The Living Forest Body
by Obi Kaufmann
What is a Forest? A terrestrial forest is a living network process of ecological functions whose health revolves around cycles of succession, as dictated by the fire regime as negotiated by the woody plants present. A forest is also a discreet physiographic area, within one or spread over many watersheds, defined by one or more keystone species of woody plant that principally governs the primary biogeochemical cycles presently sustaining the localized ecology. The first definition describes a forest by its relationship to fire, while the second describes a forest by its relationship with water. Both definitions necessarily include the presence of woody plants. Woody plants are vascular, perennial, botanicals that most often includes trees, shrubs and vines (but can also include cactus, e.g. Joshua Tree and Saguaro) who all produce wood (or similarly fibrous material) as their structural core.
The forest-body can be modeled as a single entity and should be thought of as alive itself. The life cycle of the forest is not fundamentally different than the mortal and corporeal life cycle our own bodies experience. Every forest is a single, biochemical system containing a multitudinous plethora of relationships between biological functionaries whose collective industry measurably dictates the health of the system. The ecosystem that is the forest-type is dependent on thousands of unique and specialized exchanges between energetic units that have evolved over millions of years in an adaptive cycle of growth, conservation, release and reorganization.
Terrestrial forests of every type exist everywhere and are all dependent upon both fire and water cycles to maintain and feed different, vital components at different stages of the adaptive cycle. A forest is not an orchard, nor is a suburban development with lots of trees, and an urban forest is not a forest. A kelp forest is an aquatic ecosystem bound to a different set of resource cycles that the terrestrial forest is not. A forest can exist within many different scales of biodiversity, from the relatively simple to the extremely complex. Temperate and low-lying forests tend toward more complexity and niche redundancy given nutrient abundancies and the general mildness of climate, while arid and alpine forests tend toward reduced quantities of speciation and biomass given more stringent conditions. The sheer amount of photosynthesis and evapotranspiration that takes place within any one of the world’s major forests radically influences water and climate patterns across the planetary atmosphere.
Forests all exhibit strata of life categories, sub-ecosystems that interact with other levels of the forest to varying degrees. These strata may include 1) subterranean and soil systems of mycorrhizal, nutrient-delivery 2) Floor habitat, surface mulch, under growth, and where liquid water may be present 3) an understory that may be of an entirely different character than the canopy – in dense, temperate forests, understory trees and shrubs may contain broad leaves to catch more sunlight filtered through the canopy trees above, 4) a canopy that may represent the most, total living space in the forest, where the dominant, or keystone species expresses its fullest capacity to produce, and 5) the emergent layer where exceptional species may poke through the canopy’s shaded ceiling to take advantage of the unhindered light above.
The function of the adaptive cycle within all forests is the tendency towards equilibrium. Equilibrium is best thought of as a homeostasis between nutrient expenditure, production and management within the ecosystem. Forests exist and thrive within their own strategic set of time and space-based operations based on the different qualities of their keystone trees. At different stages of the adaptive cycle, or after surviving many successive turns around the adaptive cycle, a forest might exhibit different qualities of character that can be described many ways. A climax forest is a forest that has remained undisturbed by invasiveness or fire for a period long enough for the dominant, climax species of tree to perhaps be vulnerable to one of the many triggers of succession, i.e. a closed canopy that amounts to an invitation of pioneering, shade-tolerant plants that begin to crowd saplings and begin the process from succession to conversion. An old growth forest is a forest that has attained an equilibrium such that the relationships across the complete spectrum of trophic interaction within the ecosystem are minimally affected by any given, naturally occurring disturbance and may have existed unchanged for millennia. Second growth forests are forests that have been harvested for timber and do not exhibit the qualities of habitat abundance and niche opportunities that define old growth.
Between us and our conceptualization of what a forest is, there are layers of meaning that at once inform and interrupt our better understanding of it. On an evolutionary level, have developed our brains on the savannah over a period of millions of years, we have a hard time with forests. They aren’t very good areas of food production for us and having long ago traded in our primate-ability to climb trees, we feel vulnerable. We have built our civilization by using the so-called renewable energy of the forest, thinking it an infinite well of fuel and timber, while not accounting for the many subtle functions that these large organs of the biosphere take care of routinely. The restoration and immediate cessation of all old-growth logging must be a priority of our species. The preservation of the biodiversity in the world’s last, untouched forests may be directly linked to the larger living network across the planet that sustains us. A forest is not an object, it is a network-process of relationships that exhibits such a resemblance to a single-living entity that it seems to breathe, react, think, reproduce, strategize, move, die, and if we are wise and open enough, we can discern its ability to express love.