A Forest Flows

Forest dawnI am a forester; in the old sense of the word. I want to reclaim the name, to give it again the sense of guardianship of a people and a place which is spatial, structural, dynamic, and timeless; a guardianship which sees our short stay here as one step along a path, which sustains a place of function that gives of multiple values, and shifts in shape and form through four dimensions … and others of the mind. A forester used to be far more than an agronomist. They were verderers (responsible for the green), guardians of the forest common, and common law, and the rights and responsibilities of commoners, and with equal status to the Sheriff.

I want to reclaim that word ‘forest’, to take it back to the French forêt – even beyond. A forest was vert (green) and venison (meat), game, hunt, wolf, prey, browse, graze, forage, arable fields, villages, halls, fungi, recreation, procreation, herb, fruit, nut, of rights to mast and turbary and marl, of wild food, charcoal, fuel, wood, tool making, even refuge. A forester is, as Jack Westoby said, concerned not just with the forest, but with how the forest can serve people. Not just the mill.

Such a forest is not a ‘crop’. No forester merely ‘scientifically manages’ that crop. That we leave to the agronomic technocrats who must reduce meaning of complex natural and social beings in order to fit some delusion of concrete form that behaves within the model: the ‘fallacy of misplaced concreteness’.

Heraclitus All things flowForests are as Alfred North Whitehead argued for all objects. No forest has a simple spatial or temporal location. They shift, they extend, they change, they are influenced from their position within a geography, a history, and through the changing lens of humanity and other beasts. They are complex, adaptive, alive, and beautiful. They are verbs, not nouns. They are defined by process, not structure. “All things flow” is what Whitehead said, as all things are integrated, and inseparable from the observer. What we see, we see through the filters in our minds given to us by our culture.

It is because forests are unbounded, complex, adaptive and dynamic that they don’t behalf as factories do; they are more organic than material. The ‘forest as factory’ idea is an abstract, an ideal; it is ‘anti-real’ in the sense that it is a representation of reality made useful because it provides a working model – an illusion – for those who think in a mechanical way, with all the emphasis on hierarchy and control, and all the delusions of how the scientific managers are those that ‘know’ a forest. To think of a forest as a ‘resource’ is to dissect it, divest it of essence. To think of a forest in this way imprisons an experience of all the senses into a prison cage.

You can sense a forest. Ball’s Clearing is a Balls clearing1Podocarp-Hardwood remnant adjacent to a frost flat (the clearing) beneath the Kaweka Range, inland Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand. As a child it was nothing short of a wonderland of sense and mind-changing experience. There is energy, life, breathing, pulsing, tenor, bass and baritone sounds of boughs and birds, multi-scented, multilayered, multi-coloured, moving, swaying, height, awe, grandeur, and welcoming grace. Because I was no artist – perhaps those best at knowing and representing this sense of place – I chose a future as a forester, for the sake of forest ecology. Ball’s Clearing is a forest as a system, subjective, moving, death and renewal. There is no factory here, unless it is one trapped inside someone’s mind.

That forest-as-factory ideal is a useful mirror to reflect back to the agronomists their prior belief. And this belief is hardly, if ever, questioned, because to do so would involve looking beyond the mirror, to try to catch a glimpse of the real world where scientific method cannot go. Beyond the mirror is the realm of philosophy, experience, intuition, sense – the real world, connected, dynamic, difficult to define in any static structural sense: “Without doubt, if we are to go back to that ultimate, integral experience, unwarped by sophistications of theory, that experience whose elucidation is the final aim of philosophy, the flux of things is one ultimate generalisation around which we must weave our philosophical system,” wrote Whitehead.

Han Suyin fragmentsWhitehead even had a phrase for ‘becoming’, for being influenced by a moment such as a boy’s visit to a rich forest ecosystem. An ‘actual occasion’ is this process of becoming. It is not a mere event. In complex systems theory today we might refer to it as the adapting of a complex, me.

There have been other ‘actual occasions’. You can be taught ecology, but there is a moment when you get it – lying on your back listening to bird calls after plotting up and down the change from gullies to sunny or shady aspects. The plot data shows one ‘truth’, a snapshot. The experience of variation and connection you feel in a small forest site and how it relates to the dynamic context around you gives another, and it is far deeper.

And if you like land, and have a sense for it, you can see the same integrated patterns and processes working through space and time outside the forest, across the wider landscape.

These challenges to the definition of forests go beyond what they are. It also extends to what they do, their purpose, and what relationships they have within their geographic space, within their on-going path of history, and to humanity. Are we one inclusive part of these natural systems, or excluded outsiders who draw upon ‘objective’ forests for sustenance or the occasional visit?

