Tommy was a short man in his early seventies, but he looked like he barely crossed 50. He was strong and tough and as swift as a young bear moving through the forest. “Lived all my life in the woods. When I was young, I bought a piece of land in the diveten national forest and built a cabin for myself, forest has everything and I didn’t have a need to venture out”. After living there for several years, he moved slightly outside to the edge of the national forest, built a larger home and lives along with his 8 wolf dogs.
“I have learnt carpentry, I love working with good wood. I do small chores for the national forest authorities here and help out the neighbors with broken stuff. See I built those…”, said he as he showed around the small structures that he built to provide directions to the forest hikers and the cabin he built at the base station of the Diveten national forest. “I can tell good wood just by looking at it, it talks to me”, he laughed looking at the trees as if talking to his brothers.
“No good wood these days, too much cutting down, too soon”, he said sadly. “In my younger days, if we wanted wood, we used to approach the tree very humbly like this…”, he stooped down straining his knees and walked like a prowling tiger about to pounce on its prey, “…and ask ‘dear tree, I need your wood to make my window, can I please take a branch from you?’”. “Of course the tree always wants to help, asking nicely makes it feel good and we take only what we want”, he quickly added.
“Look at these trees, they are hundreds of years old, and do you know why?”, he paused with a wise frown. “…look closer, do you see the charred wood, it’s like a trophy for the tree – because it survived forest fire! A tree that survives forest fire generates the strongest wood and can live longer than any other tree. Fire is very good for the forest. It also thins down the forest by burning the weeds, moss and lichen and creates space for the big trees”.
“But what if the entire tree gets burnt down?”, someone asked. “Living tree carries water, even in hot summer and at most it gets charred. Even otherwise, as long as the root system is in tact, a better tree grows up. Don’t worry, fire is good! I have seen at least 4 fires in my life time burning down the entire parts of the forest, but what comes back next is beautiful and fresh”, he smiled at our puzzled faces.
After the governments started controlling the forests, we stopped having natural fire and we see trees like those”, he pointed to a tree that seemed like it broke on its own weight. “See the trunk, so thin, do you observe anything else? Hmmm….compare with this strong tree…see anything?”, he paused again. “Ah! You city people, don’t worry, I tell you. That tree has lesser branches, it grew too fast too soon. And look around it, it is almost alone”.
“A strong tree grows on its own pace, with a lot of branches and as it grows more branches, it gathers more thickness around its trunk. It attracts more animals, more shrubbery, and as if it communicates with other trees underground, it helps other trees get healthier. Does it sound like garbage? I am not an educated man, but I see this all the time!”, he tried to explain.
“These days I see lot of plantations, by private owners, they chop off the branches quickly so that the trees can grow fast, and more wood can be generated! These plantations are mini wood factories. Here let me show you, there you see that patch? Lone trees waiting to be cut down. No animals or birds come around there! It’s sad. You want to grow alone and fall under your own weight, so sad!”, he looked away as if to avoid looking at a horror scene.
“If we walk further up a mile, you will see natural trees and undisturbed forest bed. Every strong tree has so much weight that it carries as it grows. The big birds also like to nest on these trees. These trees almost feel like they are selfless, they grow as if…”, he paused again to show respect, “…with a lot of responsibility”, he smiled to himself.
“You see this green moss like thing under the rocks, you can eat that if you get lost in the forest, don’t tell anyone I told you that…hehehe, you are not supposed to disturb the forest…”. As he continued to speak about various animal species, how to make bird cries and understand if a tree is not well, he gave us an impression of being the old guard of the forest who has found a deep connection with the ecosystem. His knowledge of the forest perhaps if formalized would have earned him a doctorate and he could have been a celebrated professor of the continent. None of that mattered to Tommy. As he jumped around making the sounds of the capercaillie, some of these lines resounded in our head – “1. fire is good, a tree that learns to survive a fire is much stronger and lives longer, 2. a tree that tends to grow faster without any branches, is weak and can fall under its own weight (or cut down easily), 3. Strong trees grow slowly, but they grow together and develop an entire forest ecosystem” – well, may be these are true beyond trees too!
—Narrative above based on real conversations, with names changed. The person depicted as Tommy is still continuing to conduct forest walks along with his wolf dogs and educating the visitors with his experiential knowledge
–References from books on national forests that I happened to go through later : “1. The ecosystem of forests (animals, plants and fungi) are adapted to regular fires. 2. Forest authorities leverage controlled fires to ‘repair’ the forests and make them healthy again, 3. Each time a tree is charred and the outer layer burns, it generates massive amounts of resin to heal the damage and new stronger bark/wood starts to form”