August 14th, 2005


Some thoughts about forests

Some thoughts about forests.

80% of Gabon is covered by forests.
65% of Japan is forested.
48% of Russia.
45% of Canada.
40% of Germany.
33% of the US.
27% of France.
14% of Australia.
10.7% of the UK.

We each need four trees in order to breathe, I've heard.

A country with very little forest is a country with very little soul.

It's no surprise to me that Japan is the industrialized country with by far the largest percentage of forest. And I think there's a connection with the impression I get in Japan that it's the least toxic modern country I've visited. (Though all that forest doesn't stop the air in Tokyo from being pretty polluted. Just as well strict anti-diesel legislation has been passed.)

One of the things I love about living in Berlin is that the city is surrounded by lakes and forests. The first thing I noticed when I came back from New York and London this last time was just how fresh the air here felt in contrast. Last forest I wandered around in: Grunewald, in June. This weekend there's a music event out at Schloss Lanke, an "experiment in rundown luxury ambience" set in a forest outside Berlin. Maybe I'll head out there today!

England was mostly covered with oak forests. But from the moment axes got strong enough to cut down oak trees, the forests began to dwindle. It's sad to think of these lines from Shakespeare's "As You Like It":

A fool, a fool! I met a fool i' the forest,
A motley fool; a miserable world!
As I do live by food, I met a fool
Who laid him down and bask'd him in the sun,
And rail'd on Lady Fortune in good terms,
In good set terms and yet a motley fool.

and reflect that, although there are still fools in England, there's not much forest left. Why couldn't the fools have gone, and the forest stayed?

I remember being told in school that most of Scotland's forests were cut down so that a naval fleet could be built to defeat the Spanish. They were never replaced, those forests. Scotland has been "bald" ever since. We lost our forest soul.

When I was a kid I lived in Auchterarder, in Perthshire. There were pine forests all around. Even after we moved to Edinburgh, we kept a cottage in Auchterarder. I have a particular affinity with pine forests, maybe because of this early experience of living in one. Just yesterday I walked by a fresh pine fence in Berlin and stopped to sniff the wood. That smell is so evocative for me! I love places with lots of pine.

I love forest mythology in culture. Fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, or the Japanese myth of the phallic-nosed tengu.

The tengu are, according to Wikipedia, "tall beings with wrinkled, red skin or red faces, their most unnatural feature being their extremely long noses. These tengu typically dress as mountain hermits (yamabushi), Buddhist monks or priests. They often carry a staff (bo) or a small mallet. They sometimes have birdlike features as well, such as small wings or a feathered cloak. Some legends give them hauchiwa fans made from feathers or the leaves of the Aralia japonica shrub, which they can use either to control the length of their noses or to cause gale-force winds. Tengu can change their appearance to that of an animal (often a tanuki or a fox) or a human being, though they usually retain some vestige of their true form, such as an unusually long nose or a bird-like shadow... Legends often describe tengu society as hierarchical. The karasu tengu act as servants and messengers for the yamabushi tengu. At the top sits the tengu king, the white-haired Sojobo who lives on Mt. Kurama... Though invariably pictured as male, tengu lay and hatch from eggs. Tengu are capricious creatures, and legends alternately describe them as benevolent or malicious. In their more mischievous moods, tengu enjoy playing pranks that range from setting fires in forests or in front of temples to more grave offenses, such as eating people (though this is rare)."