The Balance of Nature. It’s not a phrase I hear used very much these days, though one hears plenty about balance of power, or balanced economy.
I remember a casual remark by one of my school teachers a great many years ago, saying that if we interfere with the balance of nature, there will be repercussions elsewhere.
I imagined he was talking about some exotic jungle on the other side of the planet – and that environmental abuse and disasters happened elsewhere, (not to me). I was mildly curious and concerned, but didn’t give it very deep thought, except to note that it was all pretty obvious.
Now, with maturity, I see that I am inextricably and intimately involved in this balance: a part of the ever-shifting movement of life. And I realise also, of course, that I am inextricably caught up with the terrible environmental destruction and suffering continually increasing throughout the world, not in some far-flung forest in some god-forsaken land, but all around us right here, now.
It is difficult to miss the more uncomfortable facts of life these days, and there are plenty of opinions as to the causes of it all.
Myself, I take the view that generally speaking, most human beings have become obsessed with outer material gains, intellectual thinking and technological advancement. So much so, that we seem to have lost touch with our inner needs, and intuitive awareness of our interconnection with other life forms. A dangerously unbalanced state.
It is not the whole story, however. Around the world, there is a massively-growing understanding that in fact, life is all one. There is no real separation.
Here’s the first of two superb books that I acquired towards the end of last year. Both of them make a truly valuable contribution towards restoring equilibrium and regaining a proper, respectful relationship with the living world around us.
I call them ‘my two tree books’, because I am still so enjoying dipping in and out of them that I keep them by my bed, in order to re-read sections that particularly resonate.
For today, I’ll just stick with this one: Peter Wohlleben’s ‘The Hidden Life of Trees – What They Feel, How They Communicate’, an international bestseller, published last year by Greystone Books, that has greatly increased my understanding and appreciation of trees and the important part they play in the world. As a non-scientist, without a background in natural history nor a particularly good memory for facts and figures, I am completely in awe of what I have learned from this book about the lives of trees. (Of course, I have also learned much from my own quiet wanderings in the woods).
The author, Peter Wohlleben, a highly-experienced forester and manager, begins with his first encounter with an ancient gnarled tree stump that he realised was somehow, against all logical explanation, being kept alive. The only way this could possibly happen would be by receiving assistance in the form of sugars from surrounding trees. He knew that in similar situations scientists had discovered this may be achieved via fungal networks around the root tips, or else the roots themselves were interconnected. But he was unwilling to disturb this ancient stump (from a tree felled probably around 400 years ago) in order to find out more.
Here’s a couple of my own root pictures.. exposed after stormy weather washed away the mud banks of the stream.
Peter’s discovery of the stump prompted him to investigate further, and he takes us along with him on a journey of astonishing insights into the hidden life of trees.
We learn about the nature of trees as living social beings: their relationships between themselves; their interactions with other forest organisms, and their role within the forest as a whole and with the wider environment, including ourselves.
We learn of trees’ need for co-operation as a complete forest community, and how they communicate and connect with each other through their leaves, branches, roots and the all-encompassing underground network of soil fungi.
I won’t go into too much detail here, for there are many good reviews online, and the book really needs to be read in itself. Underpinned by firm scientific knowledge, Peter’s writing style is clear, simple and totally inspiring. I was amazed to discover that trees in the forest can count, learn and remember; they care for sick neighbours; and warn each other of danger (say, an imminent insect attack) by sending electronic signals across the fungal network, which is now dubbed the “Wood Wide Web”.
And, for the planet as a whole, including ourselves, there are innumerable benefits – not least the obvious one of providing timber for building and other uses. Forests purify the air we breathe. They play a large part in regulating climate, and shifting water in the form of rain from low-lying areas to the higher drier areas of large land masses. The decomposing leaves of coastal forests falling into the sea create food for plankton – the very first stage of the Earth’s food chain…
This book has strengthened feelings in me that inform my life and work: recognising a sort of kinship and interconnection with trees – as well as a new appreciation of their importance in the endless transformations of life.
Towards the end, in a chapter on tree migration, I was struck by some words that seemed to sum up how I feel about life in general:
… the forest is constantly changing. And not just the forest – all of Nature. And that’s why many human attempts to conserve particular landscapes fail. What we see is always a brief snapshot of a landscape that only seems to be standing still. The illusion is almost perfect in the forest, because trees are among the slowest-moving beings with which we share our world and changes in the natural forest are observable only over the course of many human generations.
(“The Hidden Life of Trees”, p211).
We, along with the trees and other beings are all an intrinsic part of the currently-living landscape.
There is an interesting interview with Peter Wohlleben – Are Trees Sentient Beings? Yes, says German Forester in Yale Environment 360.
Also in Yale Environment 360 – there’s an interview with ecologist Suzanne Simard on her scientific research, entitled How and Why Trees ‘Talk’ to each other.
Balance of Nature – Part 2.
Although various British woodlands are mentioned here, I took all the photos in the Woodland Trust’s Buck’s Valley Woods, North Devon.
By contrast, the second tree book: Arboreal (Little Toller Books; edited by Adrian Cooper), emphasises the relationship between woodland and ourselves, the human species – more from a human point of view rather than that of the trees.
