Sunday, 22 January 2017

No.40 - Forests and the imagination

Most of my life I have been a forest boy.  On my mother’s wildlife sanctuary in eastern Zimbabwe I ran barefoot through squishy bogs sheltered by massive albizias and cussonias and figs; every year I return there to climb my favourite strangler-fig bridge.  I was early made aware of the complex ecosystem that prevailed there – from the moths to the bats, from the somango monkeys to the mongooses, from the snails to the eagles.  I learned to evaluate these interconnections for their place in the system, not for their human use.  My mother would point out a fallen Rhoicissus fruit, bitten once by a monkey and discarded.

 “People say, ‘Look how wasteful they are’, and hate monkeys for it.  But look at what’s happening to the fruit.  Some of the seeds have been ingested by the somango, to be defecated – planted – further off.  A bushbuck has come along and nibbled a bit more of it; they’d never get this food without the monkeys.  Nor would these tiny fruit-flies, which are food for someone else; nor would these chongololos.  As it rots, it adds unique nutrition to this forest soil.  What’s wasted?? Nothing!”

And we’d lift handfuls of that clean, black, fragrant, light, leafy soil to our nostrils: there is no other smell quite like it. It’s very light, almost airy; even the biggest trees that come down are mostly light, rotting quickly, recycling into new growth quickly.  Cut away that growth, remove the perpetual leaf-fall and the perennial mist that aids decay, or the bushpig- and hornbill-droppings that enrich, and this soil runs out of nutrients in two seasons.

Humans have been confronted with this lesson for thousands of years, but have apparently not learned it.

The hillsides enclosing the Mediterranean were once heavily forested – but as Pliny described the environs of Athens in the Critias in the fourth century BC:

In comparison of what then was, there are remaining only the bones of the wasted body ... all the richer and softer parts of the soil having fallen away, and the mere skeleton of the land being left.  But in the primitive state of the country, its high mountains were high hills covered with soil ... and there was abundance of wood in the mountains.

Where did the wood all go?  To make ships for Athenian navies.  This did not change down the centuries.  In his wonderful book, The Cabaret of Plants: Botany and the imagination (2016), British nature-writer Richard Mabey notes how English oak forests were decimated to make English warships.  Similarly, in Landscape & Memory (1995), Simon Schama, whose Polish-Jewish great-grandfather was a lumberman, chronicles how, as Poland was successively occupied by German and Russian invaders in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the Bialowieza forests were plundered on a massive scale: in the years of the First World War alone, 5 percent vanished, 5 million cubic metres of wood shipped to Germany, and no small proportion reduced to “walls of fire” by heavy artillery.

Manufacturing massed weapons of war is a long way from cutting clearings in forests for early human settlements, as Robert Pogue Harrison has related in my favourite of all forest-y books, Forests: The shadow of civilisation (1992).  For millennia, Harrison shows, forest was what people carved civilisation out of, and therefore began to distance themselves from it.  It was seen as dark, threatening, dangerous.  But that’s only one side of it: forests have always simultaneously been resources, not just for wood, but for fruits, clothing materials, a pharmacopeia of balms, as well as the richest imaginable source of cultural imaginings: forest is epic and fecund with mystery, always has been, from Gilgamesh to the Brothers Grimm and beyond.

Having explored swathes of this extraordinary cultural landscape, Harrison concludes:

As the order of [human] institutions follows its course, or as huts give way to villages and then to cities and finally to cosmopolitan academies, the forests move further and further away from the centre of the clearings.  At the centre one eventually forgets that one is dwelling in a clearing.  The wider the circle of the clearing, the more the centre is nowhere ...  The global problem of deforestation provokes unlikely reactions of concern these days among city dwellers, not only because of the enormity of the scale but also because in the depths of cultural memory forests remain the correlate of human transcendence.  We call it the loss of nature, or the loss of wildlife habitat, or the loss of biodiversity, but underlying the ecological concern is perhaps a much deeper apprehension about the disappearance of boundaries...

