The State of Forest and My Own Personal Resilience

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?

This scene was one of the strongest perceived resilient landscapes in the Highlands due to the grazing deer.

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).

Me going foetal after my first manuscript reviews – I was catatonic for 43 minutes while my colleagues continued about their business.

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.

The accepted article in the Journal of Forest Policy and Economics – satisfying but also an anti-climax.

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.

A Forestry Conference without the Forests

#IUFRO2017: Connecting Science and Policy with People

Conferences are always a little strange; packed with a quagmire of human interaction and awkwardness, along with some hope and disappointment.  They bring out and encourage the utmost professionalism through knowledge exchange, presentation and discussion of research from around the world.  On the other hand, it creates that type of school-playground feeling, especially during the breaks where eyes constantly search, dart from side to side to find focus beyond the apparent isolation: everyone wanting someone to stand next to at the very least.  There are, however, many that come in vast groups from their institutions or universities with ready-made support, friends and dinner pals; tucking away and trying the local alcohol, whether beer, wine or brain-melting spirits is a must at conference.  In the end, what do we want from a conference? Our work to be praised and constructively challenged; to expand networks; find collaborators and friends; and to expand our minds with new ideas and information from around the foresting world.

Our group of four (two PhDs, one Post-Doc and Lecturer, in addition to an Honorary Professor) from a university research group in its infancy went to fly the flag (at least that was the official line), present our research and learn from forestry researchers around the world.  The conference took place in Freiburg, Germany; a small city, packed with history and character, and surrounded by the iconic and famed Black Forest, or Swartzwald.  Ironically, the conference was so packed with talks from 8am–7.30pm each day that one completely missed the real forest, and only encountered it in pictures when stuck in lecture halls and conference rooms.  Three options were open to the researcher, to remedy such a horrendously inappropriate situation:

  1. sign-up for expensive pre-conference excursions;
  2. book some extra time off work after the conference and explore, or;
  3. forego one of the conference days and escape into the forest!

We courageously took the last day off to venture out into the Black Forest, as our contingent had delivered all their individual presentations and sessions.  Unencumbered by the weight of obligation, we hopped on the train with our conference passes, which allowed us unimpeded travel throughout the region’s public transport system, and headed out.

As we climbed into the hills of the forest, we pressed our faces against the train window; cooing at the colours, the size and design of the forest, the mixture of species, the silvicultural systems in place and the general vista of arboreal brilliance that greeted us.  We were, admittedly, huge forestry geeks. After stopping off for some schweinhaxe and beer, we hiked into the hills, which were filled with large, straight and girthful spruces with an understory of hazel, sycamore, birch and a few minor examples of aspen and alder.  Autumn colours were beginning to present their fine plumage, and one particular oak (quercus robra) was oozing a fine red pigment that offset the blue sky beautifully.  My colleague, however, remembers one thing above all, and that was encountering a Camberwell Beauty (butterfly, or smetterling!), something he had never seen before; and, as an entomologist and keen lepidopterist, this sighting was “the best thing in ever!” So, for a solid twenty minutes, we huddled around a mature sycamore secreting unusual amounts of resin (the tree, not us), which also attracted some Red Admirals and a swarm of wasps; taking photos, zooming in, taking photos of us taking photos, and secretly hoping that the Camberwell Beauty would land on one of us, anointing our esoteric worth.

We needed more than one day in the forest, but lectures, deadlines and Monday mornings are rather stubborn in their regularity and inevitability.  So some honey, licore, wood and other random paraphernalia was purchased, whereupon we returned to Freiburg and met some conference colleagues for a few last night beers.  At 3am we found ourselves at the tram stop, wanting to return to our hotel and warm beds for the few hours of sleep before leaving in the morning.  My colleague continued to talk about the trains and trams (they were almost as interesting as moths and other such bugs), as drunken and dejected football supporters crawled by.

So what did we get out of the conference?  People saw the research we were doing, engaged us in discussions, talked about talking more about research and mutual directions; can we write a paper, see possible collaborations that would increase our impact factor, or access some pots of funding?  Genuinely, everyone was interested in what everyone else was doing.  I know I was internally and sometimes externally exclaiming, “that is so cool, I wish I was doing that!”  I continue to marvel at the intelligence, scientific robustness and thoroughness of the presented work.  It was and is, however, a vast international conference and some presentations didn’t quite do justice to the research; and, as a native English speaker, I felt I had an unfair advantage, that I was cheating, even if 67% of my jokes failed to land.

This year was weird as I was organising my own conference session, as well as presenting in my own session, so earlier in the year I had the dubious honour of accepting my own abstract along with some really interesting research from around the world.  Luckily it was the second session on the first day, so I did not have to wait or fret for long.

Unexpectedly, the session was quite well attended and the participants were forthcoming with questions.  I was a little nervous before the start but decided to dive in and see what happened. When presenting, it is always good to keep eye contact with the audience and project as far as one can, although this has some disadvantages as one is constantly exposed to varying expressions: the stony-faced, the nodders, the yawners, occasionally those sleeping, as well as some making feverish notes, those rifling through the conference book looking at subsequent sessions, and a minority scratching themselves or absent-mindedly picking their nose.  I am always uncertain as to whether my talks have been well-received or if people have any real interest or issue with the research, but the release, once finished, is great; a combination of relief, a little bit of a high and satisfaction at a task complete.  And if people come and want to chat afterwards, well then, all the better.

