Monday, December 29, 2014

Are Forests good places for Pilgrimages?

The owl is nature's silent observer, the original stealth bird. Most birds make wing noise as they fly through the air, but the owl flies silently. Owls watch humans more than humans watch owls. 
Last spring within the space of a few days, two separate people were walking on the trails in the local park with loaded backpacks. Seeing someone on a trail with a backpack is not unusual in most cases. However, this local park is only big enough for day hikes, so the person with a back pack is almost always practicing for some major hike some where else. I asked both practicing back packers where they were headed. Both were headed to the Camino, a famous pilgrimage route or routes in northern Spain with extensions into Portugal and France. This gave me images of the Camino trail congested with pilgrims. It seems to be the pilgrimage destination, because books on pilgrimages listed at the library consist mainly of different accounts of the Camino. It is not an idyllic trail route through natural vegetation. Much of the route goes through bare pastoral landscape and often follows noisy highways.

The word pilgrimage means a long hike with a spiritual quest and it derives from a word that means alien, foreigner or stranger. They were popular in the Middle ages as a form of penance. Outcasts such as lepers were seen by the church as being granted a special penance. Maybe, this was a way to rationalize their exclusion. When the incidence of leprosy declined about 1300 in Europe, the mentally ill took their place. All religions have their devotions and pilgrimages crop up in most of them. The Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca is perhaps the most notable.

Forests do not seem to have a major attraction for pilgrims except in Japan where some pilgrimage routes go through tall forest. In the west, the separation of the divine from the creation led to suspicion that appreciation of nature is nature worship. The Biblical wilderness was a desert rather than a forest. Hard, dry and hot pilgrimages were works of penance perhaps were up there on the scale with self flagellation.

What is a pilgrimage? If it is a spiritual quest what do we mean by spiritual? It means lots of things. A religious pilgrimage might be an effort to amass some brownie points; a work of religion or religiosity depending on your point of view. Open religious observances and works can be associated with dogmatic theology. In some parts of the world, these morph into theocratic ideologies that are used to control people. Some people have a religious and spiritual depth that is not expressed in pious observance but in a life that is not driven by self interest but is an expression of care and compassion as well as a robust and selfless resistance to all forms of social and economic injustice. These folk are on a different path than most of the human world. They choose to be aliens from normal human or biologically driven behavior. They are pilgrims through life; essential humans that are to some extent aliens from the normal human path.

A good pilgrimage route is one that separates us from the normal human world. The normal human world is a built and altered world. We have access to most of the earth's land surface by various means of transport. We control a considerable portion of the earth's surface quite rigorously in growing food. Cain the farmer, killed his brother Abel the herdsman. While hunter gatherers did have wars, agriculture provided a motive to acquire land and go to war to acquire land. Environmentalists have had a negative field day over man having "dominion over the earth" in the Book of Genesis. There are no other intelligent or perhaps creatures that think that they are intelligent on earth, so we can take our dominion over the earth as a fact. Cain killed Abel because the Lord had greater regard for Abel's work. Cain the murderer was very human in his desire to alter the earth. We now recognize that this trait may be the ultimate survival issue for our species.  

Forests that are in parks or protected areas will remain in natural condition and provide places where the hand of man has not overwhelmed the landscape. Even forests that are used for timber production, despite the rantings of environmental groups, are low on the scale of human alteration of the land. A timber crop may only be removed once every 80 or 100 years. Forest tending has to be minimal because of the long periods required to reap returns on investment. In agriculture, crops are harvested just weeks after treatments, so investments on tilling, weeding, spacing, fertilizers and pesticides can be recouped in short order. 

Protected forests and timber producing forests are good places for pilgrimages because they are places where humans have little impact on the landscape. They are places where we can reflect about what we are doing here on this earth and perhaps find something to our individual or collective benefit. A different path than most of the human world is on, and that is a pilgrimage.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Forest hikes, and Shinrin Yoku or the medicine of being in the forest

Coastal rain forests and Provincial Parks see an increase in hikers at the Christmas season. Every day of the year, I take my daughter who is on the autism spectrum for an eight to ten kilometer hike up and around the hill. It is a Provincial Park with a little remaining old growth in one area. Our regular journey enables us to observe the habits of the most invasive species on the planet-humans.

