”Standing”: DIY Forest Projects
kestrels; twice fly by
rooftops; sunset, today
For a few years, every time we went out to the forest, urban forest, we picked up plastic, glass, whatever we’d find. And when we came across a castaway micro-forest in the making — i.e. a whole lot of tiny maples or oaklings growing by the road, pushing up through cracks in the concrete, we’d take them and replant them at home and later in the forest. It wasn’t long before our small apartment was full of yogurt pots and milk-cartons with all those little trees, future forests.
I was there so much that one day a local police officer stopped me and asked (in czech): I’m just wondering, what are you doing here all the time? I told him. And he said: I thought you were the spirit of the forest! I’d see someone coming and going and doing something but never did know what. With my son, we’d carry out bags of junk. Other kids joined us sometimes. I used to organise Earth Days for kids, but I didn’t promote what we were doing or ask anyone to take part. We just did what we did in our neighborhood. We cleaned-up, replanted, and enjoyed that place. Deer running, hawks nesting, pine-martens chewing on engine cables… this is what a city is like when there’s some forest left. Not only do electric cables run through, but lifelines are free to run through the city.
Last I checked, the trees are doing fine. And maybe the original temperate forest-type will come back the more we integrate native biota and diversify. Monoculture-rule has really led to drought conditions in many forests I’ve been to here, and it will add to hotter summers, and one day, to real desertification. I can’t say how many we did plant, or how many will make it.
In Jeseníky mountains I joined a grassroots family run NGO called PagoPago (who plan to plant 1 million trees for free in the Czech Republic, with a special focus towards fruit trees as a means to generate both clean air and a food source. And with one person planting 300 per day, 1 million is completely doable in a short time). We did conservation work in the Protected Forest (here that’s designated CHKO) working on trees damaged or killed by spruce-bark / pine-bark beetles (bark-artist engraver-beetles – artists who are not appreciated at all in their lifetimes, and mostly not even after, except by a few, like my friend who was given a new stick for a pow-wow drum as a thank you gift, lightly and organically engraved all over). This was about stripping the bark and leaving the tree where it lay to go back to the earth. It was a good break from all the clear-cuts I’d seen, and no heavy machinery was used (just a chainsaw to take off branches), so apart from some rolling trees that got away it was peaceful out there. We were working under LESY ČR, the Forest Service. But not all of the forest rangers knew about us.
One morning, camped by the service road, I woke up, looked out of my tent and saw Ježek, the leader of our group, butt-naked, looking like one of the Kon Tiki crew with long blond beard and hair, standing there peacefully, quietly explaining to a very angry forest ranger who had gotten out of his jeep and was shouting – what are we doing here… who the hell are we and what’s going on? And Ježek was gently saying ‘we belong here… we’re working here for you… we belong here.’ This was too much for the grizzly-looking red-in-the-face ranger so he got back into his jeep and drove off fast. He did come back with another ranger, this one luckily knew us.
It was a perfect image, the butt-naked gentle Kon Tiki tree-planter guy and the uniformed angry representative of the Forest Service in the Czech Republic (caretaker of this whole mountain and forest). Apart from how it looked, it stays with me as a good example of non-violent communication in activism, the same way that Arne Næss talked about and practiced. Adding a few things to this today, I’m in a cottage in the mountains by the forest and I can’t help but think of Arne Næss in Tvargestein and his wonderful, peaceful, practical, and humble way of seeing and being in the world. Like he said, up here in the mountains you can’t help but have big thoughts – something like that.
I got a lift in a jeep with one friendly ranger who told me that ‘There’s no money in a healthy forest’ and that they basically wait too long to do something and then have a bigger catastrophe to fix up, meaning more jobs. Yes, it’s hard to imagine that that’s the ‘Forest Service.’ Is it true that worldwide there is more money to be made from planting than protecting? Maybe you’ve heard about Costa Rica (which is progressive in so many ways, completely demilitarized with the UN Peace University based there) – people started clearing forest to use the timber and replant it all to get into reforestation. This is bizarre from a wilderness-lover’s standpoint. With a kind of aikido-move, this kind of industrial resource-driven worldview can be flipped, redirected, to put that energy to saving the wild free nature as it is, and seeing the (incalculable) value of a standing tree.
I’m with Gary Snyder on thinking practically – the love of timber, working with wood, and releasing all that stored sunshine – to heat up this cottage. I’m really happy for that. Buddhist hermits, of course, would just go out and collect dead-fall and never cut a live tree. We can’t all be Buddhist hermits. Or maybe we can. I think of Bikky Sunazawa, the great Ainu artist, wood-carver, who would say that he was searching for the spirit in the wood, in the tree, and releasing it by carving. There are a lot of ways to honor the trees. Loving the mountains, loving the forest as a part of us, as much greater than us, as a field of possibilities, as a life-force, as a community, as a place of spirits, as a pure land, as a refuge, as shelter, as home for millions, billions of tiny energies. Beat poet Lew Welch had a really good tiny poem about this which comes to mind a lot when I’m out in the forest with my son and we’re searching, exploring – it goes like this: Step out onto the Planet, / draw a circle 100 feet round. / Inside the circle are 300 things nobody understands and, maybe, nobody’s ever seen. / How many can you find?
