Planting trees or weaving the Wood Wide Web

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Man in the land planting trees
Image of Ecosystem Regeneration Camp 2022 at Quinta Vale da Lama, courtesy of Julian Schupp

We all love trees, right? Inasmuch as we do, it can be hard sometimes to see the big picture of what is coming to be known as the “Wood Wide Web”: the complex network of organisms & relationships that makes up a forest ecosystem.[1] In this UN-declared “Decade of Ecosystem Restoration”, when we see those letters WWW, we would do well to think first of the web that came before most everything we touch in our daily lives (yes: even Google :-), how it touches us, and visa-versa. To that end, here’s a little primer.

WHY should we care? Here are 5 good reasons:

The Air We Breathe: Is ~21% oxygen and is growing ever more polluted by carbon dioxide, and trees -which inhale the latter and exhale the former- play the most important role in maintaining that balance of gases in our atmosphere at the levels we need to survive & thrive. ‘Nuf said, right? Wait, there’s more…

The Water We Drink: Where there is water, there is life (corollary: where there is not, there isn’t!), and forests are the great mediators of earth’s water cycle- that dynamic exchange between ocean, clouds and life on land- maintaining levels of humidity both above and below ground in the zones that we inhabit. Without forests, the global water cycle would be broken, and all terrestrial sources of fresh water for drinking & irrigation would quickly dry up.

The Food We Eat: Beyond the many fruits they provide directly, trees play an essential role in the cycling of soil nutrients, breaking rocks into soluble nutrients, converting sunlight into sugar via photosynthesis, nourishing the microbiome with their root exudates, and building soil with the Organic Matter they contribute both seasonally (i.e. leaf litter) and at end of life.

The Web of Life: Nearly half of Earth’s known species live in forests, including nearly 80% of biodiversity on land. That is not even counting the many species of microbes, flora, fauna and fungi that have yet to be catalogued, or exploited for medicinal and other human purposes, though that is an ongoing process (as is the process of deforestation, alas -though that may be changing, if last month’s UN Biodiversity Conference in Montreal is any indicator). [2]

That Feeling of Well-Being: You know it, as do even the youngest among us [3]. There is a certain feeling we get from a woodland walk that no walk thru city streets or suburban shopping malls can ever provide. What evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson called “biophilia,” our instinctive love of nature has deep roots in human emotional and/or physiological beings that science is only beginning to understand. Yet, it is enough for some of us to say: Forests are essential in my life, and I want more of that, not less!

“If you want to go fast, go alone/ If you want to go far, go together”


Traditional folk-saying among many African peoples
Teaching how to build forests and planting trees
Planning from Pattern to Detail: A forest is much more than just a collection of trees; it is a living ecosystem, harboring a complex web of life, wherein Trees Rule, but all creatures great and small have an important role to play (Image of PrimalGathering 2022 at Quinta Vale da Lama, courtesy of Ana Torres)

WHAT it takes for planting trees, essentially…

Motivation:

Considering all of the above, in light of the fact that this is a long-term undertaking (more about this below), we do well to consider the particular form of ReForesting in which we chose to engage and its scope. Presuming it’s a new project we’re talking about (conservation of existing forests is a topic for another article [1]), the scope of intervention is the first thing to decide, in light of available resources. Are you ready, willing & able to carry the project through to completion? To be sure, there are some important aspects of any reforestation project to take into account, as follows.

Know-How:

We’re not talking rocket science here, but rather about something that is both simpler and more complex. A few points to illustrate what we mean by that:

  • Site study: This means the soil and conditions of the area must be analysed for planting trees. When you look at the soil you should consider the fertility aspect, depth, and texture. Check the type of local fauna in the existing ecosystem. And last but not least the climate.
  • Local species: Native species to plant should be the first choice but, fast-growing species compatible with soil and climate is also acceptable. Check the quality of forest germplasm and the nursery of origin should be no more than 100 km away.
  • Planting method: The method for planting trees should be the least invasive technique. Select the right tools and prepare the soil. Tree height and coverage of each new plant must be considered so that they do not interfere with each other. The plantation does not end with the forest germplasm, but must also include a follow-up plan.
  • Protection plan: The follow-up plan must specify how to protect the reforested area from threats of disease, infestation, fire, and illegal logging, among others. Maintenance and assessment are essential to secure reforestation.

