Felling Heritage

People used to intimately know places like the Bialowieza Forest, the last primeval forest in Europe, the wild places that made us what we are.

Now these place are relegated to small corners. They mainly inhabit our stories, little bits of baggage we carry with our culture through the millennia.

Traveling Landscapes.
Artist: Kathleen Vance

Spanning the border between Poland and Belarus, the Bialowieza forest is home to the Europe’s tallest trees and is a refuge to countless species of birds, mammals and invertebrates. Although not unaffected by war, especially during and after WWI when most of its native bison were exterminated, the forest has remained largely intact and untouched for over 10,000 years.

This is the kind of mixed forest and rich ecosystem that once covered most of Europe, and this last remnant of 140,000 hectares (540 sq. m.) was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1979.

It’s a living museum piece, a sprawling natural monument to the world as it was when humanity was young.

Traveling Landscapes.
Artist: Kathleen Vance

Now that humanity is more mature, we have nation-states and borders, and the forest that was once a free-roaming thing is considered the territory of one place or another, whether or not UNESCO, or the European Union, or environmental activists, consider it to belong to all of humanity and the world.

In this case, the fact that some of the Bialowieza Forest is on the Polish side of an international border is critical. After decades of protection and management, the Polish government approved a massive increase in logging in the forest. This logging would go far beyond forest management activities meant to control pests or promote growth – 180,000 cubic metres (6.4m cubic feet) of wood over ten years.

Bialowieza Forest.
Photo: Emily Sun

Ignoring arguments put forth by environmentalists, scientists, universities, NGOs and a petition signed by 160,000 Polish citizens, the Polish government won a victory this week in a court challenge that would have granted environmental NGOs the legal status to challenge decisions made by the Polish Environment Minister, and to demand further environmental impact reports.

The next step will be charges brought by the European Union and possible sanctions for the violation of Poland’s agreements under the Natura 2000 program.

But, as with all such procedures, these things take time. And any pristine area where logging commences is an area that will be irretrievably altered. Bit by bit, what was a rampant cathedral to pre-humanity wildness becomes a memory, a smaller place, diminished by our hunt for resources and the money they bring.

Will the Bialowieza Forest become just one more living place packed away and stored our collective human memory?

Traveling Landscapes.
Artist: Kathleen Vance


I spent a large portion of my youth in an untamed forest on the California coast–it was the 1970s, we lived off-grid, and our wood cabins were built in small clearings amidst bay trees, madrone, manzanita, and coast live oak. A fragrant forest of graceful limbs that rustled in gentle breezes and sang sharply during storms.

I was an avid reader of Greek mythology, of fairy tales, of the Lord of the Rings trilogy – all stories in which forests and trees play a major role, either as protagonists or settings. It was easy to believe in magic in a place like that.

It followed that I was obsessed with stories of wood creatures and trees that could communicate, and much like young readers of more recent generations waited for their letter from Hogwart’s, I waited for the trees to come to life and reveal themselves in a more human form, or at least to speak to me in a language I could understand.

Illustration for The Old Woman In The Wood, from Little brother & little sister and other tales by the Brothers Grimm (1917), by one of my favorite illustrators. Artist: Arthur Rackham

Illustration for The Old Woman In The Wood, from Little brother & little sister and other tales by the Brothers Grimm (1917), by one of my favorite illustrators. This tale is about a forest that saves a young woman from certain death–she in turn saves the trees by releasing them from long enchantment.
Artist: Arthur Rackham

That they never did start talking to me is probably for the best, and it didn’t diminish my affection. It’s long been accepted that they have their own way of communicating, even if it’s not in ways we can always interpret into human terms. I haven’t always been able to explain my deep affinity for forests, and even for specific trees, in a way that doesn’t sound a bit unbalanced, so it’s a joy to see a book like the one Peter Wohlleben wrote become so popular.

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries From a Secret World has been on the bestseller lists for months in a variety of countries, including its native highly urbanized and industrialized Germany.

From a review in the New York Times: “Presenting scientific research and his own observations in highly anthropomorphic terms, the matter-of-fact Mr. Wohlleben has delighted readers and talk-show audiences alike with the news — long known to biologists — that trees in the forest are social beings. They can count, learn and remember; nurse sick neighbors; warn each other of danger by sending electrical signals across a fungal network known as the “Wood Wide Web”; and, for reasons unknown, keep the ancient stumps of long-felled companions alive for centuries by feeding them a sugar solution through their roots.”

