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A Forest Flows

Friday, November 25, 2016, Chris Perley's Blog

I am a forester; in the old sense of the word. I want to reclaim the name, to give it again the sense of guardianship of a people and a place which is spatial, structural, dynamic, and timeless; a guardianship which sees our short stay here as one step along a path, which sustains a place of function that gives of multiple values, and shifts in shape and form through four dimensions … and others of the mind. A forester used to be far more than an agronomist. They were verderers (responsible for the green), guardians of the forest common, and common law, and the rights and responsibilities of commoners, and with equal status to the Sheriff.

I want to reclaim that word ‘forest’, to take it back to the French forêt – even beyond. A forest was vert (green) and venison (meat), game, hunt, wolf, prey, browse, graze, forage, arable fields, villages, halls, fungi, recreation, procreation, herb, fruit, nut, of rights to mast and turbary and marl, of wild food, charcoal, fuel, wood, tool making, even refuge. A forester is, as Jack Westoby said, concerned not just with the forest, but with how the forest can serve people. Not just the mill.

Such a forest is not a ‘crop’. No forester merely ‘scientifically manages’ that crop. That we leave to the agronomic technocrats who must reduce meaning of complex natural and social beings in order to fit some delusion of concrete form that behaves within the model: the ‘fallacy of misplaced concreteness’.

"All things flow, nothing abides. You cannot step into the same river twice, for the waters are continually flowing on. Nothing is permanent except change." Heraclitus

Forests are as Alfred North Whitehead argued for all objects. No forest has a simple spatial or temporal location. They shift, they extend, they change, they are influenced from their position within a geography, a history, and through the changing lens of humanity and other beasts. They are complex, adaptive, alive, and beautiful. They are verbs, not nouns. They are defined by process, not structure. “All things flow” is what Whitehead said, as all things are integrated, and inseparable from the observer. What we see, we see through the filters in our minds given to us by our culture.

It is because forests are unbounded, complex, adaptive and dynamic that they don’t behalf as factories do; they are more organic than material. The ‘forest as factory’ idea is an abstract, an ideal; it is ‘anti-real’ in the sense that it is a representation of reality made useful because it provides a working model – an illusion – for those who think in a mechanical way, with all the emphasis on hierarchy and control, and all the delusions of how the scientific managers are those that ‘know’ a forest. To think of a forest as a ‘resource’ is to dissect it, divest it of essence. To think of a forest in this way imprisons an experience of all the senses into a prison cage.

You can sense a forest. Ball’s Clearing is a Podocarp-Hardwood remnant adjacent to a frost flat (the clearing) beneath the Kaweka Range, inland Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand. As a child it was nothing short of a wonderland of sense and mind-changing experience. There is energy, life, breathing, pulsing, tenor, bass and baritone sounds of boughs and birds, multi-scented, multilayered, multi-coloured, moving, swaying, height, awe, grandeur, and welcoming grace. Because I was no artist – perhaps those best at knowing and representing this sense of place – I chose a future as a forester, for the sake of forest ecology. Ball’s Clearing is a forest as a system, subjective, moving, death and renewal. There is no factory here, unless it is one trapped inside someone’s mind.

That forest-as-factory ideal is a useful mirror to reflect back to the agronomists their prior belief. And this belief is hardly, if ever, questioned, because to do so would involve looking beyond the mirror, to try to catch a glimpse of the real world where scientific method cannot go. Beyond the mirror is the realm of philosophy, experience, intuition, sense – the real world, connected, dynamic, difficult to define in any static structural sense: “Without doubt, if we are to go back to that ultimate, integral experience, unwarped by sophistications of theory, that experience whose elucidation is the final aim of philosophy, the flux of things is one ultimate generalisation around which we must weave our philosophical system,” wrote Whitehead.

Whitehead even had a phrase for ‘becoming’, for being influenced by a moment such as a boy’s visit to a rich forest ecosystem. An ‘actual occasion’ is this process of becoming. It is not a mere event. In complex systems theory today we might refer to it as the adapting of a complex, me.

There have been other ‘actual occasions’. You can be taught ecology, but there is a moment when you get it – lying on your back listening to bird calls after plotting up and down the change from gullies to sunny or shady aspects. The plot data shows one ‘truth’, a snapshot. The experience of variation and connection you feel in a small forest site and how it relates to the dynamic context around you gives another, and it is far deeper.

And if you like land, and have a sense for it, you can see the same integrated patterns and processes working through space and time outside the forest, across the wider landscape.

These challenges to the definition of forests go beyond what they are. It also extends to what they do, their purpose, and what relationships they have within their geographic space, within their on-going path of history, and to humanity. Are we one inclusive part of these natural systems, or excluded outsiders who draw upon ‘objective’ forests for sustenance or the occasional visit?

The modern view would have us the latter, excluded, and the forest as ‘resource’ – the either ‘preservationist’ or ‘resourcist’ dichotomy that provides no place for people. The developer and the preservationist fight each other for where the fence will go between their two sides of the same coin, and they both fight those that try to live, nurture, and harvest within a space.

The past and – in my view essentially – the future view would have us the former, integral, included.

We need to move away from our current modernist debasement of truth – the structuralism, the mechanical ontology, the simplification, the reduction and dissection, the denial of the richer parts of sense experience, the dis-integration of people from their space. These ideas are just that, ideas. They are not only false, they are inhumane, and underpin the debasement of our natural forest systems to accommodate a desire for more easy measurement, control, ‘utilisation’, modelling, and concepts of allocation and ‘ownership’. That debasement is not ‘truth’, it is ‘convenience’. It does not maintain value and adaptable philosophical enquiry, it degrades thought and assigns tasks.

And that modern debasement applies to all land, and the people it would call ‘resource’ as well.

Chris Perley
2nd March 2013

And I couldn’t resist quoting this …
“This is a trait I admire about foresters: they think big. Some of the greatest thinkers about the American landscape were foresters, including Gifford Pinchot, Aldo Leopold, and Benton MacKaye. …… Maybe this bigger picture has to do with the roots of the word ‘forest’: the place outside the king’s garden, the place beyond.”
Robert Sullivan 2014 ‘Forest farewell: an ode to an iconic tree’ Orion Mar/April 2014 p61

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Disclaimer: Personal views expressed in this blog are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent those of the NZ Farm Forestry Association.

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