The modern view would have us the latter, excluded, and the forest as ‘resource’ – the either ‘preservationist’ or ‘resourcist’ dichotomy that provides no place for people. The developer and the preservationist fight each other for where the fence will go between their two sides of the same coin, and they both fight those that try to live, nurture, and harvest within a space.

The past and – in my view essentially – the future view would have us the former, integral, included.

We need to move away from our current

Yin Yang Out of discord

Opposition brings concord.  Out of disorder comes the fairest harmony

modernist debasement of truth – the structuralism, the mechanical ontology, the simplification, the reduction and dissection, the denial of the richer parts of sense experience,
the dis-integration of people from their space. These ideas are just that, ideas. They are not only false, they are inhumane, and underpin the debasement of our natural forest systems to accommodate a desire for more easy measurement, control, ‘utilisation’, modelling, and concepts of allocation and ‘ownership’. That debasement is not ‘truth’, it is ‘convenience’. It does not maintain value and adaptable philosophical enquiry, it degrades thought and assigns tasks.

And that modern debasement applies to all land, and the people it would call ‘resource’ as well.

Chris Perley
2nd March 2013

And I couldn’t resist quoting this …
“This is a trait I admire about foresters: they think big. Some of the greatest thinkers about the American landscape were foresters, including Gifford Pinchot, Aldo Leopold, and Benton MacKaye. …… Maybe this bigger picture has to do with the roots of the word ‘forest’: the place outside the king’s garden, the place beyond.”
Robert Sullivan 2014 ‘Forest farewell: an ode to an iconic tree’ Orion Mar/April 2014 p61

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21 Responses to A Forest Flows

  1. Wade Cornell says:

    Reading Chris is like reading Thoreau in its idealization of nature and Muir in his passion for illustrating, man’s tendency for destruction, or in this case environmental reductionism.

    It’s hard not to resonate with the ideal of man living in harmony with nature and to dream of centuries past when the population did not demand clearing of forests or unsustainable (but efficient) cultivation of all food and fiber.

    It’s impossible to argue against the need to return to a sustainable state. To me that just illustrates the primary problem… population. Where in the world do we see a massed population in need of food, fuel, and other basic resources, that is not also experiencing massive deforestation? Can this be stopped by government dictates? (as though they could or would ignore their people’s needs ahead of “the environment”)

    A different way to look at those who produce food or fiber efficiently is that they are (hopefully) buying time and avoiding the need to convert even more land to suit human needs. Forced efficiency of land utilization to meet human needs is seldom an ecologically sound or sustainable system. So this can not continue indefinitely. Chris is 100% right about this. IMHO you need to treat the cause, not the symptom.

    So what’s the answer? I guess one could dream that suddenly 90% of people disappear from the earth so that we could re-enter a sustainable future. Anyone have some constructive ideas?

    We need to do more than dream about how good it would be if only…if only.


  2. Ben McNeill says:

    Lord Howe Island is an example of hope. Partly cleared for kikuyu grass and cattle a century ago, by the time I visited it at the end of the Twentieth Century it had developed into a mosaic of natural forest with cleared patchs of crop land in between. Small clearings of papaya, banana and Avocado, surrounded by a lush rainforest of banyans and Kentia palms. Even some ‘commercial’ forest, Eucalyptus microcorys. Nestled in amongst it all is a series of houses and tourist accomodation, often invisible from the roads. The forest ‘natural state’ is venerated as the essential part of the culture of the Island, and everything else fits around it. it works. I’ve been using the “Lord Howe Island Model” as inspiration every since.

    World heritage Listed LHI has a population limit imposed. NZ still largely is underpopulated by world standards. It is not too late to integrate polycultural systems into our culture. It is the will that is lacking (by many), not the ability.


    • Wade Cornell says:

      New Zealand is indeed “underpopulated” as compared to much of Asia. We are also blessed with isolation, but for how long? We are part of a world that is overpopulated. How long is it before low lying areas of Bangladesh are awash? Where will those unfortunate souls go? Somewhere else in Asia? Europe? Africa? The Americas? I think it’s time to wake up. New Zealand is part of the rest of the world and that world is getting very small indeed. We have an overcrowded sinking ship and NZ is one of the few lifeboats. Keep the ship from sinking or be over-run and sunk by others climbing on to your lifeboat. Keeping the NZ lifeboat nicely painted with non-polluting anti-fouling paint won’t change the outcome.


  3. amycutler says:

    Hi Chris, thanks for introducing yourself on my blog! This is a great post – I like your tracing back the word through venison and vert, because of course it’s originally linked to laws around hunting reserves – in the narrow hopes that you are in London tomorrow night, I’m co-running an event specifically around these evidences of laws, rights and responsibilities related to the forest –


    – would be lovely to have you there! (there’s time in the pub to chat afterwards) And secondly, as you’re obviously coming from a really interesting background mixing philosophy, land management, and natural humanities, I wondered if you might be interested in joining the interdisciplinary forests email mailing list I set up…


    I did just come across Cathy Fitzgerald very recently: will be following her blog, and yours too…
    v best


    • cjkperley says:

      Hi Amy. I wish I was in London. I would have loved to attend. And the pub as well! Unfortunately a mere 12,000 miles away at the mo.

