The woods are all right (4 photos)

In this post I’m speaking more as a naturalist than as a photographer – because I find the language that is used every day when we’re talking about nature increasingly irritating, and lacking an understanding of nature. And being in California, it has mostly to do with wildfires, and I wish we would change the way we talk about wildfires, and choose the words and phrases that we use more carefully.

For example, at nearby Lake Hodges is an information panel titled “A fire destroys and renews.” One fellow photographer titled his time-lapse of a wildfire as “nature’s amazing way to renew itself.” And I say that these words are not chosen carefully. A fire does not renew anything. A fire simply destroys, and most fires are caused by humans.

And even if fires that burn the undergrowth of mature forests in Northern California are beneficial, it’s simply not true that nature, forests, plants “need” fire. That’s the same as saying that your skin needs a sunburn to renew itself. No living thing wants to be destroyed by fire and die. In some cases, it may be like sacrificing one for the other. The fact that many plants are able to regrow one way or another (by either reseeding or resprouting) after a fire though means that they’re adapted to fire – but not that they need it.

For example, some seeds react to chemicals in the ashes, and only when these chemicals are present, they begin to sprout. It’s a signal “hey, something went terribly wrong here, you need to start growing now to preserve the species!” – it’s a survival strategy, not a “renewal” strategy. The seed doesn’t need fire – it’s triggered into action only because there was a fire. Without fire, there’d be mature trees, and no seeds would need to sprout (to avoid the competition for light, soil nutrients, and water). And I guess we can agree that there’s nothing wrong with mature trees – after all, that’s what we associate with a good and healthy forest… :-)

Below are some cellphone photos that I made during a hike to the Red Cones, near Mammoth Lakes. The trail traverses an “ugly” forest, with many fallen and decomposing trees. If I’d take a guess then I’d say that the amount of fallen trees are probably a result of 15+ years of abnormal dryness in California (in other words: drought stress).

But, except where fallen trees block the trail, they’re simply left there. Some are hardly recognizable as fallen trees anymore. They decompose and become forest floor again. Young trees start to grow from seeds where an older fallen tree opened the canopy to let enough light in. Young and mature trees grow side by side – and I can’t see what’s wrong with that, and why anything like that would “need” to burn in a fire.

Yes, there are “special” forests and special trees, like the Giant Redwoods that benefit when the undergrowth is cleared by a low intensity fire. It seems like a sound theory, because more undergrowth means more competition for light, nutrients, water. But at the same time (and except for the threat of hotter and more intense fires that would be catastrophic even to Sequoias), what do we know about the growth of the Sequoia when fire is absent? Is it stunted, or just slower, or do the trees die altogether?

These are old and complex systems, and complex issues. Forest have done well throughout the ages without human interference. We’re watching them for something like 50 to 100 years now, are still learning, and while we do that, common assumptions are quite reliably overturned by new scientific evidence (for example: “Dead trees aren’t a wildfire threat“). Seeking a simple solution, and perhaps some personal relief from grief when we see a healthy forest burn, by saying “oh, it needs to burn!” isn’t adequate.

Let’s start by choosing our words more carefully, paving the way for new revelations that research and science bring forth – instead of cementing old and wrong paradigms by repeating the same careless words over and over again.

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