Winter storms cast ancient time capsules onto our beaches – but they are hard to find, says Laurie Forsyth
I imagine a day and a place, long ago and far away, where there was a pine tree and a tiny, jewelled wasp. They lived together in an immense sub-tropical forest that flourished 40 million years ago, in the geological epoch called the Eocene. The forest is now extinct, but it once covered most of the region now submerged beneath the Baltic Sea. Earth was very warm during the Eocene: the seas swarmed with marine life, and forests – even in the Polar regions, dominated the continents. Mammals and birds had long replaced the great reptiles, and many were forbears of species we know today. The forest was luxuriant. Trees and shrubs, flowering plants, stately ferns, mammals, birds and teeming insects flourished beneath the trees and in scattered open glades. Man never saw this ancient sub-tropical Eden – it would many millions of years before our earliest hominoid ancestors walked upright in the grasslands of Africa.
My imagined day is hot, as usual. In the afternoon, heavy clouds are massing overhead – brief but violent thunderstorms rage daily in this hot climate. The storm breaks, and sizzling lightning bolts hit many trees: torrential rain and fierce wind rip through the forest, branches lash, break and crash to the ground, and then the storm is gone. In the sudden quiet the only sound is the dripping of water onto the leaves of the forest floor. Hot sunshine floods the forest, and as life returns to normal the birds begin to call. Our tree – a huge pine – has been hit: a scorched bough lies shattered on the ground, whilst high up, a large rip in the trunk is gently steaming from the heat of the lightning strike. Soon, a glistening stream of syrupy resin seeps from the wound, and begins slowly to ooze down the trunk. Nothing is stickier than resin, and an early casualty is one of the tiny, jewelled wasps that drill their nest chambers in the trunks of pine trees. Damaged trees mark the path of the storm, and countless other trickles of resin are oozing from pines and other conifers, or hanging like stalactites from branches. For millennia, this drama will be re-enacted far and wide across the forest, whenever wild fires, gales and lightning strike.Buy Now