Forests are complex ecosystems. But understanding them is not daunting
Most of us now live in, or near, cities. We are experiencing a severe deficit of familiarity with the natural world. The most biologically complex terrestrial ecosystems are forests, and we are learning that our climate, and our lives, depend on the healthy functioning of these forests. But there are only a rare few forests remaining on Earth that still retain their original natural character.
Understanding the myriad elements and dynamics that make a forest can be daunting. For teachers of all types—parents, outdoor educators, professors—any tool that can aid in illustrating that complexity is a good addition to the toolbox. For students, any new approach or method that makes the natural world more immediate and familiar will be welcome.
The forest is a village, and like a human village, it is a response to its in environment and a community of people of various ages and lifestyles. I'd like to share this analogy with you, and extend it in such a way that you have a tool to understand, describe, and appreciate the natural world.
First, the locality of a village can be seen reflected in its architecture and character. A village in the snowy mountains may be distinguished by the solid warm buildings, the chimneys, and the clothes swaddling the residents. A village in the tropical jungle may have open buildings of local materials, an abundance of water, and residents wearing very little clothing. A fishing village may have boat docks, fish markets, and a lighthouse. To the visiting observer, these characteristics are a response to the realities of the local natural environment.
In a natural forest, you can witness similar evidence of the natural environment. If you look carefully you can learn about the climate, geology, and disturbance pattern that defines the forest environment. Windswept coastal forests have trees that are bending over to avoid resisting the breeze. Subtropical forests, prone to regular smashings by cyclones and storms, will have short trees, and many flexible vines and lianas. Groves of trees growing in the sandy soils of a river valley may have sturdy root systems that cling tightly to avoid being washed away. Woodlands that burn on a regular basis have few fallen logs or branches, and scorch marks on the tree trunks.
Second, a healthy village has children, elders, and adults. In this range of ages, the senior people have the wisdom and a wealth of personal experience, and the children have the potential and the hopes of the future. Children are all beautiful and unique, but they share many similarities with each other. Almost all infants look similar—big eyes, cute smiles, cuddly bodies—to each other, but as they get older, they grow individualistically and accumulate experiences that make them differentiate. Not all of these children will survive to be adults or elders, and not all of the adults will have children of their own.
In a healthy natural forest, there are seedlings, which like children will grow to their best potential and hope to be elders one day. There are mature adults, able to reproduce and at the height of their stature. And there are seniors, the old gnarled trees that embody the experience of their own unique history in their wooden knots. Like human elders, they are irreplaceable links to the past.
Third, there is a variety of jobs and lifestyles in a village. Human societies (in particular, cities) have farmers, doctors, cobblers, writers, and so on. In a forest, the green plants are the farmers—they collect the sunlight and combine it with oxygen to make food. All the other organisms—insects, birds, mushrooms, worms, and mammals—pursue other professions.
While all of them survive because the food-making abilities of the farmer, they are all suited for the job on which they thrive. Each makes a living doing its own: the cat eats the bird, the bird eats the ants, the ants eat the seeds of the green plants. The ants like to live in a big colony of sisters, and the birds like to pair up and build their own nest to call home. The cat likes to find a private place to hide unnoticed.
Each organism has its own preferred way of interacting socially and economically with the other villagers. Human beings, however, have the unique ability to pursue multiple endeavours. The farmer can be an expert writer, and the the doctor can be a talented shoemaker.
In these three fundamental ways, the forest is indeed a village. This analogy, while by no means a perfect one, can help in understanding the forest. We have a much easier time comprehending human relationships and social dynamics than we do non-human ones, so using the analogy of a forest as a village can open up a path of empathy and understanding.
When we cut down the natural forest and replant the trees, it is like killing the elders, adults, and children to replace them, entirely, with infants. When a plant or animal species has gone extinct, it is like the death of an entire family. When the young birds fly away from the nest to seek their destiny far away, it is like the young adults of a village leaving for the city to find their own path in life.
Forests, and other natural ecosystems, are infinitely complex systems.
But they need not be daunting to those who would try to learn about them. By illustrating the forest as a village, they are more accessible and easier to appreciate. Through that appreciation and understanding, we can become better students and stewards of our natural world.
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