When he mentioned his reearch to ethnobotanist Diana Beresford- Kroeger, she immediately connected it to Celtic stories which tell of how Iberians met the Ukrainians somewhere near John O’Groats coming the other way. “There is a popular word for people of the Danube who had red hair that comes from this encounter. Those two pieces of historical evidence together with the oral history, are a lovely discovery,” he says.

When we think about restoring the lost forests of Scotland, often it’s the native pine forest we imagine. But, had these people not brought the pine with them, we might be looking at a very different Scotland, with uplands covered with oak woodland. How does that knowledge, affect what kind of forest we might want to regenerate now?

Rawlence is keen that we don’t write humans, who, as he says, have co-evolved with trees, out of both nature’s history and its future. “I applaud the rewilding efforts, the efforts to recover nature,” he says. “But it’s worth remembering that humans were always there. And the sustainability of those efforts and those landscapes is going to be contingent upon some kind of human interaction – whether that’s farming, new kinds of wildlife tourism, a hunting economy. We have to have a relationship and an entanglement with it. And hopefully these efforts should also be tied to social justice and access for everybody.”

He touches on an important debate, in these times of increasing rewilding. We might ask ourselves what the aims of rewilding really are? What are we trying to restore, and in a time when, due to climate change, the conditions are set to change anyway?

“This is the central tension that I was trying to get to in the chapter on Scotland,” Rawlence says. “Both sides of the rewilding debate are looking back. You’ve got the existing conservation economy saying it was never like that. You’ve got the rewilding utopianism of a kind of pristine boreal forest, which we know by 5000 years ago was already gone in the British Isles. Both of their claims, those different claims to the past, are incomplete.”

It was his attempt to follow the boreal treeline – the northern line that winds across altitude and latitude and is the limits of where trees will grow – that brought Rawlence to the north of Scotland and the story of the Scots pine. Rawlence, who is not an ecologist, but a former Human Rights Watch researcher and political speechwriter, who has, in Wales, set up an education institution to teach “creative and adaptive thinking” called Black Mountains College. He started to look at this treeline zone when he was on the hunt for a good new subject following his book on Somali refugees, City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp.

HeraldScotland: Ben Rawlence

“The Horn of Africa,” he says, “is a very sensitive area, just like the Arctic. Historically it has had a very stable, very narrow temperature range, with monsoons and very delicate climate patterns which are finely calibrated, which were being disrupted.” What he noticed was that all the “displacement issues, the conflict and the human rights issues” he was covering were connected to and driven by this “underlying change”.

“I thought, well, the next thing I want to do is not just go somewhere cold but look at another place where climate change is visible. If we’re going to talk about climate change and we’re going to interrogate what it means, why don’t we go and look at the places where it’s been happening for a long time.”

He went in search of a storyline, a way of communicating the enormous topic of climate, something that would enable him to talk about the way we need to “start thinking about our relationship with the non-human world, with other species.”

In the treeline he found a story which touched on the lives of indigenous peoples, impacted by climate change, but in which trees were the chief protagonist. For the treeline, he observes, has been on the march. “They’ve been moving since World War One,” he notes.

It’s a movement that in many other parts of the world is visible, and noticeable to those who live there. But not here, in Scotland, where, Rawlence says, “you’re not seeing the march because you don’t have the trees. They are gone. There’s only a tiny fraction left. Here in Britain we have been highly successful at annihilating our forest. We’ve got 13 percent tree cover which is the lowest number in Europe. We have annihilated our ancient woodlands, perhaps more than any other country on earth. Research has shown we are one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world.”

Rawlence believes that it’s no coincidence that Britain which “was the driver of the industrial revolution, a pioneer of capitalism, and property rights and enclosure and clearances” has suffered such extraordinary nature depletion. One of the books he cites as having had a profound influence on him, when he read it 20 years ago, was John Prebble’s The Highland Clearances.

“We’ve absolutely written the text book on how to drive nature to the brink in the service of profit. Wales and Scotland and Ireland, are all particularly interesting examples of that. Because the patterns of colonialism and exploitation are written in the landscape.”

One of his first chapters revolves around his search for the treeline in Scotland. What’s notable about it is that it seems like the pursuit of some elusive phantom. We have over centuries so stripped our landscape of trees that we no longer know where they might grow, what their limits might be, but nevertheless, Rawlence went hunting for the Cairngorms’ very highest trees.

What he was directed to by ecologists, was, he says, not exactly the treeline, but just the place that was the closest approximation to it. “They’ve got a competition going now to see who can geolocate the highest trees in the Cairngorms, amongst the Cairngorms Connect.”

In theory, Rawlence says, “Scotland is on the boreal treeline”. We were formerly a “boreal nation” like some of our neighbours. “All of the species in Scotland are continuous with Norway and Russia and it’s exactly the same historical process and exactly the same band of climate niche for those boreal species. But nobody knows where the treeline is because the trees are gone. You don’t see the march.”

This means that there’s a sign here that we are not seeing. “When you lose an intact ecosystem, you lose your early warning system. You lose your map of the territory. You lose your guide.”

A combination of factors mean that we are not seeing the change. One is that many species are long gone, the other is that, Rawlence describes, we don’t have indigenous communities living so closely with nature as there are in other countries. “They notice for example in Russia that there’s a new grass on the block in the Taiga. They notice that there’s a new butterfly that nobody knows the name for. Whereas in Scotland the most sensitive species to climate change are probably already gone 100 years ago, 50 years ago. That’s why we don’t see it. It’s because it’s already gone and we don’t know what we’re looking for and we’ve lost.”

HeraldScotland: More than 1.5 million trees are to be planted in the Cairngorms National Park as part of a woodland and peatland restoration scheme.

Often it’s said that our landscapes are missing key species, the lynx, the wolf, the bear, the beaver, many of these so long gone that it’s hard to imagine the country with them. But it’s also, as Rawlence observes, we are missing humans living closely with the landscape.

There are other losses too. We don’t have the kind of indigenous knowledge that Rawlence found in some of the other communities he visited along the treeline. “Our indigenous knowledge is very very lost,” he says. “There are little echoes and tremors and traces of it. But it’s been systematically destroyed through superstition and Christian hegemony for a thousand years. You find it in crackpots and the weirdo books in the funny bookshops. It’s also in the language. It’s in Welsh. It’s in Gaelic.”

As we face the prospect of a climate crisis, we might want to dig deeper into the past. Knowing the factors that made that past unfold as it did, he says, is vital. “If you understand better the contingency of the past, then the future becomes mutable. It becomes possible. It becomes something you can change, rather than this horrible place of powerlessness and denial where the only response to climate change is to run away or to bury your head in the sand, or be cynical.”

Meanwhile, the treeline remains elusive in Scotland. Is it here, or is it not? Might we, through regeneration, find where it should be? “What’s exciting about Scotland is that if you take the overgrazing out of the picture then you’ll see what’s going to happen and where the treeline is. It might be already above the top of the mountains.” A key aim of Cairngorms Connect is to allow trees to re-establish up to the natural treeline.

Perhaps, he even suggests the whole of the Cairngorms were once entirely covered with forest. Cairn gorm is Gaelic for ‘blue mountains’, and he theorises perhaps this is because of the blue-green of the pines.

One of the messages of The Treeline is that we are going to have to soon face a future where the climate is different. For Rawlence is fairly sure that we are on that trajectory towards 2 degrees, not the 1.5 degrees that was the fragile goal of COP26.

“80-90 percent of scientists agree that 1.5 degrees is impossible,” he says. “When I started this research 4 years ago, it might have been argued that 1.5 degrees was in reach, but there’s now the reality of physics to contend with. And the other reality which has been a feature in my life is the reality of politics and I just know that the system is not going to shift that fast. So even if physically it was possible, politically I know the hard limits of where we are and I despair of the ability to shift.”

Rawlence’s despair at politics partly comes from his experience of working within it. In the run up to the Iraq war, he was a speechwriter for Charles Kennedy and lead for the Liberal Democrats for the campaign against that war.

READ MORE: Rewild Scotland: "Beavers in all rivers. Lynx and wolf back.”

“I used to wake up,” he recalls, “with nightmares about Tony Blair, frustrated with the fact we could win the argument and popular opinion, and yet with oil and the US and [President] Bush it’s happening and there’s nothing you can do. I had a very visceral experience of the unresponsiveness of the democratic system. I saw how fossil capital was hardwired into the system. Not just fossil capital but capital more broadly, and that you cannot extricate capital from its principal energy source. Without fossil fuels it doesn’t work.”

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He places little hope in the processes of international summits like COP26. He calls the over-focussing on emissions “carbon reductionism” and dismisses net zero as a “dangerous delusion”.“I think hopefully what the book shows you is that nature is really complicated, that carbon is a system that’s in flux all the time, with enormous volatility. If you want to use the econometric metaphor like net zero, then you have to acknowledge that this is false accounting.”

Nature, he says, is “supremely complicated”. It’s those communities he features in the books who live closely with it that understand it best.

Rawlence has uncovered a fascinating story about the history of the Scots pine in Scotland, but what about its future? There, what he has found is not nearly so lovely. Startlingly, he notes that climate change may mean that it disappears from our landscape. This is a prediction he came across in various scientific papers, which to him felt “earthshattering”, but which he noted was not “front page news”, nor had it even really been explored by journalists.

He first noticed mention of the possibility in an RSPB handbook to Abernethy forest and that referenced models from the Met Office and University of Oregon which talked about climate velocity and the survivability of Scots pines at various latitudes. “It didn’t take much,” he says, “to join the dots and say that if they were gone at 63 degrees north and we’re at 57, that means that they’re gone.”

“It sounds shocking and it might not arrive on the timescales that the models predict, but at some point in the next century if the warming trajectory continues as at present and we get to 2C in the next decade and 4C by 2100, then yes it does mean that there won’t be any more Scots pines in Scotland.

“That’s a terrible thought. But hopefully that will give people pause and they will start to engage more with not just rewilding, but nature recovery and strategic ecology and thinking more broadly about our landscape and how we relate to it and what we need from it.”

The Treeline: The Last Forest and the Future of Life on Earth by Ben Rawlence is published by Jonathan Cape