It is an anthology of writings from woodlands around Britain, by around 40 distinguished writers, artists, foresters, ecologists, thinkers and teachers, and gives some fascinating insights into their knowledge, wisdom and experience. For myself, it gave me a warm sense of closeness, with both the authors and with the places they described.
Despite the alienating effects of contemporary life, for many of us, beneath the surface our relationship with trees is still felt to be part of who we are. Adrian Cooper writes in his introduction, how imagination and familiarity are two powerful tools that counter estrangement, allowing the trees to “… become entangled in our memories, taking root in our language” (p13). The writings in this book are clear evidence of this.
On first flicking through Arboreal, I was struck by the variety of personal expression – each contribution as individual and unique as the person who wrote it.
I keep it by my bedside, to dip into as the mood takes me; but here, I have picked out just three samples that happen to reflect my mood of the moment. There are many other superb essays – a kaleidoscope of words – each one colouring the next.
Philip Hoare writes of the New Forest, which he has known since childhood. He tells us how forests have long held a place in our imaginations as being dark and scary, and haunted by witches, wolves and brigands. This reputation has filtered down through the centuries in folklore and tales such as those of the Brothers Grimm.
However, although in 19th century, the New Forest inspired a rather sinister novel by Richard Jefferies– today, the Forest appears to be largely given over to leisure pursuits, and it is difficult to imagine it as in any way threatening.
From a different perspective, Philip Hoare cites Richard Mabey, who noted how in our modern capitalist society, we tend to view trees as commodities, rather than celebrate them for their own sake. The whole of life utilises its environment for sustenance, but Mabey’s observation gives me the uneasy feeling we are appropriating natural resources without due consideration for other life forms or the balance of nature, let alone the long-term implications. (And for sure trees are not the only example of this).
Robin Walter writes how over the centuries trees have always been subject to the will of their successive owners. But there is a difference between managing a wood responsibly, with respect for nature, and managing it predominantly for reasons of profit and self-interest.
Writing from Kingsettle Wood, Dorset, the author gives a fascinating account of our interventions over the years, and of his work as a forester today. On marking trees for thinning, he describes how he weighs up carefully which ones to choose for felling – always with an eye to the future; always taking into account changing conditions, and balancing up our requirement for timber with the urgent need to conserve what is left of our ancient woodland.
Tobias Jones speaks of Nature Deficit Disorder: a recently coined label for a wide range of psychological symptoms perceived to be the result of alienation from the natural world. Reconnection with nature is beneficial, though many, including the author would say that it is trees in particular that soothe and heal the troubled mind. It is as though the size and longevity of trees, and their slow calm existence radiate a sense of stability and strength that can ease our insecurities. And the pure beauty of woodland life in all its phases must surely lift all our spirits.
Tobias Jones works in Windsor Hill Wood, Somerset with disturbed young people, creating a supportive working community where they may regain trust in life. He tells us that one part of the healing effect of woods is that they can be sometimes be frightening as well as calming – able to trigger and bring one’s deepest fears up to the surface for release.
Today, the benefits of engaging more closely with woodland are becoming ever more widely-known, both here and in other countries. There is growing interest in healthy recreational and educational activities of all kinds (such as the Forest School movement), as well as quiet contemplative walking and artistic pursuits. In Japan, there is the well-established practice they call ‘Forest-Bathing’, which is basically, taking a leisurely wander under the trees, with no specific purpose in mind. It has been shown from extensive studies that this simple practice can significantly lower blood pressure and reduce stress.
I have, in fact, for a number of years taken congenial groups of art and nature lovers on similar walks, without realising there were such benefits, other than pleasure!
It is true what Adrian Cooper says in his introduction to Arboreal – imagination and proximity to trees and nature in general, are two of the most powerful tools we have for countering the effects of estrangement and restoring ourselves to a state of wellbeing. We are after all, an integral part of this planet and its processes, and it may be that within the presence of trees our minds and nervous systems can most easily become realigned and find peace.
The other day, I went to Bucks Valley Woods, not far from where I live on the coast of North Devon. The aim was to head for my favourite tree. It grows on a bank alongside a steep footpath, and is currently covered with a luxuriant coating of vivid green moss. Its roots are sturdy, prominent – exposed by years of people clambering up to get into another part of the woods.
Whenever I pass this tree, I pay my respects, and in times of crisis, I tell it all my troubles (silently!) It never answers of course, but invariably, I go away feeling a whole lot better.
On this occasion, I entered the woods, and my heart sank as I saw a notice from the Council pinned up, saying that one of the paths through the woods has been closed because of forthcoming ‘developments’. We all have to cope with change, because that is
the nature of life, but I knew this place would never be quite the same for me, once the noise of everyday human activity began.
These woods where I am greeted on arrival by quiet sounds of running water trickling over stone, small woodland birds singing high up, the breeze stirring in the canopy… solitude.
When I say ‘solitude’, it is not that I never meet people in the woods, but they are usually engaged in the same sort of quiet activity as myself. We become part of each other’s scenery. This is my particular version of Forest Bathing. I hope it may long continue for all of us.
‘Arboreal’ was drawn together as a memorial to the late woodland ecologist and historian, Oliver Rackham. I very much enjoyed wandering through its many fascinating and diverse contributions, both essays and poems, – and pausing from time to time to admire the visual images: including photographs by James Ravilious, Ellie Davies and Kathleen Basford, and art works by Peter Freeman, David Nash and Andy Goldsworthy.