With a training in forestry, which taught Mr. Wohlleben how to think of trees as machines and natural resources, years of close observation taught him something else: How to see trees as fellow travelers.

Maybe his ideas make sense to me because he and I are of the same age, or because we both grew up in forests and in a similar era of environmental thought. Whatever the reason, it does me good to see someone articulate what I suspected all along, back when I was just a sapling of a treehugger: There’s more to trees than meets the eye.

Leafing Out

There are few places in the world, if any, that aren’t touched by human activity, including places with no humans. And one of our chief human activities over the past couple of centuries has been the transfer of carbon from reservoirs deep within the planet out into the atmosphere.

We’ve been re-creating the environment during this industrial dream. Like a dream, we aren’t always conscious of our decisions and the impact they will have as we weave the story forward.

Several recent studies show that the phenology of leaves around the world, i.e. the annual cycle of vegetation changes, has dramatically altered since the mid-20th century.

Smoke & Mirrors (2010) Photo: Ellie Davies

Smoke & Mirrors (2010)
Photo: Ellie Davies


It might not seem particularly important if the first vegetation leafs out a week earlier every year, or drops a week later in autumn.

But a study published in Nature Climate Change measured severe phenological changes on 54% of the planet’s land surface between 1981 and 2012, with resulting shifts for entire ecosystems.

Warmer temperatures, new rainfall patterns and increased atmospheric carbon are altering the rate of energy exchange between land and atmosphere in complex ways that we don’t yet entirely understand.

Increased carbon uptake due to earlier springs and later autumns mitigate climate change, at least in theory (and leaving out the issue of deforestation, of course).

But as it turns out, phenological change alters different forests in different ways. Temperate forests react differently from boreal forests, and the overall impact on a global level is as yet unclear.

Smoke & Mirrors Heathland 1 (2013) Photo: Ellie Davies

Smoke & Mirrors Heathland 1 (2013)
Photo: Ellie Davies


Truly long-term studies of leaf-out times aren’t widely available, but the Marsham family of Norfolk, England, kept records of leafing and flowering times of estate woodland plants from 1736 to 1947.

By matching historical temperature records (back to 1772) to the family log, researchers at the University of Edinburgh and Biomathematics & Statistics Scotland found that while a warmer autumn causes early leafing species such as birch to take longer to come into leaf the following spring, while late-leafing species, such as oak trees, seem unaffected by autumnal temperatures.

These citizen scientist observations allow researchers to test predictions regarding the effects of temperature on leaf cycles and woodland environments.

Smoke & Mirrors Heathland 2 (2013) Photo: Ellie Davies

Smoke & Mirrors Heathland 2 (2013)
Photo: Ellie Davies

What is clear on a global scale is that the countless organisms with life cycles synchronized to vegetation cycles are being dramatically affected.

Meanwhile, we continue to emit carbon sighs during our long industrial dream of plenty, not yet knowing where it will lead, or how the earth will look we will wake up.

Smoke & Mirrors Heathland 3 (2013) Photo: Ellie Davies

Smoke & Mirrors Heathland 3 (2013)
Photo: Ellie Davies

Arboreal Lemonade

Trees bend under the weight of ice in Maine (2013) Photo: AP/Robert F. Bukaty

Trees bend under the weight of ice in Maine (2013)
Photo: AP/Robert F. Bukaty

One of the cornerstones of creating smart, sustainable cities and human landscapes is good tree management. Trees provide structure, color, movement and life to streets and parks – and they provide heat-reducing shade, absorb pollutants, and offer a haven for animals.

The severe storms of the past winter were devastating to trees in parts of the United States. Branches snapped and trunks splintered on trees that had been around for generations.

At Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, a well-established and meticulously documented urban forest was decimated by a December ice storm. Biology professor Frank Telewski took the lemons dealt to the trees and made lemonade, adding the documentation from the trees – some of which dates back to the 19th century – to new, post-storm assessments to determine which trees can best withstand ice storms.

