Musings on Forest Health
Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, Healthy Comebacks
PG&E’s Line-Clearing, Why We Need More than Memes, and Some Key Definitions of Healthy and Forest
By Jeff Hedin, Institute for Sustainable Forestry, Commissioner, Piercy Volunteer Fire Department
This article has been edited for length. For the whole “poetic song” and its long email response thread, visit instituteforsustainableforestry.com/articles/forest-health.
In asking, “What is forest health?” I have struggled to compose this scrambled query. At a Redwood Forest Foundation Inc. annual meeting, Jerry Franklin warned, “If you want to reach everyone, keep it simple.”
Simple is not my great skill. But I know that simple is not simplistic. Please consider this a begging start. Simplify it. Add to it. Let’s talk.
The Ravages of PG&E
About a year ago, while at my desk working on a grant proposal to create shaded fuel breaks on ridges around Piercy, a shaking plum tree in my orchard grabbed my attention: “A bear? This time of year?” I dropped my pencil, ran out, and found a PG&E vegetation management* employee in the tree readying a chainsaw.
“Hey, what are you doing in my plum tree?
“It’s too tall. Have to cut it.”
“Yah, I have to cut the forest back to more than 18 feet from the wires.”
Downhill from my plum tree cutter I could see a large uniformed crew laying waste, with righteous fury, to a lot of important vegetation
“Are you the boss of this crew?”
“Well, get down there and get your boss. You are not going to cut this tree. Can’t you see that every tree for 150 yards on both sides of this power line and road is pruned to the same height? Around here we don’t call this a forest. We call it an orchard.”
They were from Alabama. They didn’t know they were clearcutting a swath up a semi-dormant landslide that moved with every earthquake, or that the tree roots held the soil. They didn’t know which stumps would sprout and keep their roots alive, and which would not.
“In Alabama we don’t have trees and mountains like this… .”
These were hard-working men. If they were my neighbors, they’d probably volunteer with me at the fire department. But they were too frenzied for polite conversation. They seemed to consider my orchard and me just a problem impeding their effort to save California and all of us from imminent wildfire. Their resistance to logic and friendliness was staggering. But they agreed to skip my orchard.
Later that day I woke up from a nap dreaming that I was swarmed by smug news bites concluding that “Americans just want their lives back to normal.” I was contemplating the proposed legislation to fund CAL FIRE to hire 1,000 more firefighters and wondering how PG&E had turned hundreds of men from Alabama, Arkansas, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Mexico, and Laytonville into a messianic fuels-reduction army.
At my desk, I was no longer chuckling at CAL FIRE’s audacity to label fuel-reduction funds as a “Forest Health” program. My amusement was not because I think firestorms are good for the forest; I wanted to reduce fuel, and I wanted fuel-reduction funds. I was amused by our U.S.A. cultural tendency, especially by our promoters, to give our projects and programs all-inclusive, wide-appeal, “who could object” titles that tend to obscure issues and processes more than to reveal them.
Too often these wide-appeal captions, titles, catch phrases, lyrics, sayings, and slogans become memes, go viral, and worm their way into our languages—humanity’s most important survival tool—and dull them. A dull tool takes pleasure and joy out of work, and sows frustration. Frustration is always unproductive, discordant, and divisive. I feared “Forest Health” becoming a meme like “War on Drugs” or “Make America Great Again” that would make people see a forest as trees and brush and believe that whacking down biomass would create a brushless, “healthy forest.”
I worry that this has already begun. How could PG&E so quickly organize this many people from so many different regions and dialects, with no knowledge of local terrain and no shared commitment to the local community, to such a focused fervor. The organizing of all these “king’s men” could not have resulted from a long, passionate study of biospheric intricacies and how to enter a forest community as one who enhances its sustained vigor. This group had to be organized around a small litany of simplistic, reductive memes.
A War on Fire that Blames the Forest Is Not the Prescription for Forest Health
This forest is not unhealthy. It is making an amazing recovery from the biggest catastrophic event in its evolutionary history: the arrival of European Industrial Culture with its awesome tools, its belief that the apex of human achievement is building and defending cities, and its total unfamiliarity with terrain being shaped by tectonic subduction.
