Journalist Peter Kuitenbrouwer, who holds a Master of Forest Conservation from the University of Toronto, is a Registered Professional Forester in training.
Forestry textbooks often use German words, such as forsteinrichtung (forest planning) and plenterwald (selection cutting). Forestry has its roots, so to speak, in Germany. Centuries ago, Germans cut down most of their trees. They then realized they had a problem. So they invented the field of forestry, and in turn the profession of forester.
As Canada’s settlers laid waste to forests at will (since the bounty once seemed inexhaustible), Europeans mastered forest husbandry. North America’s first forester, the German-born Bernhard Eduard Fernow, who in 1907 was appointed as dean of the newly created Faculty of Forestry at the University of Toronto, was a graduate of the Prussian Forest Academy in Hannoversch Munden.
Fear for the planet’s future has stoked unprecedented affection for forests in the 21st century. Leading the tree huggers is another German forester, Peter Wohlleben. He says Germans are not role models, however, but rather have destroyed their own forests, replacing them with “dreary plantations” of non-native pine and spruce. These biological deserts struggle, lacking tree families with members in every age group, and are bereft of the beetles, bugs, fungi and micro-organisms that make true forests so healthy.
Mr. Wohlleben’s book The Hidden Life of Trees has sold millions of copies in 40 countries. He is hotter than a K-pop star, with a new book, The Heartbeat of Trees, and a film version of The Hidden Life of Trees both released this summer. The documentary opened last month in Quebec and will hit screens soon in Vancouver and Toronto, and throughout the fall in other cities. Mr. Wohlleben also has his own TV show and a magazine, Wohllebens Welt (or “Wohlleben’s World”).
The film, directed by acclaimed German filmmaker Jorg Adolph and nature documentarian Jan Haft, is at once beautiful, with sped-up sequences of seedlings sprouting after snow melt – a celebration of forests’ frail splendour – and frightening, such as when ominous horror-movie music plays as a harvester, a logging leviathan straight out of Avatar, lays waste to the forest.
In one grim sequence, we watch closeups of spades slicing the earth around a sapling in a nursery. We hear the amplified “click” as pruners cut the young tree’s roots. Orange ratchet ties affix the lone tree, bound like an inmate, in the bed of a truck. The hapless sapling’s trip to a new home, on a bleak expanse of road in a new suburb, resembles a prisoner transfer.
“Unfortunately,” a narrator says in the voice-over, “when the roots are pruned, the brain-like structures are cut off, along with the sensitive tips. Ouch. After that, it’s as if this interference makes the trees lose their sense of direction underground.”
Mr. Wohlleben is correct that selective tree harvesting is preferable for forest health to a clearcut. But his “tree-planting horror story” goes a bit far. Mr. Wohlleben believes trees, like us, are sentient beings. So why can’t trees adapt, as humans do?
Tree planting is forestry. A century ago in Southern Ontario, overzealous clearing of forests on shallow land left desert-like conditions. Foresters prescribed pine plantations. These pine forests have evolved – over decades, loggers thinned the pines; decayed pine needles on the forest floor, plus partial light from removal of some trees, encouraged native maples, oaks and other species to grow. These thriving mixed forests include the Ganaraska Forest, Northumberland County Forest and Simcoe County Forest.
The Oka Crisis in Quebec ignited in 1990 when locals sought to cut pines to expand a golf course. Local Mohawk groups protested to save the pines they had planted a century earlier in order to stop a sand dune from burying the town.
The Trudeau government has pledged to plant two billion trees over a decade to fight climate change, on land that does not have trees. The myriad benefits of this effort outweigh any discomfort to transplanted seedlings.
Mr. Wohlleben’s book The Hidden Life of Trees fills us with awe at the capacity of trees to work together in communities. But the film adaptation at times feels bitter, including one scene in which Mr. Wohlleben shares a B.C. stage with veteran environmentalist David Suzuki. Mr. Suzuki tells the film’s only joke: “When Trudeau says this is good for the environment and good for the economy, it’s kind of like a guy saying, ‘You sleep with me and I’ll protect your virginity.’ ” The crowd in the theatre erupts; Mr. Wohlleben just chuckles. He is a forester, after all, and perhaps does not want to be lured too far down the path of attacks on the logging industry.
All foresters want forests to thrive, which is why they choose forestry in the first place. The film shows Mr. Wohlleben at dawn, greeting draft horses. We later see the horses haul logs in the forest. Mr. Wohlleben concedes in his new book, “I am still not a protector of the forest, but a producer of wood.” But can one not be both?
Horse-logging, as my stepfather practised it in Quebec, is more gentle on the forest, but may be an unrealistic method to harvest the copious timber needed to produce paper for, say, Mr. Wohlleben’s bestsellers and magazines. In Canada, Winnipeg company Friesens prints his books on “ancient-forest-friendly paper” – some of which perhaps comes from the forest plantations that Mr. Wohlleben so roundly condemns.
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