A cooperative project between researchers from a number of U.S. states is under way that will examine which types of trees can be expected to survive extreme weather, including drought, and plan accordingly for the future. I would be interested to see how native trees fare in severe weather when compared to trees introduced over the decades from elsewhere.

Many trees that have been popular for urban planting, such as pleasing ornamentals, or trees that have rapid growth, end up costing more in the long run than slow-growing or less exotic choices, because the fragile trees succumb to extremes. And sometimes, they take power lines, roofs, and lives with them.

Telewski says he’s looking for big companion trees that will stay with us for the long haul.

“We want to plant trees that live a really long time.”

Tree Song

Photo: konzeptm

Photo: konzeptm

The sound of a forest is music to my ears, but there’s an artist who has taken that thought one literal step further and made music from wood. Specifically, Bartholomäus Traubeck has taken slices of trees and digitally converted the age rings into piano music.

From Traubeck’s web site:

“A tree’s year rings are analysed for their strength, thickness and rate of growth. This data serves as basis for a generative process that outputs piano music.

“It is mapped to a scale which is again defined by the overall appearance of the wood (ranging from dark to light and from strong texture to light texture). The foundation for the music is certainly found in the defined ruleset of programming and hardware setup, but the data acquired from every tree interprets this ruleset very differently.”

The music doesn’t sound at all like the symphony I hear while out in the forest, and if trees really do speak to one another, I suspect this would sound to them like a foreign language. Still, it’s an interesting attempt at translation.

Branched Embrace

I spent a large part of my youth living deep in a forest that was relatively untamed, a temperate rainforest of bay laurel and Coastal live oak on the Inverness Ridge in California, part of the Point Reyes Peninsula north of San Francisco.

Dusk falls on Inverness Ridge

Dusk falls on Inverness Ridge

There are large stands of Bishop pine and Douglas fir on the same peninsula, much of which is a national park. I was spoilt for trees.

On the Point Reyes Peninsula

On the Point Reyes Peninsula

I’m not ashamed to admit that I like some forests better than others, but in the end, any forest is a place of life.

Today is the International Day of Forests. Still under siege, still under threat of deforestation, still the single largest refuge for biodiversity on land.


Bear Valley Park, Pt. Reyes Peninsula

Forests feel like home to those who grew up in them.

We are fortunate to live just a short walk from a forest of pine, oak and walnut trees here in France. There’s nothing quite like the sound of trees being amongst themselves, the creaks of branch against branch, the rustle of wind in the leaves. Between the forest and the sea, these sounds are home for me. They have embraced me for much of my life, a backdrop against which days are lived.


All photos P.K. Read

The Proverbial Drop

The recent Warsaw Climate Change Conference ended with a couple of modest successes, the main one being that the conversation will continue between nations as to what to do about man-made impact on the climate.

An initiative to support efforts at slowing deforestation received funding to the tune of $280 million from three countries.

Developed countries couldn’t quite bring themselves to say more than they would be willing to ‘contribute’ to emission cuts, rather than ‘commit’ to them.

Mainly, the nations who use the most keep insisting that change will be slow, and expensive.

Developing countries requested the twenty developed nations which have contributed to and profited most from the fossil fuel economy to pledge funds to mitigate, adapt and readjust this economy and its effects.

Amounts requested were between $70 billion per year by 2016, or  $100 billion by 2020.

Meanwhile, an editorial piece by former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan in the New York Times today states that the developed countries currently subsidize the fossil fuel economy to the tune of $485 billion.

That’s $485 billion every single year.

Not all expensive habits are worth keeping.

So here’s hoping that even a drop in the bucket will create enough ripples to make a change.

Input and Loss

At the UNFCCC COP19 in Warsaw this week, a new programme was launched under the auspices of the World Bank: The BioCarbon Fund Initiative for Sustainable Forest Landscapes (ISFL).

The initial funding amount is set at $280 million USD. Norway has pledged up to $135 million to the initiative, Britain $120 million and the United States $25 million. The fund also hopes to attract further private and public funding.

I thought it would be an interesting exercise to use the Global Forest Change tool released this week to look at forest change in each of the contributing countries, also in relation to their contribution to this new initiative.

