A Forest’s Strength

words by william defebaugh

Photograph by pedro david

 

Every Friday, Atmos editor-in-chief William Defebaugh reflects on the week in climate and culture, sharing stories of insight and inspiration.

words by william defebaugh

Photograph by pedro david

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“A tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it.” ―Peter Wohlleben

 

In The Hidden Life of Trees, German forester Peter Wohlleben illuminates the wondrous complexities that make up a healthy forest ecosystem. From the way trees warn each other of danger via scents on the wind to how they share nutrients through underground fungal networks, even to trees of other species and ones that have been felled, the most important takeaways from his findings are that trees are social creatures—and that a healthy forest is a diverse one.

 

The start of this year saw a trend in politicians, government entities, and political parties making pledges to plant trees in mass quantities as a solution to climate change. But as a new study from Stanford University published this week points out, this practice can actually do more harm than good when not properly executed. “If policies to incentivize tree plantations are poorly designed or poorly enforced, there is a high risk of not only wasting public money but also releasing more carbon and losing biodiversity,” said Eric Lambin, one author of the study.

 

From 1974-2012, the Chilean government subsidized 75% of the costs of afforestation and supported plantation owners but failed to provide important oversight and regulation. As a result, the afforestation initiative led to native forests being cut down for monoculture plantations which cannot sequester nearly as much carbon as a diverse forest, nor do they have as long of a lifespan. As a result, the area experienced a drop off in both carbon storage and biodiversity. Another study, published in Nature last year, found that more than half of government tree-planting initiatives intended to plant monoculture forests to be quickly harvested, while only 34% would be natural forests with the potential to last.

 

Before COVID-19 came into the picture, 2020 was meant to be a year in which the biodiversity crisis came to the forefront. Interestingly enough, I’m not sure that hasn’t happened. After all, how can we not understand systemic racism and environmental injustice as an expression of the biodiversity crisis? Nature is the greatest teacher there is; she provides solutions to all of her problems. Everywhere you look in ecology is her lesson that diversity is imperative to survival.

 

In the last few months, we have seen glimpses of human behavior not unlike that of the forests Wohlleben describes. We have seen strangers keeping each other safe, whether by staying home or taking to the streets. We have seen the sharing of nutrients in the form of food drives and supplies at protests, vigils in the park for those we have lost. Right now in New York City, we are seeing a growing encampment in City Hall Park of people refusing to leave until the Mayor agrees to cut police budgets by $1 billion. Why? Perhaps because we are beginning to understand that we are only as strong as the forest to which we belong—an awareness that each of us must continue to uphold and act upon, for the threats we face are far from over.

 

A legend in forest ecology, Dr. Akira Miyawaki developed a signature method for recreating natural forests that have been proven to thrive. Thanks to organizations like the SUGi Project, this practice is beginning to take root in the rest of the world. When I asked Miyawaki what in nature gives him hope, his answer surprised me: “People are stupid living things that have so far destroyed natural forests so many times, to an extent that we cannot count anymore, but they are the only organisms on Earth that are able to concentrate the sum of human knowledge that they have here right now and create natural forests around the world at a speed that would be unimaginable for Mother Earth. Humans are the last and the greatest hope on Earth.”

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