Smoke Signals

Ok, it all seems very meaningful – coloured lights in the forest, stories around the campfire, talk of energy from the trees, and people finding their inner self. But this is dreamy stuff isn’t it? Where’s the hard-nosed reality? Tony from Somerset comments that he wanted to hear about the incentives for managing woods and the viability issues, and the conference didn’t even touch on crucial matters like tree disease, and the range of renewable energy being considered in forests – some big and controversial like wind turbines, others local, low key and sensitive. But maybe the event and its agenda could never have been complete, unless it took all week, as pleasant (but unaffordable) as that would have been. Instead we tried to create the circumstances for deep discussion. Participants responded, they immersed themselves in the process of the event, they opened up to each other and the natural world around. The woodland edge participants themselves made the gathering a holistic one.

People talked of the baggage in the language we use for the environment, we spoke of how gender influences our view of the land and our organisations, and what it might be like if men took a year off. People had their own realisations. Ben my friend from Gloucester recognised the direction he wants to take – a career helping children with outdoor learning. Somebody announced they were redirecting their PhD, and Gavin suggested we face the big changes coming, in society and in policy, together with a common strength and language. There was lots of talk of ‘benefit stacking’ whereby one objective meets many others as we harness the range of assets in our woods, and we were invited to consider the last tree on Easter Island, the place famously over-exploited which became devoid of its trees, shade and timber. Why did the people not look ahead and plan a sustainable harvest of their wood, and what did they think as they hacked the last tree? ‘I’m glad it’s all mine’ or ‘Haven’t we been dumb…’?

For those who came to the woodland edge event and for anyone else interested, several of the workshop topics, the talks, and the ideas discussed around the fire are all to be written up and illustrated. They will be drawn together for the final edition of ECOS this year, so we will capture much of the hard-nosed reality of the event, and the dreamy stuff, including the meaning of a canopyference, the splendid new word invented on this blog. We will announce the availability of the woodland edge ECOS in December, and meantime people are being press-ganged to contribute.

Scanning through a blog like this is rather like visiting the woods. It is a complex environment, heading in different directions depending where you look, where the mind wanders, and what each of us sees as we reflect on a tree. Managing the woods, the public ones especially, must be complex. There is both nature’s chaos and its order to manage, all of our amenity and recreational likes to provide, and yes, there is a basic job to be done – extracting wood and keeping the functional forest ticking over. Local, visiting, and professional camps of people (we called them tribes at the woodland edge) all have different preferences and needs as they come to experience the public woods. Given this challenge, and given that we all want our view of the woods to be catered for, who would be the Forestry Commission? How can it ever get it right? It’s a stodgy, corporate, faceless public body, right?  Well, I grumble about the Forestry Commission as much as anyone. I would like it to manage (or not manage) more of its land for nature’s chaos, and be more adventurous, but then again it has taken as many steps as anyone in this direction. 

As I nit-pick the work of the Forestry Commission I notice an organisation which retains creativity, and I see an arm of government which has a can-do attitude, with staff who can improvise and want to work in partnership, responding to diverse and changing needs. The Forestry Commission is that rare thing – an organisation with a soul, and we would do well not to crush it. I don’t think we need whittle it in any reforms. That’s my message to the Government panel on the future of public forests. What’s yours…?

– Rick