      I am subscribed to the forest humanities list, though haven’t thought about posting anything. Until now.

      Synchronicity is in the air. You have no idea how many times building our relationships to the natural world through art has forced me to stop and think over the last few months. Readings, conversations, email exchanges, new contacts.

      Great what you’re doing.


  4. Alison Jobling says:

    Hi Chris,

    Glorious post that covers so many crucial ideas about the world and our relationship to it. I’m passionately in agreement with you about our need to set ourselves within the entire context of the natural world, whether it’s forest, ocean, savanna, or arctic (or whatever). We can’t continue to look at complex ecosystems as simple machinery, as so many regional ecosystems have already proven – proven for those who are prepared to look, anyway.

    Have you ever read about Fordlandia? It’s a fascinating look into Henry Ford’s insistence that the natural world (including the workers) could be treated like a factory production line, with predictably disastrous consequences. In a way, it encapsulates in a short time the disasters we see unfolding across the world over a longer time – Ford learned (possibly!) that a forest is not *just* a collection of trees plonked down in a bunch.

    Anyway, it’s lovely to read your work: it’s thoughtful, enlightening, and thought-provoking.


    • cjkperley says:

      Hi Alison. Thanks so much. Great to discover your work as well. Haven’t heard of Fordlandia but the concept of Fordism is alive in the rural sociology space. Same message. The industrialisation of people and land wrapped in terms like ‘scientific management’, going back to Frederick Taylor and his work and method study.

      Our solutions lie, I think, in challenging the philosophies. Get those right, sweep aside the culture:nature dualisms and the related mechanical, material, predictable, deterministic world view, and we can make some really positive changes. Ecology has shifted, though progress is made one death at a time. Economics is far, far behind.

      Our technocrats don’t do philosophy though.

      Thanks for reading.


      • Alison Jobling says:

        I think you’re right (again) – it’s crucial to get people to stop seeing the world (natural, economic, and social) as simple machine, and to realise that everything is interconnected. I was educated as a mathematician, which may have helped me realise that any system more complex than one person dropping a stone vertically involves multitudinous variables, which in turn are affected by other variables, and they all vary incrementally, not discretely (and sometimes with a sudden discontinuity, or ‘tipping point’).

        In short, nature interacts. Often unpredictably, or at least unpredictably by us.

        And sorry for the maths nerd-ism. 😉


      • cjkperley says:

        Nerd you are not. I actually used Lorenz’s deterministic ‘complicated’ model (sensitivity to initial conditions using only – as I recall – 7 variables) run iteratively over time (the famous ‘butterfly effect’ on chaos) as an argument against relying on prediction within complex adaptive systems (bring in consciousness/sentience for eg) over any larger scales of space and time. If you can’t predict over long time periods within non-adaptive deterministic space, then what do you do within adaptive INdeterministic space? Hence the conclusion/framework we used within CSAFE at Otago University of Resilience. Expect surprise, not predictable quantitative risk. And build biophysical and social systems that are self organised around resilience thinking at various scales (panarchy). Thats a huge philosophical challenge to many sciences.

        Godel’s theorem was also relevant I heard, but he had way too big a brain for me to appreciate! Since you’re the maths nerd, I dare you to give me a summary of Godel’s T that I can understand!


      • Alison Jobling says:

        If you can’t predict over long time periods within non-adaptive deterministic space, then what do you do within adaptive INdeterministic space?

        Exactly. It always particularly annoys me when politicians glibly predict the results of their economic theories (I don’t consider economics to be a science, but then perhaps I’m elitist). Then again, they invariably avoid looking at the fact that their favourite theories have constantly failed to produce the desired results, so I shouldn’t complain too much.

        And Godel’s theorems? Hey, I’m an applied mathematician – we don’t do proof. 😉


      • cjkperley says:

        Cop out! I need someone to put it in layman’s language. Don’t start me on neoliberal economic models. Nonsense assumptions overlaid with complex maths then reduced to two dimensions of supply and demand. That’ll work. Newtonian physics envy in an age where physics has moved on through relativity, quantum p and complexity theory – the 3 big ideas of the 20th century. So we’ll just ignore those because it’s inconvenient. Neoliberal economics is a faith-based quasi-religion. So we’re both elitist?


      • Alison Jobling says:

        Seriously, don’t call on me for proofs, my chief talents are/were analysis and modelling.