do you know what keeps you alive? plankton & whales — Trees — planet breathing
(from my forest notebook)
Somedays I was working for a week at a time by myself with just a map from the ranger with some x’s on it, my tools backpack, and off I’d go. Sometimes the terrain was such that it took all day to get to 2 or 3 trees. And working on them with these DIY hand tools took a few hours (our artist-turned-ecologist friend was a blacksmith in addition), two cant hooks, old-style iron bark spuds. One night I walked back 15kms by summer skylight. There were some adventures up there, some close-calls: steep slopes, a lot of lightning, wind, and tree-falls. Camping in no-camping areas, up on the ridges under the stars; fireflies; meeting a stag in the night who huffed and stomped at me but we both held our ground a while; washing in cold streams; cooking whatever we had (which I later discovered had all come from dumpster-diving); working with no schedule, to my own rhythm. This was all through summer, and then started planting season (spruce, beech).
Planting trees felt like the better option than going to protest illegal logging or highway construction. Being out there everyday I could really feel that one more tree planted was a step in the right direction. And then one more and one more. Activism and timber – both necessary. But planting trees means generating more possibilities for life. Of course, the forest is self-generating and will grow just fine. Shunryu Suzuki, the Zen Roshi, used to say, ‘Everything is perfect. But there is always room for improvement.’ I think that’s what we try to do when working on depleted land, in damaged ecosystems, after walking into a clear-cut – we know that it will be perfect and grow back in its own way, not like before because the conditions have changed, we want to make it better already, bring it back to how it was, repair and make amends. Sometimes this might be more about trying to make peace with these places, with this world, to ‘do the right thing’, than to let things follow the natural course, to follow their own ways. And what if that means desertification? (I can’t help thinking of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind where the hidden connections in how the ecosystem really worked eluded everyone but the shero of the story.) We might add, ‘Everything is perfect. But there is always room for improvement (in relationships).’
I asked Ježek: Why was all this clear-cut anyways? To which he answered: No water here. And I replied: So, what about these? (The new trees.) Looking around, kicking the ground, and reaching down to touch it, it was really dry. Whatever rain made it down through the arrow treetops was not staying long.
For natural forest regeneration and true rewilding all that’s really necessary is to leave large enough buffer zones and extra space around protected forests whereby the forest will naturally expand and regenerate itself. Forests are good at this. For rewilding projects this is a big consideration. With Half-Earth and similar plans (finally!) taking off, it is good to make sure that we treat the land well with a gentle touch. We need to have radical social and political change but the land has to do things at her speed, and the whole planetwide watershed is changing and self-regulating due to countless feedback loops of which we mostly have no idea. What can we do? Listen in the place we are, take small and beautiful steps.
hear that kestrel call?
sure think I did
Feb. 2022 for PULSE, Planet Drum Foundation, San Francisco
(edited and parts added Nov. 2022 for Rewilding Earth)
See photos from this forest project.
Here are some useful places where you can learn more about forests, habitat at risk, and conservation / reforestation / rewilding projects: IUCN, Leave no trace, UNCCD (online toolkit), The Nature Conservancy (free courses available), The Rewilding Institute, Climate Reality Leadership Corps (training), edx.org, Nature Needs Half, Forest Creators, Boomforest FR (using the Miyawaki method), Happen Films, Hawkwatch, Global Forest Watch (app), Carbon Brief, Climate Feedback (.org), The Solutions Project, Greenpeace International, the Raptor Research Foundation, Foundation for Deep Ecology, Project Drawdown, Navdanya International, earth.org
And here are some recommended books, new & old:
Gary Snyder’s ‘’Reinhabitation’’ essay in A Place in Space; Miyawaki — Healing power of forests; Rewilding North America by Dave Foreman; Arne Næss Wisdom of Ecology; Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi – The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision; Not Always So – Shunryu Suzuzki
Rowan Kilduff is a dad, mountain-runner, and activist.
He has worked with nonprofits and a lot of D.I.Y projects; as a teacher, a tree-planter, youth events organiser (performing arts, Earth Days); in protected forest; with Greenpeace PL & Czech radio, TEAM Nepal, Friends of the Earth CZ, and is a supporter of A World Without Armies and Leave no Trace; has taken photos for The Irish Seal Sanctuary; has led workshops like ”Practical Ways to Join the Growing Vision of a Sustainable Future” (University Science Night) and talks like ”Star Wars 10 Life Lessons’’ & ‘’On the Off Road.’’ He currently lives in the Czech Rep. with his wife and son with many good friends around. He writes on the connection between ecological and world peace; wilderness; urban hawks and forests.
Find writing in print / online in Rewilding Earth, Wingspan (from the Raptor Research Foundation, US); Dragonfly, Mi’kma’ki, CA; Ecozon@ España; Camas, Montana; PULSE (Planet Drum Foundation, SF); and art in The Fourth River, @ ART FOR PEACE.