Forest change Norway 2000-2012. The blue and red colors indicate net forest gain and loss, respectively. The colors here are almost exclusively seen on the Swedish side of the border. Norway does not rank among the top 50 nations in terms of deforestation, Sweden ranks 13th. Image via Global Forest Change / Earth Energy Partners

Forest change Norway 2000-2012. The blue and red colors indicate net forest gain and loss, respectively. The colors here are almost exclusively seen on the Swedish side of the border. Norway does not rank among the top 50 nations in terms of deforestation, Sweden ranks 13th.
Image via Global Forest Change / Earth Engine Partners

With a goal of encouraging reduced greenhouse gas emissions from the land sector, including REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation), ISFL is intended to “help countries identify and promote climate-smart agricultural and low-carbon land-use practices in selected geographical areas where agriculture is a major cause of deforestation.”

The deforestation culprit in question is, by and large, commercial agriculture in regions including Latin America; subsistence and commercial agriculture contribute equally to an estimated two-thirds of deforestation in other areas like Africa and subtropical Asia.

The initiative sets itself the task of “adopting a landscape approach, (which) means implementing a development strategy that is climate smart, equitable, productive and profitable at scale and strives for environmental, social, and economic impact.”

Forest change in the United Kingdom 2000-2012, which is not among the top 50 nations in terms of forest loss.  Image via Global Forest Change / Earth Energy Partners

Forest change in the United Kingdom 2000-2012, which is not among the top 50 nations in terms of forest loss.
Image via Global Forest Change / Earth Energy Partners

Measures include “protecting forests, restoring degraded lands, enhancing agricultural productivity, and improving livelihoods and local environments.”

According to this Reuters article, one of the key problems faced by initiatives seeking to reduce deforestation is that “parties are focusing all their energy arguing about the politics of who governs REDD+ finance, when the real issue is a lack of demand.”

This is according to Matt Leggett, head of policy at forest think-tank Global Canopy Programme, who also stated that “the program must create demand for nearly 1.5 billion tones of carbon dioxide equivalent to cut deforestation by half, but current projects are only set to cut emissions by 160 million tones.”

Forest change in the United States 2000-2012. The US ranks 3rd globally in terms of net forest loss.  Image via Global Forest Change / Earth Energy Partners

Forest change in the United States 2000-2012. The US ranks 3rd globally in terms of net forest loss. (Canada ranks 4th.)
Image via Global Forest Change / Earth Energy Partners

Global Forest Map

A gorgeous new tool for assessing gain and loss in global forests was released this week by University of Maryland researchers, the result of a five year, broad-based collaborative project. The interactive map of Global Forest Change is powered by Google’s computing cloud will offer a means to establish forestry baselines around the world, with a great amount of detail.

Animation showing forest loss in Riau, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Much of this deforestation was to establish plantations for pulp and paper, timber, and palm oil production. Click image to enlarge.
Source: Mongabay.com

This excellent Mongabay.com article quotes the project’s lead author Matthew Hansen on the map and accompanying study (published in Science): “This is the first map of forest change that is globally consistent and locally relevant. Losses or gains in forest cover shape many important aspects of an ecosystem including, climate regulation, carbon storage, biodiversity and water supplies, but until now there has not been a way to get detailed, accurate, satellite-based and readily available data on forest cover change from local to global scales.”

It didn’t surprise me that Brazil and Indonesia are among the top five countries with the highest level of deforestation since 2000. The policies of those countries favor development of heavily forested, biodiverse areas.

Global Forest Map The red areas indicate net forest loss. Click on the image for the interactive map. Source: Earth Engine Partners

Global Forest Map
The red areas indicate net forest loss.
Click on the image for the interactive map.
Source: Earth Engine Partners

As an Indonesian palm oil representative once told me, we shouldn’t worry about the loss of rainforest because it was mostly all cut down already, anyway. In its place, palm oil plantations. “Trees are trees, so we have offset deforestation with sustainable new forests.”

The new Global Forest Change tool accounts for this as well, with layered levels of data allowing users to see whether the forests in question are old growth, diverse habitats, or newer second-growth utility forests.

It did come as a surprise that Russia has lost more forest than any other nation, and that the top five are rounded out by the United States and Canada.

From Mongabay.com, “Improved understanding of the state of forests through tools like these should boost the ability of decision makers — from lawmakers to business leaders — to establish policies that better protect forests.”