        And I do very much like your encapsulation of neoliberal economics – how did you guess that was my chief complaint? My favourite nonsense assumption is the ‘perfect information’: it’s in their basic model, Adam Smith even pointed out that (a) lack of it would trash the whole theory, and (b) there’s no such thing in real life, but they still blithely assume it (subconsciously, perhaps).

        And I’d adjust your description by removing the ‘quasi’.


      • cjkperley says:

        I can’t resist this. I warned you. 15 + years of argument falling on deaf ears. Perfect information, asociality, ‘rationality’ outside a social context (which doesn’t exist), exchange/allocation reduced to between individuals, ‘rational choice’ the dominant theory of policy making (in anglo-american countries at least), selfish utility maximisation, marginal utility (Veblin showed false), an infinite number of equally-powerLESS firms (power exists everywhere, in every current and historical context – except in economists’ models), an infinite planet, the discounting at up to 10% real of future costs and returns (‘rationalising’ future generation bankruptcy or – what the hell – annihilation), an ontology of ‘resources’ (nouns) not environmental and social functions (verbs), substitutability of ‘resources’ so can safely substitute say environmental function for money (we’ll be dead, but rich), no concept of complex system effects like thresholds, or new attractor points (some NOT attractive to humanity or planetary life), no concept of positive feedbacks (whether vicious or virtuous), and a rigid belief in predictable mechanical determinism. Ignore sociology, the reflexive nature of promoting assumptions of how we apparently OUGHT to act actually promoting these base actions (ie they themselves promote ‘adaptation’ of behaviour that their theories don’t readily accommodate), psychology, complexity, Lorenz, resilience frameworks, anthropology of how people ACTUALLY act, history, power, the philosophy and history of science, and inconvenient economists whether wholly or selectively including Smith (on the role of government, morality, education, and distortionary power of mercantilism, aristocrats and corporations), Marx (on power and consequences on the powerless), Veblin (on conspicuous consumption and no marginal utility in many situations – 2 cars? Why not 3? Or an unnecessary new one?) and Keynes (to name a few).

        Seriously Alison, don’t get me started. They promote exploitation, power, the worst ethics, and social and environmental collapse. Jonestown cultists writ large. The alchemists in charge of the chemistry labs. The inquisition killing Galileo’s truth.

        Friday beer.


      • Alison Jobling says:

        I almost couldn’t resist – I very nearly pounced on my keyboard to rant about most or all of those things, but then thought better of it. And yes, the Friday wine, it did beckon.

        The big question is, how can we change the dominant economic paradigm to something less toxic? Is it possible to do it by stealth, a bit at a time? Or will it require a revolution with the 21st century equivalent of pitchforks? Alas, the iPad is not a very convincing weapon, unless you can sharpen the edge and whirl it like a discus.


  5. Pingback: Teaching Wisdom – To Know the World, you Have to Live in the World | Chris Perley's Blog

  6. cjkperley says:

    Reblogged this on Chris Perley's Blog and commented:

    Have to repost. The whole idea of a mechanical world is destroying us, and it is a wrong view. It doesn’t have to be this way. It cannot continue to be this way. There are ways of seeing that are so much more beautiful and meaningful than being integrated and subsumed into the Borg Collective.


  7. Clive Anstey says:

    Dear Chris,
    I love your blogs and always want to respond, if only to say thank you. But it seems so trite and I rarely have anything of value to add.
    It is too easy to forget how recently we moved into urban habitats, and ceased to wonder. I increasingly believe forests to be the original source of the values that sustain cultures. We ‘know’ that virtually every ‘civilisation’ collapsed with its forests. While we think of this as a loss of ‘resources’ I suspect this was preceded by a loss of the values that sustained the relationship between the people and their forests.
    As a recently formed forester I soon became aware that most foresters views were taxonomic rather than ecological; they were focused on ‘things’ rather than ‘relationships’. I studied ‘landscape architecture’ to uncover the broader context of forests, through both time and space.

    The Resource Management Act has quite a lot of focus on the management of ‘landscapes’ of which forests are almost always a part. In attributing value to landscapes the profession assesses biophysical, sensory, and associative dimensions. Woody vegetation is always contentious; in the broader context of ‘landscapes’ our forests are highly valued; even some of our ‘exotic’ forests are finding their way into ‘outstanding natural landscapes’. The point I’m making is that our forests are highly valued for a whole host of reasons. It’s their management that causes grief. But as an integral part of wider ecological systems their managers are having to acknowledge an ever expanding spectrum of values. And at some point biophysical, sensory, and associative values coalesce. We humans sink back into the ecology that sustains us. We begin to acknowledge the reality of ‘systemic failure’. We sink or swim together.

    Thanks Chris.


    Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: Weave our Philosophy around The Flux of Things | Chris Perley's Blog

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