For the forests

Today an interesting thing came up in my Facebook feed: it’s the International Day of Forests. No kidding.

What a coincidence, I think to myself. Here I am, mulling over the idea of writing a blog post on something, anything, as long as it’s not depressing or political in nature, and my latest obsession comes and knocks at the door. Me! Write about Me!

Three things led me down this path (irony intended):

  1. We moved to British Columbia, home of the world’s most amazing temperate rainforests. The forests here are epic. I have never seen anything like it. Words like Majestic, Awesome, and Humbling come to mind.
  2. I read Eating Dirt, a non-fiction book by Charlotte Gill about a person who has a summer job planting seedlings in the wake of clear cuts. It’s full of information about forests, like the fact that the crowns of those massive douglas firs don’t ever touch each other.
  3. We hiked through huge aspen forests in Colorado, and I investigated aspens while writing about the hike, and we hiked through Oregon, which is mile upon mile of lodgepole pine forest. My intuition meter was buzzing. These forests are not just a bunch of trees standing around. They are entities. I felt it.

In honor of International Day of Forests, I watched Suzanne Simard’s Ted Talk today – bonus fact: she’s a UBC professor – in which she explains how trees and the underground microrhizome community form a network. Using this underground superhighway, trees communicate with each other, share nutrients, warn each other about insect attacks, and nurture their young. Forests are communities.

“Forests aren’t simply collections of trees; they’re complex systems with hubs and networks that overlap and connect trees and allow them to communicate and provide avenues for feedbacks and adaptation.”

I’m right in the middle of reading The Hidden Life of Trees, written by a German forester named Peter Wohlleben. He started out like every good European forester, managing the crap out of his forest, thinking he knew what it needed in order to be healthy. But the years went on and he started paying attention, managing less and listening more. He learned how trees communicate, how they share with and protect one another, how they are born, grow old and die. It’s a fascinating book. I was going to wait and write this blog post when I had finished reading it. But this isn’t a book report. This is an ode to forests.

Incredibly, his book is a best seller in Europe. I say incredibly, because Europeans have for centuries have done everything in their power to manhandle nature to the point where there is very little of it left (just read my diatribe on the great Swiss lynx debate or my thoughts on wolves if you want my not-so-humble opinion on this). I’m surprised – and heartened – that they still apparently care so much.

See, our Western Judeo-Christian heritage is based on a book that says that the world was created for us. For us to use, kill, exploit, whatever. We’re the pinnacle of the pyramid, the apex species, everything else is just there so we can have a good time of it. From that perspective, a forest is nothing more than a resource. It’s not a single organism. It’s just a bunch of trees that happen to have other things living in and around them, and these trees, in turn, can conveniently and simply be classified as board-feet of lumber.

In fact, forest exploitation was the major driving force behind the European colonization of America. From the Golden Spruce, by John Vaillant:

“Logging is an industry that, while unseen by most of us, has altered this continent – indeed, all inhabited continents – even more completely than agriculture. This has been the case […] for millennia. Logging is the prerequisite for life as we know it: first and foremost, the trees must go.”

[…] Even at this late date (nb 1894), with much of the East and Midwest “slicked off”, the forest was still perceived as “an enemy to be overcome by any means, fair or foul.” The push to open the West, coupled with the sweeping changes effected by the industrial revolution and urbanization led to the woods being viewed – and treated – with a kind of aggressive contempt. The noun “lumber” was itself derogatory, meaning anything useless or cumbersome. North American immigrants were a restive people who tended to view land less as a “place” than as a cheap commodity. They cut the forest as they breathed the air – as if it was free and infinite.”

The news in British Columbia today is still full of references to “softwood lumber” and threatened US-Canada trade deals. Clear-cutting still occurs on a massive scale around here. “Experts” in the forestry sector still somehow think that single-species tree plantations are a good replacement for a forest.

News flash, guys! They aren’t. They are tree jails, in which the inmates can’t communicate with or protect each other. They can’t benefit from the presence of wildlife or other tree species. They’ve lost the wisdom of their elders. It’s a bleak, barren substitute for tree existence. It’s exactly like factory farming, where animals are raised in crowded pens, in abject misery, for one purpose only: our stomachs. The thought infuriates and depresses me. And I promised this wasn’t going to be depressing! Sorry.

Many of today’s articles celebrating forests devote an inordinate number of words to the ways in which forests benefit us. Sure, the Japanese love their forest bathing. It’s good for your stress levels to go for a walk in a forest. That’s a no-brainer. Just try to find a real forest these days. Good luck with that.

And sure, we’re finally starting to understand, probably because we have destroyed so many of them and suffered the consequences, that intact forests play a critical role in the health of our planet.  They safeguard water supplies by preventing erosion, they capture rainwater in their branches and filter it through the soil as it flows into creeks and rivers. They are a major component in global climate control as they transpire moisture back up into the air and capture carbon in their tissues.

All this is great and wonderful and we should be grateful and stop all the slashing and burning, if only for our own survival. Right.

I firmly believe, though, that aside from how great they are for us, forests should be celebrated just for being forests. For being entities. We don’t appreciate polar bears because they’re useful to us. We think they’re cool because they’re polar bears. We feel they have a right to exist. Why should a forest be any different?

I’d also argue, as I have before, that we are definitely not the apex species on this planet. Not everything has been put here for us to use. In fact, nothing has been put here just for us to use. Eventually, it will all come back around and bite us in the butt and we’ll die like flies on a hot day. (That’s more of an Eastern concept, by the way, otherwise known as Karma.) In the end, long after we’re food for the worms that till their soil, the bacteria and the fungi will still be here. And, in all likelihood, a forest or two that nurtures them, and that they nurture in turn. Take that, you pestilential bipeds!

If you can find a forest, go for a bath. Hear the sound of the wind in the branches. Listen to the way the birds warn each other that you’re there. If you can find a remnant near a clear-cut, like I did in Oregon, be conscious of its pain. If you can find an aspen grove, some of which are tens of thousands of years old, entrust the ashes of your loved ones to it, like we did, so that they may be cradled in the arms of a being of extraordinary resilience and wisdom whose roots run as deep as the planet itself.

Reading list for the intrepid tree-hugger that you know you want to be: