Resilience? Resilience? What the Fuck is Resilience?
Some time ago, I found myself in the midst of writing an academic paper about forest resilience, something that had been a main theme in my doctoral thesis, which I had defended nearly a year previously. Despite it playing such an important role in my research, however, I struggled to write in plain words something interesting and powerful about resilience; the sharp, hard-hitting meaning behind my words seemed elusive and I found myself not entirely sure what forest resilience was despite researching the subject for three years.
I realise that, throughout my career, I will only add, if I’m lucky, a mollusc of knowledge to an ocean of academic wisdom. So is there are real value to me writing about resilience?
Resilience is a concept increasingly used and absorbed by the political arena, resulting in the term becoming diluted in both impact and meaning. The diverging interpretations – whether ecological, socio-ecological, socio-economic, or cultural – are creating some interesting conversations, but ultimately don’t provide guidance on application for a single tree or forest. What I’m really asking is: how can my research – my discovery about perception and development of resilience in one context – help trees, landowners, forest managers or forests to thrive and better adapt to traditional and emerging challenges? If research is never read, or at best ignored, does an academic care? Do the insights into real world application reach those capable of implementing change, even on a small-scale? So long as what academics write is REFable, cited or held up in a lively debate, then they’ve performed their role as defined by the framework that determines impact, right?
Perhaps I’m procrastinating. I know I am. Difficult to write one’s first paper without guidance or help; difficult to put a finger on the pulse of a paper and to feel there is life.
Resilience is about bouncing back; continuing, surviving and developing in a healthy state despite changes and disturbances. People are resilient, usually, as they keep trying despite failure or rejection. They don’t buckle under pressure; they find a way. Forests and trees are much like people, as they try to survive, procreate and grow by adapting to whatever life throws at them: powerful weather events, disease, dwindling populations, conflict with other organisms, humans that destroy their habitat and replace it with intensive agriculture or high deer populations that eat saplings in such quantity that there is no natural succession, no next generation to take over from the last.
Resilience is something we have to define, so we know what to do and to say to people who might disagree. It is a crutch for our shortcomings and short sightedness, enabling us to respond to past failures of management, of multiple manifesting threats that emerge from an increasingly complex and confusing world. As people, we base things on perceptions, which can be as subjective as we are diverse: but we can learn from these perceptions and see common patterns and trends appear. People respond to base drivers including need, desire, collective pressure, subsistence, nurture, protective instincts and, at times, altruism.
How does that help us understand and use resilience as a concept and as a powerful tool for changing not only management, but mind-sets?
Imagine an augmented reality resilience app for a land manager’s mobile phone: casting it across landscape, identifying areas, practices and features in the landscape considered resilient and thereafter broken down into associated concepts and explanations. Definitions, criteria, rankings, organisation of landscape into measurable units and land types would all have to be generated on a broad national scale, omitting the important cultural nuances that often drive land use. The power of a simple narrative or single belief can influence large areas of land, providing a foundation for multiple generations to reinforce and expand this single act of cultural nuance into a social norm. For example, in Scotland, especially the Highlands, the perception that high deer numbers (still high, despite the culls and decreasing numbers), open hills, fragmented woodland and enormous grouse moors is natural is right in one way, as it has been that way and mostly unchanged in living memory. Remove a few generations from the equation and present the new generation with a Scotland with 40% woodland cover; including productive broadleaves, high quality domestic timber used for construction, diverse woodland in species and structure, using both natives and non-natives in diverse silvicultural systems that provide multiple timber products to a domestic market from actively managed forests. Then would the memory and perception embed a deeper culture and understanding of forestry within subsequent generations, much like the forested nations that surround us?
See, I dropped forest in there. So what is the difference between forest and woodland (tangential but important for perception and subsequent action)?
Sometimes, it’s simple. Take the recent spate of flooding events in the UK: billions of pounds in damages, displaced communities, all stemming from the management of upland areas in river catchments. 70% of storm water can be absorbed, if woodland is present. Resilience here is the ability of the government, councils, communities and landscape to cope with future flooding events. Decrease the damage, mitigate the potential for catastrophic flooding in populated areas and reduce the financial stress of response and clear-up. Basically, prevent such events happening again and take action toward this goal. If this is a top priority, then why has nothing happened? Straight forward, relatively inexpensive mitigation actions are available, such as tree planting, river flow management, designated flood plains and over flow deposit ditches that cipher off the flood waters before they reach populated areas, and redirecting the flood water into useful landscape features and functions that bolster and enhance ecosystem services (another term and concept which needs application and clarification).
The paper has gone through two rounds of review and revision. Finally accepted. Still, what is forest resilience?
Somewhat surprisingly, my paper has been accepted: some major revisions in the first round, and then some minor ones before final acceptance. Did it really provide any insight into resilience or resilient forests? It proved that I could survive the peer review process: ego, esteem and self-worth are always on the line. I learnt some lessons. Whether it has been read by anyone, except the reviewers, is another matter.
In my mind resilience is something that has to be reconciled with the heart, need, common good and enduring value. What is resilience? Well it’s your classic never-ending struggle to make peace, move on and try not to fuck things up next time. And that’s exactly what I’m going to do. Maybe.