In The Company Of The Forest
This short, imaginative piece was written for the International Trees Foundation for their Trees Journal Issue 78. I am thrilled to support this organization protecting trees in the United Kingdom and Africa.
See this piece on the ITF website here.
As I walk through my local forest parkland in the late-summer Northern California air, my eyes rest momentarily on trees I have seen many times on my rounds. Here, the fuzzy bark of redwoods mingles with the sturdy flush of live oak leaves, bay laurels sit heavy not too far from soaring newcomer blue gum eucalyptus, sharing space with pines, firs, and cypress. The forest is a busy place — buzzing, chirping, growing, swaying, popping. Much activity is happening both above and below ground. The trees, seemingly still in their places, are active in their crowns with the rustle of leaves. Entangled in the boughs are other plants, animals, insects, all going about their day, creating nests and homes, looking for breakfast before taking up a post in the canopy or in the hummus. Creatures are working in tandem within the forest to produce livelihoods. Synergies are created among the workforce of the forest, collaborations built, and competitions engaged.
The forest evades easy definition, and the English word comes from the Latin foresta, which either derives from a term for exclusion or a term for a closed space. Forest, a legal term in old European languages, was distinguished from the earlier term wood. While the wood was a common place, royal families set aside forest areas for their own pleasure and recreation, and royal forests also served as a sanctuary for animals. The term forest has come to mean land that is at least in part covered by trees reaching into the sky, excluding agricultural or urban areas. The forest is an association of trees, plants, fungi, animals, and human beings.
The day moves along with me through the forest. Stalwart trees are working heartily to organize our atmosphere, manage our carbon, and direct the flows of nutrients and water to keep our planetary systems moving. Trees store carbon in their bodies as they grow, sequestering it away. They change the light that filters to the ground and shift the local climate. An individual tree is moving water up and down the trunk and creating new cells both for the wood and bark from the cambium, a small layer of living cells. Stomata, tiny pores like mouths, on the leaves are opening for the exchange of gasses as the tree turns sunlight into energy.
The tree must also know when to pull back, cut losses, and minimize damage. There are a number of management problems a tree needs to address. What is the return from the leaves on this westerly branch? Maybe pivot to the southerly one instead this season. Is this a good year for acorns or seeds? What are the other trees doing for their succession planning? How many little ones are they fostering? Each challenge requires a strategy in response to changing conditions in the forest.
There exists a non-human or more-than-human world both obvious and at the edges of what I see and experience. Insects and birds flit through the air, laboring at their tasks for the day and occupied by their affairs unknown to me. Here on this well-trod path, larger animals are all but gone, though occasional footprints and scat are the handiwork of deer, coyotes, or mountain lions.
In the invisible underground, fungi are forming partnerships with tree roots in mycorrhizal networks throughout the forest. Communication moves between root and root, and nutrients make their way eventually from limb to limb. These alliances, discovered and researched by forest ecologist Suzanne Simard, connect tree to tree and are critical to arboreal and forest success.
Forests require human work as well. As those who know the most about the trees, indigenous and local peoples provide leadership in forest relationships. Human beings at our best in the forest can be supervisors, overseeing the flourishing of trees, plants, and animals and restoring the forest. Human beings at our worst in the forest can be unrelenting taskmasters, going so far as to fell every last tree for our own purposes. Protecting trees and the non-human beings that depend on them requires an engagement with the forest that goes beyond an investment only for human needs.
Corporations are considered legal persons in several countries, including in the United States since 1886, but non-human beings lack any such definition. Scholars and jurisdictions are reconsidering animals, rivers, lakes, and even nature as non-human persons. With research pointing towards arboreal intelligence, relationality, and agency, trees can also be considered for a type of vegetal personhood. Thinking about trees as persons could dynamically shift the way humans interact with forests globally towards protection and restoration.
I have walked long in the hills, visiting redwoods, oaks, and bay laurels and observing their slow, imperceptible progress. They make their living in this parkland. I emerge into the clearing as I start on my way towards home. After a day of activity, the forest quiets while the evening creatures begin their shifts. Some of the trees are counting the night before awakening the next morning to return to the business of being in the forest.
See this piece on the ITF website here.