If we let our governance simplify our response to this problem with sound bites to assuage fears that wildfire might reduce “normal human comfort,” then the verdant “collide-o-scape” of the Triple Junction—a fascinating region of rumpled ridges and twisty streams with its mosaic of microbiomes on various soils crunched into abrupt aspect changes—will continue to be reduced to humps of dumps.
We need a serious conversation. Let’s put our minds together to define forest health so robustly that it cannot be degraded into a simplistic, reductive, life-threatening meme. To be quiet risks subjecting our biosphere to another misguided war, a tactic from the age of conquest: beat everything into submission to our urges.
A Little Etymology (word study)
“Forest” and “health” are words with long and ongoing evolutionary histories in our language.
Etymologists trace “health” from kaillo, an Indo-European word that becomes hale, whole, heal, and health in current English. Our dictionaries tend to define “health” as free from injury or disease. The etymologists say “forest” comes from the Indo-European dhiver, which became “door” in Old English, and in Old Latin became forum [enclosed], foras [outdoors], and plurally foris [outside all enclosures, akin to our “wilderness”].
As the Germans and the Vikings moved into Gaul and became Latinized, foris became foristis, the uncommercialized land belonging to the king, his hunting grounds.
In 1066, after the Battle of Hastings when William of Normandy defeated King Harold of England, William brought the word and the concept to English. It has evolved to conjure all the images and associations “forest” has for us today. Previously, what we now call forests were called woods or woodlands.
Our dictionaries tend to define “forest” as land dominated by trees. But we extend the term to apply to a kelp forest, urban forest, aquatic forest, food forest, commercial forest, riverine forest, etc..
My personal image of our geo-biosphere is an undulating web of continuums: waters to deserts, mesic to xeric, abyssal to sea level to glaciated peaks, tropical to arctic—and I prefer adjectives to nouns to describe types of terrain. Similarly, my image of biospheric health is another undulating continuum in which each member of a biotic neighborhood affects the health of all others as it adjusts to daily, seasonal, and epochal shifts in weather and geology.
Since our current funding programs do not make discussing these images for forest health easy, I searched CAL FIRE’s website for their definitions. I found that the California Forest Improvement Program considers or defines any tract of land that is a minimum of five acres and at least 10% shaded by tree canopy to be eligible for funding.
Some Suggested Measures of Forest Health
I would include the following to assess forest health:
1. A healthy forest is creating and retaining soil as fast as or faster than it is losing it.
2. A healthy forest has evolved and maintains a chaotic bio-structure capable of surviving the apex catastrophes of its chaotic geology and weather.
3. A healthy forest is diversifying fast enough to adapt to the long-term climate and geologic shiftings of its locale.
4. A healthy forest’s seed distributers and pollinators are maintaining consistent population cycles.
5. A healthy forest’s composters [its herbivores, carnivores, detritivores, and saprophytes] in and on its soil and on its foliage digest and sequester sloughed biomass before it can support catastrophic wildfire, but leave a duff layer providing erosion control, water absorption and retention, and a buffer of soil temperature fluctuation.
6. A healthy forest has enough standing and fallen dead trees to sustain the populations of beings dependent on them for shelter, stored water, and energy.
7. Fire has a role in the ecosystem, whether natural or prescribed.
8. A healthy forest has a healthy human community around and within it.
What Is a Healthy Human Community? A Few Ideas
1. Understands humanity is a social way of life in which each human is infinitely unique.
2. Knows that every human helps us to understand what is going on, what and who we are, and what we should do next.
3. Accepts that humanity lives by its cumulative genetic genius and its cumulative linguistic genius, and nurtures its children’s development in both.
4. Knows that all the energy of our moment shares an evolutionary process, moving through the possibilities that emerge in our dance of life.
5. Knows that all biomes are communities.
6. Knows that our planet’s photosynthesizers provide 99% of the energy animating our biospheric life, treasures their genetic genius, and enhances their being.