Commitment/ Continuity/ Community

What we call The 3C’s of Collective Impact, is what makes the difference between a temporary stand of trees and a lasting contribution to the global network of forests. If our aim is to create something that will outlive us (a noble aim indeed!), then the circle needs to expand beyond us. As the African proverb says, “If you want to go fast, go alone/ If you want to go far, go together” -so in this endeavor, you will do well to find your tribe!

WHEN is the best time

As the old saying goes: the 2nd best time to plant a tree is NOW (best time being 20 years ago :-)… But then again, this depends on your local climate. Here in southern Portugal, November is our established National Tree-Planting Month, because it is generally the beginning of our rainy&cool season, the time when trees are best inclined to put their roots down. If we can’t count on the rain, then we must be prepared to irrigate most generously at time of plantation, but rain is always preferable, so… As in music, comedy, and so many other fine arts, “Timing is All” -so watch the weather!

WHERE is the best place

In Permaculture Design circles, we like to say: Start at your back door, and work your way out from there… But such advice may be impractical for ReForesters of the urban apartment-dwelling type. In any case, it makes sense to join forces with others in a well-planned project that- taking all of the aforementioned considerations into account -is well-placed to survive.

WHO should be involved

First of all, the land manager – and owner, if different. Bearing in mind the “3C’s” mentioned above, it’s important to know if current land ownership/stewardship shares the same Commitment to long-term maintenance of the forest. Competence is also important to have on board, so if you don’t have the considerable experience yourself in planting trees and maintaining the selected species in the target context over time, then by all means engage the help of someone who does.

HOW best to proceed

This depends very much on your particular context, but there are two things we can recommend, depending on your case:

  • If you live near Quinta Vale da Lama (Lagos, Portugal) or are planning to be in the neighborhood, then you might be interested in joining the next Ecosystem Regeneration Camp (1x/year in November) and/or volunteering at one of the (weekly) “Tuesdays of Regen” — Click here to enquire.
  • If that is not your case, then there are other organizations with ongoing reforestation projects you might want to join; a web search on the terms “reforestation” in your target area will likely turn up many hits -or, better, consult a trustworthy source with expertise in this domain. [4]

friendly man planting a tree
Image of PrimalGathering 2022 at Quinta Vale da Lama, courtesy of Ana Torres

References:

  1. Dr. Suzanne Simard, forest ecologist at the university of British Columbia, is the one who coined the term, and has published many scientific papers on the topic; for a simple overview in 5 minutes, here’s a good video explainer.
  2. Of all the news arising out of COP15, the Global Agreement to Protect and Conserve at least 30% of the World’s Land and Ocean by 2030 (i. E. “the 30×30 pledge”) signed by some 190 countries is hailed by many as the first significant step toward protection of the world’s natural forests. For a good overview of the world’s forests, how they are distributed and how they are changing across the world’s climate zones and countries, see this excellent primer by FAO: “A Fresh Perspective: The global forest resource assessment 2020”
  3. To understand how children relate quite naturally to forests, how that relationship has been compromised, and what we can do to repair it, consult author Richard Louv’s ground-breaking book: “Last Child in the Woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder” (NDD for short -what is so often misdiagnosed as ADD, or “Attention Deficit Disorder”)
  4. If you are looking for an immersive experience in reforestation, then Ecosystem Restoration Camps may be just the ticket for you. There are many such camps around the world; check the map and inquire to find out more.

Written by: Walt Ludwick

Regenerative Farmer, Operations, and Owner.

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