Humankind owes its origins to forests. In return, we have been reshaping them for our own uses ever since we learned to use tools and fire.
I’ve told the story before of how an Indonesian palm oil trader once explained to me, many years ago, that I needn’t worry about deforestation in Indonesia. Why? Because the indigenous forests had been mostly cleared to make way for palm oil plantations. There was nothing left to worry about any more.
I’ll say one thing for the trader: He knew the difference between a forest and just a lot of trees. One is a habitat, the other is a plantation. Besides the fact that both include life we call trees, there’s not much similarity between the two.
I lived deep in a forest for part of my youth, on a property bordered on two sides by national park and on the other two by undeveloped forest land. The forest was mostly old growth, a rich and varied recipe of bay laurel trees, madrone and manzanita, coastal oak, and the higher one went up the ridge, Bishop pine. The undergrowth was thick and we made paths through hip-high ferns draped in spiderwebs and huckleberry bushes that stained clothing and skin purple. In the spring, small clearings that received direct sunlight would burst forth in carpets of wild iris and forget-me-not.
The forest was only in this condition, more or less untouched except for the occasional dirt road or small cabin, because of the Point Reyes National Seashore. In the 1950s, rather than open the coastal ridge to logging, the government declared it a park. When I was growing up, most of the land that had remained private was still unbuilt. It was idyllic and the experience of living there has stayed with me for life.
California has a wealth of old growth forest, but as elsewhere, many of the original forests have been logged and replanted, clear-cut for commercial use, or obliterated in mountain-top removal mining . Like greed, deforestation and (sometimes) reforestation are a human habit. When we look out over temperate forests these days, what we usually see is a sea of dark green conifer – undemanding, quick-growing, commercially useful. Other climates see, well, palm oil plantations. Or farmland. Or oil and coal fields.
Land use choices are often offered up as decision between economic prosperity or stagnation; a forest is all that’s in the way of progress, and anyway, ersatz trees can be replanted elsewhere.
But reforestation can’t just be a buzzword used to placate or fulfil regulatory requirements with false forests. I’ve written before on the progress of industrial reforestation – this approach only takes on real value if the re-established forests are diverse. And that diversity is exactly what most ‘tree replacement’ projects are lacking. As it turns out, we aren’t as good at recreating nature as we’d like to believe.
A recent study, limited to Europe, suggests that the conifer forests planted in Europe over the past two centuries contribute locally to warmer weather because the dark needles of conifer trees absorb sunlight more than the lighter leaves of a native mixed deciduous forest.
The old saying, you can’t see the forest for the trees, was never so true. Once you’ve known a real forest, you can’t be fooled.