“Man is the most insane species. He worships an invisible God and destroys a visible Nature. Unaware that this Nature he’s destroying is this God he’s worshipping.”
The above quote, by the Canadian scientist and thinker Hubert Reeves has been coming to the forefront of my mind often just lately.
Earlier this year, Petra and I took a walk over a battlezone, where heavy machinery had torn up the ground. Destruction had been waged on all sides. The remains of vehicles, temporary structures, microwave ovens, fridges and fuel drums were strewn over a wide area. Occasionally a pungent smell of diesel oil would signify where a bowser had refuelled heavy plant, spilling fuel.
We were on the Migneint, an area of outstanding biodiversity in North Wales, a fragile place where blanket bog covered the ground surface, clothing the rock beneath with a carpet of moss and lichen, supporting a wealth of insect and bird life.
But here in the forestry plantation, no birds sang.
What we were seeing was the aftermath of a typical forestry clear-felling and the destruction and chaos it brings to the environment. But the destruction had started 70 years previously. The ground was drained by a big machine that made equally spaced ditches, "riggets" which would get rid of water fast, turning the bog into a drier substrate that could support the young roots of a conifer monoculture.
Admittedly, there has been a bit of a step-change in thinking these days. The sense in planting deciduous trees as well as conifers is slowly leaching through the podzol minds of the forestry folk. Instead of the march of the endless borg spruce, we could have beautiful woodlands, as at Coed Felinrhyd, or Coed Cwm Mynach. Or the woods outside my back door at Coed Cymerau- thank you, Woodland Trust.
So, you see, I'm not against woodland. Not at all, actually. I'd like to see woodland spring up everywhere, where possible...the birch colonisers, followed by the holly and the hawthorn, then the beech and oak. Natural woodlands. Supporting wildlife as diverse as it would be plentiful.
To quote the great Oliver Rackham, who has written more and better about woodland than any other living author: "Trees are wildlife just as deer or primroses are wildlife." Woodland grows through our history and culture, and that's natural woodland – not monocrop timber plantations – that we should value and guard as jealously as any other part of our private and shared cultural heritage.
But back on the Migneint, the forest had been imposed on (and obliterated) a landscape that already fulfilled an important ecological role, that of a carbon sink, a natural system that sucks up and stores carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Plants grab carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to use in photosynthesis; some of this carbon is transferred to soil as plants die and decompose. Bogs are particularly good carbon sinks. Forests like a giant sardine can full of monoconifers, not so good. The land wrecked by the harvesting of said conifers? Zero environmental value. An eyesore, a real one, a festering open wound.
Now, the wrecked plantation is being re-colonised by self-set conifers, the process of creating a wild desert, as Mike Perry calls it, starting all over again.
Thankfully, changes in agricultural and environmental thinking are happening, but still on a geologically slow timescale. At this rate, by the time we take the turning towards making changes, the road and the destination will have gone.
Mike Perry- "Land/Sea", Ffotogallery Wales, 2017. Web site here.
"The Hills are Dead"- George Monbiot- link to article here.
Oliver Rackham on Wikipedia.
The Woodland Trust