Earlier in this century, the noted American forester-ecologist Aldo Leopold used the phrase ‘thinking like a mountain’ to describe how humanity needs to develop an ecocentric perspective to live in harmony with the Earth again. Until we can expand our awareness to include other lifeforms and the cycles of nature, instead of our short-sighted, species-selfish approach of exploitation and unlimited economic growth, until we learn to think like a mountain instead of merely in terms of our own economic gain, our efforts are doomed to failure, he predicted.
Nowhere is this failure more apparent than in the Highlands of Scotland, where centuries of human mismanagement and greed have reduced a once beautiful boreal forest ecosystem to a few isolated remnants of dying trees. The extensive Caledonian Forest, composed of trees twenty metres tall, has been reduced to a ‘wet desert’ of waterlogged grass a few centimetres high, and most of its major wildlife species have been exterminated. The empty glens and barren hillsides, so often thought of as the ‘natural’ condition of the Highlands, are in fact the ruins of a rich and bountiful landscape, and are matched by the ruins of the houses belonging to the people who used to live there, when there was a healthy ecosystem to support them.
I first became aware of all this in the late 1970s, when I returned to Scotland and began living in the Highlands, after several years of travelling and working in North and South America. During those journeys I had experienced true forests for the first time in my life. From the temperate rainforests of the Pacific Northwest of North America to the tropical rainforests of the upper Amazon in Ecuador and the southern beech forests of Chilean Patagonia, the undisturbed, natural ecosystems I visited had a profound effect on me, deepening my sense of wonder and reverence for nature. I was also inspired to take action, to make my care and concern for our planet, and especially for her forests, the central focus of my working life. But perhaps most importantly I began to cultivate and strengthen my inner connection with nature and trees.
Like many people, I have always had a strong connection with trees – I have fond memories of climbing in them, and of playing in my local forest as a child. Later on, as a student at university, I remember walking in the woods, and, when I was sad or emotionally upset, finding a quality of peace and healing from being amongst the trees. At the time I didn’t give those experiences much thought, but later, as my connection with nature developed, I came to know that trees, by their very nature, anchor and embody certain qualities in the places where they grow. During a lifespan which can be several centuries or more in length, a tree brings stability and continuity, strength and endurance, calmness and peace to its immediate surroundings. By sitting quietly and opening my senses to the forest around me, by beginning to think like a tree, I was able to connect with those qualities and take them into myself. I believe that all of us do this in some ways, but it has become much more powerful for me since I have been conscious of it.
Over the years my connection with trees, and the inner power and inspiration which that has stimulated, has led me in new directions in my life, one of which is the creation of this diary each year. Another began in 1985, when I was out in Glen Affric in one of the remnants of the ancient Caledonian Forest, and I felt called to restore the forest there. In many places I saw the last few trees growing on steep rock faces and in river gullies – the only place where they are safe from overgrazing by deer – and I realised that those trees were literally the last vestiges of the forest clinging on by its fingertips for survival. I felt that the trees, and the land itself, were crying out for help; crying out silently to anyone who could hear. It seemed as though the trees were calling out to me, as if they were saying ‘Come on Alan, you can see what’s happening here – do something for us’.
Acting on the inspiration I felt then, and working together with a group of committed people who are similarly touched by the plight of the trees and the possibility for their return in the Highlands, the Trees for Life Project has since become well-established and successful. However, just as when a seed germinates, most of the growth initially takes place underground as the young tree sends down its roots to find nourishment, so an idea, a vision, needs time to develop its roots before it can grow visibly into its actual potential. Thus, it took more than 4 years of preparation, after having the initial inspiration to regenerate the forest, until any practical results were achieved. In terms of our normal human business and deadlines, that’s a long time, but from the perspective of thinking like a forest, it’s been a period of rapid growth.
For me though, it’s not just a question of thinking like a forest, but living like one too. If I’m serious in my commitment to restoring the natural forest to a large area in the Highlands and eventually reintroducing the missing species of wildlife, I have to cultivate that inner knowing of how the forest itself would like to return, and then get on and play my part in making that happen. This begins for me with the recognition that the forest is a not just a group of trees growing in the same area, but that it is a living, biological community, an interdependent web of plants, animals, insects and birds, sustained by soil, sunlight, air and rain, and uniquely adapted to its geographical location and climate. Each part has an important role to play in the whole, in the forest, and each needs to be there for the overall health of the entire ecosystem.
This includes the so-called controversial species such as bears and wolves. In the Caledonian Forest, bears used to feast on the berries which carpet the forest floor (and hence helped to disperse their seeds) while wolves kept the red deer healthy and at reasonable population levels. Indeed, the beginning of the rise in deer numbers to their present levels (which is the main factor preventing the natural regeneration of the forest) coincides closely with the extinction of the wolf in Scotland in 1743.
From the forest’s point of view, bears and wolves are essential to its wellbeing, but when anyone talks about reintroducing those species to the Highlands the response is all too often one of disbelief or ridicule. Sadly, this shows how far-removed people are from thinking or living like a forest. It’s an example of the collective myopia which our culture suffers from – the limited perspective which sees things only from our short-sighted human economic point of view, in which wolves are seen seen solely as a threat to farmers’ sheep. It’s the same narrow outlook which led to the loss of the forests in the first place – the trees were only seen as timber, not as vital components of the boreal ecosystem. People then couldn’t see the forest for the trees, and as a result in most parts of Scotland we now see neither the forest nor the trees, as they’re all gone.
My work, therefore, and the practice of living like a forest, begins with re-envisioning the forest, seeing in my mind’s eye the trees growing again in the glens and reclothing the bare hillsides with their beautiful forms. Just as a tree, by the nature of its being, brings certain qualities to where it is growing, so I, when I’m in tune with nature, can seed the vision of the restored forest in the landscape, thereby preparing the way for the physical work to begin. The next step involves observing how forest regeneration occurs naturally, noting where the seedlings get established and grow, and then replicating that as closely as possible when we plant trees. It continues with re-establishing areas of trees, either by planting or by natural regeneration, in strategic locations so that when they reach reproductive age their seeds will disperse well onto open ground and the process of forest restoration can become self-sustaining. It also includes the reintroduction of the other components of the forest, not just the bears and wolves, but also the less spectacular but nonetheless essential species such as wood ants and the mycorrhizal fungi which symbiotically sustain the trees.
In all this, of course, I have to remember the time scale of the forest. I will never see the mature trees which will grow from the seedlings I’ve planted in the last few years, and nor will my children. However, I’m helping to set in motion the process of healing the earth in Glen Affric, and that will give untold benefits to future generations of birds, squirrels, berry plants, bears and humans. In a sense it’s an unconditional gift to the future, as I derive no gain from it myself, except for the satisfaction of having given the love of my heart and the joyful labours of my body to help nurture life, the most precious thing in the universe.
What is most exciting, though, is to see how many people are responding in a similar way to the crisis facing the world’s forests. The understanding of the importance of trees for all life has now, like a tree’s seeds, dispersed around the planet and found fertile ground in many places, as is seen through the proliferation of forest protection groups. Indeed, two of those organisations, one in the USA and the other in South Australia, have quite independently named themselves as Trees for Life. The connection between trees and life has become rooted in our collective awareness, and we can tap into this when we act upon the love for nature which I believe is within us all. As enough of us do that, and begin to embody the principles of living like a forest, then we can guarantee that there will be a life for trees.
Alan Watson Featherstone
(This article featured as the introductory essay in the 1994 edition of the Trees for Life Engagement Diary)
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