In other words, the ecological crisis of deforestation – one of the major drivers of global climate change – a form of change without boundaries – is also a profound crisis of the human ‘imagination of belonging’.

‘Climate change’, precisely because it is so nebulous, is easily derided and even denied by ignoramuses like Donald Trump.  Better to confront them with less ambiguous evidence from lower orders of change, where things are visible and measurable.  Such people often seem to think that natural bounties will somehow last forever, when all the evidence is to the contrary.  Ask the passenger pigeon – or, in our own time, the bluefin tuna, which is almost gone.  It is now estimated that the planet has lost half its non-human species in just the last 40 years.  Sixty percent of simians, our closest relatives, are now critically endangered. A large portion of that loss is due to the destruction of tropical forests, the last land repositories of great biodiversity.

There is little sign of the trend slowing.  Don’t believe that the Congolese or the Indonesian forests are somehow endless: one of the most heart-breaking things I have seen recently is footage of desolate orang-outans clinging to single trees, all that’s left of their great rich forest habitats, ploughed down and burned out for the sake of palm-oil plantations.  Don’t believe that the Amazon jungle is somehow immune to depredation: a fifth of it is already gone to cattle-ranchers and miners and subsistence settlers and unnatural fire.  The Brazilian government plans no less than fifty dams on Amazonian rivers to supply humans with electricity.  As if dams have not been proven again and again to be short-lived and ecologically catastrophic – they will, if they go ahead, very likely precipitate the demise of the Amazonian climatic ‘lung’.

European invaders of North America believed that the timber resources of that vast continent were essentially infinite.  One of America’s finest novelists, Annie Proulx, has chronicled the progression of American lumbering in her latest magisterial novel, Barkskins (2016).  It is an epic, fascinating and depressing story – and not only because of Proulx’s genius for polishing off her characters in ever more imaginative ways.  She describes the appalling conditions and perils of woodcutters in Quebec and Maine in the seventeenth century, the retreat of the forests before new swathes of white settlers and ever-more efficient machineries, as demand for timber for warships, then railway ties, then housing, then paper, mushroomed.  The forest wasn’t inexhaustible after all; the ecological damage was profound and irreversible.  Even in the nineteenth century, as one of Proulx’s characters comes in from Germany with ideas of replanting and sustainability, he is derided.  One of her last, twentieth-century characters, in contrast, studies both forest ecologies and the indigenous knowledges of the Mi’qmak peoples who were all but obliterated along with the rich matrix of their habitat.

The advent of the ecological sciences, little more than a century old, seems as helpless as Romantic poetry to stem the tsunami of commercial exploitation, driven by myopic profiteers who simply couldn’t give a shit.  Indeed, Robert Harrison regards the academies with disdain, as iconic of our furthest imaginative remove from the realities of forest-dwelling.  More subtly, people’s aesthetics can shift: George Monbiot, in his defiantly forward-looking book Feral: Rewilding the land, sea and human life (2013), laments how the open spaciousness of his native Welsh Cambrian Mountains are today defended as a great last “wilderness”, even though in fact they have long been comprehensively denuded of forest and biodiversity by woodcutters and sheep-farmers: “Whenever I venture into the Cambrian Desert I almost lose the will to live.  It is like a land in perpetual winter.”

As I drove through the dustbowl of the Free State in December, I thought about how we in South Africa have also denuded vast territories for agriculture.  Instead of living in clearings in forests, we now fight to preserve tiny patches of forest – a mere 7 percent of what we had a century ago – in the midst of species-poor modified countryside that we too often have come to accept, even aesthetically admire, as ‘natural’.  We have, in short, become numb to loss.

In a thousand different ways, as all these wonderful books suggest, reforestation is one vital component of a restoration of our own humanity, our human sense of belonging.
As for me, it’s the first necessary step just to go down the hill to my local forest fragment, climb a wild plum with the cat, and breathe in through every pore the canopy’s colours and smells and infinitude of sounds...

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