When the beech loses her throne – about redesigning our cultural landscapes

The climate is changing. Faster than we had hoped. In August, many majestic beeches – the queens of the Germanic forests – dropped their leaves because they were under drought stress. The king of the forest also had a hard time and threw his green acorns at hikers and cyclists. Already now we know that beech and other trees will migrate to the north if they want to survive as a collective. Also fruit trees are having a hard time.

This rapid climate change also demands a change from us, because we are so closely connected to the rest of the ecosystems around us. Since late spring I visit an NPO in a forest in the village next door. This NPO has been building an ecological hobbit house for years. Besides the preparation of seven forest baths for this autumn, I am thinking with the inspirer of this NPO how the ecosystem around their ecological hobbit house can be transformed into a food forest.

We are exploring the concept of food forests. A food forest, also called a forest garden, is a diverse planting of edible plants that attempts to mimic the ecosystems and patterns found in nature. Most food foresters use also the principles of permaculture. One important principle is observing. Another one is to think in tree time instead of human time, which means to not disrupt too much at the same time, but do small changes over time, observe, adapt and do new small changes. As a environmental scientist and a forest therapy guide I am already trained in ecosystems thinking and observing (And I also recommend everyone who wants to start in building a food forest to participate in guided forest therapy, because this practice teaches you to really observe and sense how the ecosystem around you works and lives). However, I acknowledge I do not know enough and I have to also talk with experts to learn more about the next steps, the (juridical) restrictions and other things to know before you intervene in a forest’s ecosystem.

For building this food forest, we have some more challenges. Most people would start planting edible plants on an empty land. Often the soil could be already in a bad state, so you have to plant first some plants and trees that can help to improve the soil. In the case of this forest, we have to start with a pine forest.

Talking with the founder of this NPO

Coniferous forests in large schools do not occur naturally in Belgium and the Netherlands (the “Low Countries’), but they were planted mainly in the 20th century, mainly on poor soils, for wood production for purely economic purposes. In my region, pine wood was mainly used for mining in the east of Belgium. Also, many people thought that on sandy soils not much else can grow than pines. Pines impoverish and acidify the soil even more, because pines mainly have a closed canopy layer and little sunlight, which prevents soil enriching plants from growing. In addition, the needles of pine trees digest poorly. A downward spiral.

Not a positive story? I see actually a lot of hope when I observe this piece of forest for some time, and not only in this forest. I am blessed to follow two transformations or processes in this region. In the big garden of my family we had to cut also dying and dead spruce trees, a small monoculture forest that my grandfather planted in the 1970s. A beetle -which we call ‘de letterzetter’- has been killing many spruces in the region last year. Since this winter there is a big open space, but I am fascinated by all the pioneering plants and trees that started to sprout, like foxglove, stingy nettle (which I have been using for tea and my omelettes), blackberry (which grew this year in abundance, so I had quite a lot of berries for my porridge), rowan, holly, even pear trees, and of course conifers – without any intervention. In the forest of the NPO, I noticed the same plants sprouting in the small open places that came free after cutting some pine trees.

But yes, some trees do not have a future in both forests, because global warming induced more droughts and heatwaves in summer in this region. Like the beech. But also perhaps fruit trees. It is a whole process to decide which trees to plant to help the ecosystem -and also in which order- but also considering the uncertainties of the future (the local effects of climate change, the pressure on land use by population and consumption etc). In addition, Belgium is a country with not so much clarity about regulations on food forestry. As this forest of the NPO is in a bigger forest system, we cannot plant invasive exotic species. On the other hand, in my region, the Flemish agency of nature and forest wants to make especially these pine forests more biodiverse again, so we want to use that as argument.

However, we also know they look more to the past. Before the pine forests came, this region was mostly heathland, a cultural landscape which can only exist with interference of men (and especially their sheep). For me it is interesting how some cultural histories are favoured over others. The past year I looked into the academic discourse about commodification of culture (e.g. work by Sharon Zukin) for the analysis of research findings in an urban district in Hawai’i’ and my colleague and reviewers of the paper agreed that it is interesting how policies and marketing of lifestyle and design often favour practices, symbols, hero… of one history of a place, but try to let us forget that a place holds more histories. The same in Belgium. A lot of stories, especially herstories, are erased in my region, due to patriarchal institutions like the Church (inquisition) and due to marketing of social norms and practices in industrialisation and mass consumption in the eras afterwards, and it seems we only value the histories that are recorded on paper by clergy and other rich white men, but not the ones that did survive in bits and pieces through a bit of oral storytelling. As if only the stories that exist on paper, are the most important ones. The agency is also fixed on one (hi)story of that place, it seems to me, but I could be wrong. More detective work and process thinking is waiting for me in this fall, before the planting of some soil improving trees and other plants would start.

By the way, also beech trees are so part of the cultural landscapes in this region, and for these beings there is not really a future in this place. In my village, people mourned over the cutting of few dead beech trees. They thought it was bad, partly because -I think- the beech is a symbol for nostalgia for the (rural) past. I really too love beech trees. I enjoy the presence of the beech trees in the castle forest in the heart of my village, especially the red beech trees. They are so familiar. We belong to each other. I felt sad for some days in August, when I learned that the beech will disappear eventually in this place. It can sound strange to people that news about the suffering of a tree can affect your mood for some days, but I think it is more strange if you do not care and do not examine your feelings for other beings, especially the ones that are so connected to you and the places where you live, work and visit.

I try to root in this place, but when the beings you like are suffering and have to move, you also wonder if you should not move with them. I am – to borrow Sharon Blackie’s amazing term to explain her relationship to place- a serial rooter, someone who lived in different places and have rooted deeply in most of them, and as result of hindsight and analysis of the stories – has got a lesson of each of this place.

However, the beech tree losing her throne slowly is also a sign for us to not hold on too hard to what we have now. A buddhist friend told me once the idea of detachment over a cup of coffee. “Detachment does not mean you cannot enjoy the presence. Look, now I am enjoying this coffee a lot. I am grateful I have this coffee. But if tomorrow, for some reason, there is no coffee and I will hear there will never be coffee again, I will be ok too, because I am not attached to this coffee. That is what buddhism is all about.”

I hope that we can create new stories for the landscapes. The reign of the beech is almost over, so it is time for new species to weave their stories in these landscapes. And I am not only talking about trees. We hold too much on rich white men’s perspectives on our landscapes, while there are many other old and new stories of locals and newcomers that deserve to be integrated in the re-design of our cultural landscapes in face of the challenges of the 21st century.