Forests Transformed My Life. It’s Time To Save Them.

Forests have anchored and inspired me since I was six years old, when we moved from the New York City area to semi-rural Chester County, PA. Our property line extended into a dense forest fanning out across hills and valleys. The forest held two streams. It bordered rolling, fallow fields as well as plots of corn. Train tracks sliced through the stands of walnut and dogwood, of oak and beech and tulip poplar.

I spent much of my time running around in the woods: building forts, pretending to be a backwoodsman like Davy Crockett, watching rabbits hop through snow and then stop, noses twitching, watching me from the side of an eye. I would sled through the forests, and pretend Nazis were chasing me. My neighborhood friends and I caught crayfish and salamanders in the streams. We found trees along a bank so busy with vines that they created large hammocks; I remember sitting in the hammock and aiming the pebble in my slingshot down at a snake in the stream. The rock struck the snake, killing it. I felt awful.

This passion for forests continued to flourish as I moved around the country, to Albuquerque, to Minneapolis, to Washington, DC, Baltimore, Denver and Boulder. In all of these places my wife, Annie, and I sought wooded trails for solace and comfort.

Intense forest love blossomed during COVID

A tree hugged during COVID.

My embrace of trees ripened into something keen during COVID, when I headed to my city’s 156 miles of trails, many of the them rising through montane forests dominated by ponderosa pine in Boulder, Colorado. I began wrapping my arms around trunks, looking up into canopies, telling them I loved them. When I pressed a cheek against rough, caramel-scented bark and hugged, I sometimes felt energy pulsing up and down my body and stirring my heart. 

I learned in June that my father was dying back in Chester County, and drove two days across the Midwest and Pennsylvania to be with him at my parents’ apartment, just four miles from the suburban house they bought when I was 6. When I wasn’t at his bedside, I walked through my historic hometown, heading always to its charming, old parks and their soaring, grand trees. I wept as I held the trunks and stared into their branches and leaves. The trees enriched my life during those tough days. They gave me strength.

I believe in the power of trees, and accept the proposition implicit in the Japanese practice of “forest bathing,” in which people immerse themselves in forests for spiritual and psychological sustenance. I have forest-bathed for decades, to my benefit.

New study reveals “megatrends” affecting forests

And so it was with immense interest that I read a new study by academic, governmental and international organizations and published by the University of Manchester in England identifying five “megatrends” affecting forests. The study concludes that the megatrends are likely to have “major consequences, both positively and negatively, over the coming decade.”

“The trends we identify are important, because they represent human and environmental processes that are exceptionally large in geographical extent and magnitude, and are difficult to reverse,” says Johan Oldekop, an associate professor in the Global Development Institute at the University of Manchester and the lead author of the report. “Developing a new research agenda that is able to better understand these trends and identify levers of change will require novel ways of combining new and existing data sources, the strengthening of existing collaborations between researchers, local communities and policymakers, as well as the development of new types of partnerships with public and private stakeholders.”

The report says 1.6 billion people live within 5 kilometers of a forest, and millions rely upon forests for their livelihoods, especially in poorer countries. Forests are responsible for most of the world’s biodiversity, and regulate important aspects of the carbon cycle. In short, the study posits, “forests are vital in global and national efforts to combat climate change and biodiversity loss, and eradicate hunger and poverty.”

Five Forest Megatrends

1. Forest megadisturbances

Climate change is nurturing both droughts and excessive precipitation, which are increasing forests’ susceptibility to diseases as well as human-induced wildfires and floods. The result: the loss of forest, increased tree mortality and declines in forest productivity. In addition, these megadisturbances can “result in the emergence of diseases with the ability to spread globally.” 

2. Changing rural demographics

People around the world continue to leave rural areas for cities, a trend that is evacuating people from forest-reliant communities. This trend has the potential to lead to more effective forest conservation, as fewer and fewer people live adjacent to forests. But if urban demand for forest material accelerates, this trend also offers threats.

3. The rise of the middle class

The middle class in low and middle income countries is expected to grow to 5 billion people by 2030, which will represent about half of the global population. As the middle class expands, it will impose greater pressure on land and other resources, including forests. Demand for cattle, soy and palm oil led to corporate acquisition of enormous areas of land and the devastation of forest. Between 2001 and 2015, 27 percent of forest disturbance was due to this commodity-driven lust for land. In short, corporations leveled forests to plant soybeans (which are laregly used to feed cattle and other livestock), to graze cattle and to create palm plantations for the sake of palm oil. Failure to reverse this trend will lead to more deforestation and carbon emissions, and destruction of wildlife populations, among other things.

4. Use of digital technologies

Digital communication has the potential to have a “transformational impact on the forest sector,” the study says. Data collected through technologies can help policymakers, oversight bodies, non-governmental actors and local communities better manage forest resources. Technologies include land-mapping tools, real-time satellite data and crowd-sourced data.

5. Infrastructure development

The study refers to China’s “Belt and Road” initiative as one of many across the globe that will impact forests. By 2050, the globe is expected to support at least 25 million kilometers of new roads that will connect urban centers and transporation hubs. In the Amazon basin alone, 246 new hydroelectric dams are being built. In addition, illegal mining operations are “expanding rapidly across the globe.” All of this leads to forest loss.

Powerful books, like The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben and the 2019 masterpiece and Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, The Overstory by Richard Powers, helped shape and inform my love of forests. The books reinforced something I felt deeply, but didn’t always understand or express: that time in forests not only enhances my mental and emotional landscapes, but also helps me better grapple with what it means to be a complementary, rather than destructive, human on planet earth.

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