Bare-faced forestry

It is early autumn, and I am spending the night in woodland on the edge of Loch Tay—a slender Scottish waterbody whose shape, viewed from above, resembles the S-curve of a logistic-growth plot. As afternoon turns into evening on this mild, dry day, I study the scene through my lightweight, eight-by-twenty-five binoculars. Across the loch from me, cars stream in both directions along the A827, a narrow road that, for fifteen miles, hugs the water’s northern edge. There is something in the sight of these vehicles that brings to mind a population of migrating lemmings, conscious that carrying capacity looms but not certain where to go. I am staying on the quieter side.

There is something in the sight of these vehicles that brings to mind a population of migrating lemmings, conscious that carrying capacity looms but not certain where to go.

A sound I know well, the conversation of goldfinches, draws my attention to the near shore. As I point my binoculars in the rough direction of their liquid chatter, the index finger of my right hand turns the focus-wheel anticlockwise, almost instinctively. I find them: they are about twenty paces from me, and we are separated by lush vegetation and a lively burn. They are a small charm—one crimson-faced adult and three less extravagantly marked juveniles—and they hungrily tweeze out seeds from knapweed heads.

After a minute’s gorging, the birds depart in unison, bounding along the loch-side and away from me; and my attention turns to the small stream beneath the knapweed patch. With the last of the motorboats gone, and the pleasure-seeking over for another day, the soundscape is now dominated by the tinkle and gurgle of this burn as she tumbles over a final scattering of smooth rocks and disappears into the loch.

I am examining these stones, with no particular thought in my mind, when a patch of white flashes into view. The white is the throat and upper breast of a dipper, and, settling on one of the rocks, he begins to bob in the characteristic rhythm of his species, with wings held out at four o’clock and eight o’clock. I count a dozen dips before he heads tentatively into the shallow water where the burn enters the loch. Like a child who is striving to do a handstand but lacks the confidence to commit fully to the manoeuvre, he repeatedly plunges his head into the cool liquid before quickly returning to the upright. Soon he is bobbing once more on a rock.

The next flash is yellow. A grey wagtail, with lemon-and-cream underside, has joined the dipper on the stones. The visit is fleeting: after a few flicks of the tail, the bird is gone, issuing a series of piping calls as she bounces woodpecker-like after the goldfinches.

Sated with nature’s wonders, I find an unwelcome thought returning, and I reluctantly begin to turn the focus-wheel clockwise as I lift my binoculars to the opposite shore. There it is: the ghastly sight of a recent hillside clear-cut. The devastation is obvious without the aid of magnification. But through the eyepieces the full story becomes clear—stumps, brash, deep ruts, and a slope whose earth looks precarious in its denudation. A stand of trees remains, to the left of the clear-felling as I look at it. The edges of this stand are abrupt and violently sharp, and within the perimeter each tree appears to be of an identical age and of the same species, a non-native conifer. The contiguity of clear-cut and monoculture would, I suspect, be perceived as an eyesore by almost anyone whose aesthetic taste did not encompass a sympathy for brutalism.

The contiguity of clear-cut and monoculture would, I suspect, be perceived as an eyesore by almost anyone whose aesthetic taste did not encompass a sympathy for brutalism.

Exacerbating my own negative impression of this industrial forestry operation are two juxtapositional effects: one is with the soul-soothing observation of goldfinches, dipper, and wagtail that immediately preceded my appraisal; the other is with the band of native woodland, complex in structure and rich in species, that fringes the edge of the loch below the clear-cut. A jackhammer would never cause a listener more offence than when they had just emerged onto the street after hearing a concert of gentle grace.

Beyond eyesores

There is an aspect of the industrial forestry method that is more significant still than its creation of eyesores: It betrays local ecologies. For now, the approach remains a common practice in Great Britain. Fortunately, though, it is something that national bodies are gradually moving away from. (Until recently, I could have written ‘the Forestry Commission’ in place of the vaguer ‘national bodies’, but the past few years have witnessed a mini-radiation of forestry agencies on the island. The slow process of devolution leaves a complex ancestry of administration in its wake.)

The alternative to forestry methods that betray local ecologies are, naturally, practices that work with them.

The alternative to forestry methods that betray local ecologies are, naturally, practices that work with them. These are practices that permit the type of native woodland fringing Loch Tay, which I described above: one that is complex in structure and rich in species. Something else that I mentioned earlier about this loch was her similarity, from above, to the logistic-growth S-curve, a classic graph in biology. If you turn this curve clockwise through a right angle, you end up with a so-called ‘rotated sigmoid’, which describes the distribution of tree diameters in at least some old-growth forests. In plain language (for forests where this curve applies): very small trees are by far the most common; small, medium, and large trees are all somewhat common, with a gradual drop-off in frequency as size increases; and very large trees are present but much rarer. Crucially, then, there are trees of a mixture of sizes and ages all growing together. This is also what should occur when ecological forestry is practised. And with that second discussion of curves complete, I promise a straight run into the finish.

To complete the discussion of ecological forestry, I will mention two crucial features beyond the already-stated diversity of (native) species and mixture of ages. The first is the presence of significant quantities of standing and fallen dead wood, along with senescent feature, such as rot holes, on larger living trees, as this decaying material offers food and homes for a variety of life forms. The second is the small-scale nature of felling events and other operations. The benefits of this approach to forestry are manifold and include: a greater resilience to anthropogenic hazards, such as the introduction of alien phytopathogens; the protection of watersheds and soil; true long-term sustainability; and support for diverse and complex food chains through the provision of varied nourishment and habitation. If we are going to use timber and wood, we owe it to the landscape to work with respect and care.

Postscript

After a restful night, I awake to the sound of rain on the corrugated-metal roof above me and gaze out across the loch once more. The eyesore is gone. The Earth, as if in shame, has covered the denuded slope and the remaining monoculture in cloud. In fact, all I can make out of the hill, the only part that is clear of the heavy curtain of water vapour, is a thin band along the bottom, the fringe of mixed native woodland.

Read ‘Bare-faced forestry’, by Joe Gray, on the #EarthTongues blog