I will sign-off with some conference highlights: a friend falling off a stool in a bar and scraping their back; the weird Eurovisionesque Gala dinner that had no dinner included, though there was an open bar; seeing a golden eagle; eating huge amounts of pork; smiling at random conference-goers; new ideas scrambling out of my brain; speaking some bad German; being accused of proposing to two Swedish researchers simultaneously; garlic bratwurst; markets; everyone cycling; feeling proud, scared, shy and confident; and so, so many tree, forest and arboreal related delights!

The Holm and the Hurricane

In 1987, the strongest storm in recent history hit the south-east of England, felling thousands of trees, creating havoc, and locking old ladies out of their houses.  I, on the other hand, ran down the abandoned roads, coat spread like wings being lifted-up, leaping across the tarmac in great bounds, and running faster than I ever had before.  As winds whipped up to 100mph, my father came out to track down his itinerant six year-old son. Despite the wind howling and crashing around me, everything seemed silent and voiceless. Sound was now only something for the gods; and they continued to tear apart the village with little regard for those in curlers or He-Man underpants below.

Felled tree from the 1987 hurricane

As my father pulled me toward the house by the scruff of my neck, something split the sky with an almighty crack. The Holm oak (Quercus ilex) at the front of our garden rendered in two, as a large branch ruptured and twisted away from the tree.  The amputation was beautiful, as the golden flesh of the cambium tissue blossomed from beneath the dark powdery bark and exposed fresh jagged wood.  The branch floated away from the tree, hovering for a moment, kept motionless by the competing directions of the buffeting winds.  The branch flew down the road, the clusters of dark ebony-green leaves rustling like maracas until it slammed into and crumpled the fence at the end of the road.  The branch moved, like an agitated animal in the last throes of death; or perhaps it was dreaming, twitching while its consciousness continued to fly higher into the sky.

“Oh no. Whatever am I to do? Oh, deary me!”  An old lady who lived across the road was shuffling around in her pink dressing gown and purple curlers, looking fairly distraught.  She dithered about in the middle of the road, peering up to the sky; checking to see if the storm was still raging or whether it had decided to catch the Number 3 bus to Canterbury that was already 23 minutes late.  It was still raging. A purple shadow fell over us, darkening the sky as if a dome was closing in on the village.  My father and I ushered old Mrs Kittrage to her bungalow, which was locked down and sealed tight, apart from a slither of a window nine feet from the ground.  My father boosted me up to the window and my lithe frame did what I now consider an elegant ninja slide and a drop down onto Mrs Kittrage’s kitchen countertop.  We swept Mrs Kittrage back inside her home as the storm passed through the village, leaving a trail of battered homes and torn trees. With the trees felled, there was now a visible horizon reaching into the calm of the English Channel, finally resting upon the cliffs of Calais.

The Holm oak that looked over the family for over thirty years – Hurricane survivor.

The next day the entire village was up and about, surveying the damage and detritus left by the storm. Men armed with bowsaws and axes roamed the village, clearing roads and mourning cars crushed under the thumb of an old giant oak.  Our Holm oak survived the night with only the one limb torn from its stem; however, it was a disturbing sight to see this sentinel – this leviathan of the street – diminished; an immortal playmate with a single arm, vulnerable, and invincible no more.  The next few weeks awakened my senses to the possibility of a world without trees; a stark place with vast skies, and an emptiness was born in the pit of my stomach. A vital thread had been tugged upon.  I ran upstairs to my bedroom cupboard to collect my Pinocchio moneybox. I emptied out all of my brother’s IOUs, whacked a sticky label over Geppetto’s face, and scrawled ‘TREE AID’ in big ungainly letters over the pristine white surface of the label, which bubbled up over a landscape of orange tin.  I hit the campaign trail hard; which meant the twelve houses on my road and select friends of my parents.

My efforts were rewarded, and I took my £4.36 to my headmaster at the village primary school, excited about the vast forests that would be planted throughout and around the village. The headmaster took the money and promised to find an appropriate home for the funds. I never heard about or saw the money again; a valuable lesson in follow through.

Pinocchio moneybox that housed the £4.36 for Tree Aid – never to be seen again

This was my first, and perhaps greatest, piece of activism.  The Holm oak still stands today, and as I grew and forsook philosophy and linguistics for forestry, I applied my NPTC training and tickets to the tree.  My arboricultural administrations, I hope, gave the tree a new lease of life – with crown lifting, reduction, and cleaning – along with all the other trees in the garden (hollies, hawthorns, apples and pears, cherries, laburnums, and a single sycamore; plus a very unwieldy box hedge).  The Holm also provided yearly saplings that grew on the verge outside on the pavement, were cultivated, and then distributed throughout the village to new homes.  Coasters with gold and black hues coloured between the radiant medullary rays, scaffolding the yearly growth rings, provided limited edition gifts.  Both a fixed point in my life and a once in a lifetime event woke me up to trees; an almost imperceptible cycle of life constantly ebbing and flowing on the periphery of my vision, followed by a big slap in the face.

So, what’s the point of this reflection?  The point is self-indulgence, a little free-flow writing for a change, collecting my thoughts on how I ended up studying trees; and that stories – ones that barely even register – have profound influence on the shape of the person that is still to come.  And trees are incredibly beautiful organisms, with infinitely diverse form and function.  Much of these functions will remain unknown to us, as will understanding the interactions and evolution of 60-100,000 species (not including cultivars and varieties) within their environments; but the potential and promise is mirrored by their impact on our development and discoveries of the past.  Plus, trees are great places to scrape knees, break noses, climb, take a nap, and generally take stock of all that silently drifts on by with the whimsical tumble and rise of the breeze.

Also, running around in He-Man pants is always fun.