Do we really care for our forests?

08/02/2011 § 2 Comments

I have been thinking a lot about trees recently.

There is some fairly urgent thinking to be done, for our forests are under threat. In the short term, there is the government sell off. In the longer term we don’t know how the forests will react to a warming planet. It is also likely that future oil shortages will cause us to look to the forests as an emergency source of fuel.

Having reflected on all this, I thought I knew what to do. But then a funny thought struck me. I started to wonder whether we really care for our forests. Me included.

Naturally at a superficial level I care. I know that forests are vital for the health of the eco-system, and for my own health. They clean the air, retain topsoil, reduce floods by collecting rainfall and releasing it slowly. They provide a home for countless species of animal and plant. They look beautiful, each tree in its own unique way. I love to look at trees in the morning sunlight from the train window as I shoot past at 100mph.

Yet I suspect that this looking-out-of-the-train caring, this superficial, sentimental, distant concern is no better than a cold indifference. It is a caring without intimacy, without connection, accompanied by ignorance. It lacks humility.

From a distance I may conclude that the best way to protect trees is to put a fence around them, to “preserve them”. Yet deep down I feel that the forests don’t want to be preserved or fenced away from humans. They want us to love them, wholeheartedly, and they want the chance to love us back. They want to be embraced, stroked, caressed. They want us to dance in their glades, fall in love under their boughs, swing on their branches, curl up in their roots, gather holly berries for our winter celebrations, dream and sigh and celebrate in their shade. In return they will be happy to provide us with fuel for our fires, timber for our furniture and houses, sticks for our fences, branches for our brooms.

When I first heard about the proposal by the government to sell off the forests, I was relaxed. I couldn’t believe the government would be daft enough to dispose of forests to the highest bidder. There must be some misunderstanding. Who could honestly believe the profit motivation is the best way to encourage people to be responsible managers?

As I learned more I even started getting enthusiastic, since there was talk of community groups taking over the forests. I am a great believer in local ownership, and it seemed to me that this must be a better long term solution than ownership by the Forestry Commission, a body subject to the whims of politicians. it could be a real opportunity.  I have nothing against the Forestry Commission but I spent too long living in Russia to maintain the illusion that central ownership is the best way of managing resources. When everybody owns everything, nobody owns anything. The old palaces in St Petersburg only started getting refurbished once they had been privatized.

I was having these thoughts two weeks ago as I travelled down to Devon to spend a weekend in Embercombe, a beautiful and inspiring place on the edge of Dartmoor that serves, among other things, as an education centre. We spent time in the woods, planting hazels and learning how to manage the woods, by thinning the canopy, coppicing, planting new trees. They consciously use the woods as an education centre – as one of the land managers put it, the real teacher is the land.

Inspired by my experience at Embercombe, I became even more convinced that I should start agitating for all English forests to be transferred to community groups, who would manage the forests in the same way that the woods in Embercombe are run, allowing the community to access them and get involved in their management. After all, community ownership in Scotland is having a revival following the successful buy-out of the island of Eigg by the crofters. Why not here?

And yet…. Now I have lost some of my certainty.

I have realised that this all my thinking remains pretty theoretical. Although I love the outdoors, and recently moved to live in a village in a forest, I am still largely a stranger to the forests. I have spent most of my adult life in big cities, surrounded by more concrete than trees.

I am probably fairly typical in this. Many of us have forgotten the intimate connection we have with our true mother, Mother Earth. It is buried under layers of civilization, comfortable beds, central heating, cars, computers, air-conditioning, TV, airplanes…

So what gives me the right to offer an opinion about how we should treat the forests? I have no idea whether people are ready yet to assume responsibility for the forests, putting aside their smartphones and their Wii’s, turning away from Facebook and the TV. It could easily be that community ownership will turn into preservation by a small clique of do-gooders who do everything they can to keep the locals out.

I have realised that the only responsible attitude is to reserve judgement until I have managed to re-connect with the trees myself. If I can do that, I can speak up for the trees with confidence.

I will put aside my petitions, my letters to my MPs, my anger against all those I see as scheming to harm my children’s inheritance. All these actions do is disconnect me further.

And tomorrow morning I will get up early and go for a walk, in the forest. That is the most simple, honest, and even revolutionary, action I can take.

Won’t you join me sometime?



§ 2 Responses to Do we really care for our forests?

  • Finn Jackson says:

    Try this, as I have done a couple of times recently, with mixed results.

    Walk up to a tree, place your hands upon it and think in your head something like, “Hello” and/or “Have you anything you wish to tell me?”

    Laughing at myself for even thinking of saying this “out loud” in our ‘rational’ society.

    Try it. See what happens :o)

    • patrickandrews says:

      Thanks Finn. That sounds a perfectly sensible thing to do – I have often conversed with trees. But I agree about the weirdness of saying it “out loud” in our society. We obviously need more practice…

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