When my three children reached an age suitable for raiding apples from a long-abandoned orchard a short walk through the woods from our house, I did nothing to discourage them. On the island where we live, old orchards were being lost to memory, and I reckoned it was wrong to so blithely dishonour the labour of early settlers as to let the fruit of their toil rot into the ground. Unharvested food has a smell about it that suggests something far worse than mere theft, and I'm not certain that there isn't some kind of moral duty involved in raiding fruit trees that have fallen into the possession of absentee landlords.
When my daughter Zoe turned 13, she brought home her first boyfriend and wandered off into the woods with him. It was only when she returned shortly afterward with a bag of apples and an account of how she had put the boy to work in the orchard stealing them that I noticed the sun was still shining in the sky and the birds were still singing in the trees. My sons, too, fell into apple stealing quite naturally.
The first apples in the Gulf Islands had come from such places as Nova Scotia's Annapolis Valley. They had arrived as twigs stuck into potatoes to survive the journey. The twigs were then grafted onto the islands' native crabapple trees, and that's how our first apple trees were born.
By the close of the 19th century, more than 7,000 commercial varieties of apples were being cultivated throughout North America. A century later, almost all of those varieties had disappeared. A mere 15 apple varieties account for more than 90 per cent of all North American production. In Canada, two-thirds of the apple crop is made up of only three varieties.
And we weren't just losing apples. The Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity reckons that 30,000 vegetable varieties were lost during the 20th century and that at the beginning of the 21st century, another vegetable variety was going extinct every six hours.
Direct cause-and-effect lines are often difficult to draw between the vanishing of plants and animals, but one thing does tend to lead to another. When "habitat loss" is cited as the main reason the world is losing all those species of mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles, it means that the vanishing of plants preceded the peril faced by all those other living things. If you take the trees away in logging trucks, what's left behind tends to die.
By the beginning of the 21st century, roughly three-quarters of the planet's old forests had been cut down, mainly during the 20th century. The forests are still falling to make way for agricultural enterprises – usually cash crops and monocultural food-plant commodities. They are disappearing because of population growth among slash-and-burn farming cultures. They are disappearing because of climate change, as in British Columbia, where a subtle and barely measurable rise in average temperatures unleashed a plague of pine-eating beetles that were devouring a tract of pine forests the size of England. Legally protected wilderness areas and parks offer no protection against such things as global warming.
Rational arguments can be made against opening up such bleeding wounds in the earth. One contention is that with mass deforestation we're losing untold pharmaceutical potential, that some rare tree in the Amazon may well hold the cure for leukaemia, and so on. One-quarter of all known pharmaceuticals comes from forest plants, after all, and 70 per cent of cancer-fighting drugs were first found in the rainforest. So we're cutting our own throats.
But just as sound is the argument Derrick Jensen and George Draffan make in their unapologetically fierce account of global deforestation, Strangely Like War: The Global Assault on Forests. Jensen and Draffan say the argument for saving forests for such things as pharmaceuticals isn't helping things. Rather, it is this "grotesquely narcissistic and inhuman utilitarian perspective" that got us into this mess in the first place.
The close proximity of utility and beauty that people find in the functions of non-human life is a netherworld that E.O. Wilson, the "father of biodiversity," has spent some time navigating. In his "biophilia" hypothesis, Wilson makes the case that human beings, over hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, have developed an "innately emotional affiliation" with other living organisms. The utilitarian and the aesthetic are inextricably linked, Wilson says, because "passion is inseverably linked to reason" in our comprehension of other life forms. Emotion is "not just a perturbation of reason but a vital part of it."
The most fragrant and dazzling flowering plants attract the greatest number of pollinators, including bees, birds, fruit bats, moths, as well as such primates as humans. An evolutionary side effect of the beauty of flowers was the dispersal of enormous amounts of sugar and protein throughout the world. And the abundance of herbivorous food energy, of precisely the kind found in apples, is one of the key factors that allowed for the rise and diffusion of large, warm-blooded mammal species, such as humans.
The case of the Kauai alula is one of my favourite examples of the lengths people will go. The alula is a peculiar and extraordinarily beautiful succulent and one of the world's rarest flowers. At the beginning of this century, there were just 20 left in the wild, confined to the Na Pali sea cliffs on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, 1,000 metres above the crashing surf. It had come to its perilous condition because of the extinction of its only known pollinator, a moth. To keep the alulas alive, botanists were lowering themselves down the cliff face by rope every year to pollinate the flowers by hand.
It is hard to make the case that these people were behaving merely out of rational self-interest, or that they were concerned only with the potential utilitarian value of the alula. Say what you like about how horrible the human species is, appropriating 40 per cent of the planet's primary productivity all to itself and chopping down all those forests. Human beings also do this. We are not solely "rational", thankfully, and there comes a point when the arguments for preserving biological diversity on the chance of finding a miracle cure in some Amazonian bug begin to sound a lot like
a rationalist cover for something wholly pre-modern and deeply atavistic. They begin to sound a lot like the justifications I concoct for the pleasure I take in my own children stealing apples.