7. Knows that each plant and animal is a geo-engineering entity, and every act affects biospheric habitat.
8. Provides the immersion in natural settings that each member needs, including the incarcerated.
9. Values eco-services and compensates those who provide them.
10. Manages its landscape for all age classes, with mid-seral domination.
We need to take the creative initiative. We need to develop appropriate visionary tools and procedures, and apply them.
Wildfire Is a Symptom
Wildfire is not the problem. It is a symptom—glaring, costly, frighteningly dangerous, but a symptom. California’s pre-Columbian communities managed this terrain to maximize their access to food, water, shelter, clothing, and commerce for thousands of years. Living this way involved geo-biospheric intimacy. The toolkit they created is now recognized as Tribal Ecological Knowledge [TEK]. Eventually they became the dominant keystone presence in their environment.
Their management stopped with the hegemony of European Industrial Civilization [EIC]. Long-managed floral species are now sprouting in territory where they were suppressed during the TEK period. During EIC management, some areas have been planted inappropriately, and invasive non-native species, some of them pathogens and/or highly flammable, were introduced and spread.
Furthermore, EIC, with its full toolkit [mechanical, social, financial, innovative], had no experience operating on seismically active landscapes. We still haven’t adjusted our toolkit to them. Our logging, mining, transportation, and agriculture have disrupted the landscape. A lot of soil has been lost.
There is a need to restructure California’s entire landscape from industrial leftovers to a vibrant, healthy, fire-adapted arena for joyful life. Appropriate forms of agroforestry must emerge. We need to include in our EIC cultural mosaic a plant-by-plant intimacy equivalent to TEK across the landscape.
Unfortunately, with EIC mechanization, virtually none of us make our living searching the landscape, walking it, collecting from it in deep intimacy to get the materials to feed, shelter, and clothe ourselves. Establishing this level of landscape intimacy in California’s version of EIC entails massive cultural change. In a community of 40 million people, this is a slow bell-curve crescendo.
We need to proceed with deliberate efficiency, and with care. Loving care. Rest and food and loving care—and housing, clothing, and celebration for all.
We need to reduce fire risk while increasing landscape vitality. Planting and tending are as important as trimming excess fuel. Maintenance is necessary.
Enlisting All of California
In California, a one-size-fits-all program will not work. California is designated as an island of diversity, a hotspot of genetic variety. Above all, we must engage local care across the state. We cannot be alienating and dividing local neighborhoods. They need to be trusted, funded, encouraged, and given access to information, training, and tools. They cannot be treated as if they are simply in the way. If they are not engaged, we fail. We are not talking about an industrial or military adjustment. We are talking about a way of life. A way of life that recognizes our dependency on photosynthesizing botanical beings and cares for them—recognizing their well-being as the primary infrastructure for life on Earth.
Eventually this may require a semi-mobile middle-management organization on the scale of the CCC or the WPA. Okay, but we don’t need to start there.
I refer to California as a chaotic archipelago of island biomes, big and small. Each island needs its own appropriate care. Caring for the landscape of California will be as individuated as caring for all the kindergarteners in a school district. It will not be like servicing a fleet of 1/2-ton Chevrolet trucks.
Eventually we have to coordinate all our state agencies that have large-scale landscape effects. CAL FIRE, CalTrans, CPUC, Parks and Rec, Dept. of Ag, Water Quality, and Air Quality all have to be working together. Federally we must include BLM, Forest Service, National Parks, and Army Corps of Engineers. It’s a long way off, but they have smart people. Loop them in.
Do we consider the Earth as our launching pad or our destination? We have been gathering here from the space around us for 8 billion years. Go out at night and watch more of us arrive, meteor by meteor. Or go to the structures housing the edges of science where they measure the cosmic dust trickling on board, tons every day.
Have we gathered here, cuddled up, melted in our core, floated out our lighter elements to form our lands and waters and atmosphere and biosphere.
Have we listened to our planetary sounding off, our deep ancestors sounding along until we evolved our languages.
Just to launch off back into the space from which we gathered to become this planet?
Did we gather just to bicker, fight, and go to war? Or did we come to party? To make life nice! To triumph individually? To conquer? Or to love, to enjoy, to feed, clothe, house, comfort; to care for life, and celebrate the joy that brings? What a show! Why go? Let’s stay and play for keeps.
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