The first hiking type, the regulars, are on the hill at least two or three days a week. They are generally above 50 years old and differ from others of that age because they are rarely over-weight and their skin is tight on their faces. Sometimes a hefty person will join the regulars for a while, loose some weight and disappear from the hiking trails. Occasionally a very hefty person barely able to walk will join the regulars and hike with much puffing initially and manage to persist as a regular. They usually loose much weight and although they may not get as slim as they wish, their speed and mobility and probably their health much improves.

Mid winter brings new hikers trying to burn off excess calories from feasts. Early January and New Year's resolutions brings a whole bunch of potential new regulars.  Sometime they are out more than the regulars in the first week, but the staying power is not there, and by week four they have disappeared.

Days of extreme heat, cold or rain will reduce the number of hikers. Hiking groups that visit different parks may descend like a tribe in the park on a day that they have arranged. Then there is the extreme mountain trail running group that visits different parks on Sunday mornings. Of all the tribes, this one is the most serious. They wear what appears to be a uniform of spandex with water bladders on their backs with a drinking tube that runs to the face. The route is pre-marked with wheat flour arrows that are intended to biodegrade. Other fanatic groups that engage in radio or global positioning geo-caching or some other nonsense sufficient to spoil a good hike also show up on occasion.

Perhaps the most interesting days are the lemming days. Throughout the year perhaps once every couple of months and always in the spring there are these lemming days when all kinds of people, families, and other assorted collections show up in the park for a hike. Usually there is nothing different in the weather, holidays that would give an explanation. The only rational explanation is that lots of different people for many different reasons have decided to go for a hike on that day. However, these lemming days bring out such an unusual pulse of increased human use that one is convinced that some unexplained force has got folk out from under their flat rocks. Lemming days remain a mystery.

There are some joggers on the trails. A few of the middle-aged ones are airline pilots hoping to keep up their health to pass strict medical tests.

Going for a hike in the forest, especially if you have to climb a hill is probably good for you because it gives you exercise. The Japanese have a tradition of Shinrin Yoku or the medicine of being in the forest. They think that the environment of the forest adds to your health on top of the exercise. It is known that exercise boosts the immune system, but the Japanese have done science to show that stress hormone levels and other physiological markers improve by being in the forest.

Do we feel more comfortable or at home in the forest? I grew up hiking on raised beaches or sand dunes on the North Sea. The sand dunes were stabilized by Marram grass and the environment was a natural ecosystem or plant community. It had much less bio-diversity than the temperate coniferous rain forests of British Columbia. The Marram grass did its ecological function of binding blown sand. It was in a sense an environment on an extreme edge. The North Sea and wind was there. Even on a calm day there would be waves. In a storm or gale the sea would boil, the wind would howl sometimes driving sleet horizontally at your face and forcing freezing cold through layers of clothing to your skin. It was a penetrating cooling that the Canadian prairie in winter cannot match. Blown sand would sting the face, eyes and hands to add to a feeling that nothing was intended to survive there. One of my earliest memories was a night when a gale screamed with a horrendous noise that lasted all night. I can pin the date to January 31, 1953 because it was the night that the dykes on the North Sea in Holland failed causing considerable loss of life. The first golf courses in Scotland were established on raised beaches because the Scots would not waste good land on a game otherwise described as a "good walk spoiled". The bunker or sand trap was not just a tricky feature designed for the game but a natural hole in the sand blown out by the wind. This feature has been artificially created all over the world to satisfy golfers.

While the Pacific Coast of British Columbia is not free of the hazards of nature, the coastal rain forests enclose the hiker and act as a buffer against the elements. On a hot summer day the forest will retain its early morning cool much later that the open and it will be warmer at night. Winter rains are often mild because the moisture has come from some where south on the Pacific Ocean. The rain is wet and heavy but it falls on and through the forest canopy as a peaceful white noise. There is a sense of being enveloped in a comfortable environment. Forests withstand earthquakes but may suffer from the secondary effects of tsunami or landslide. Dating from tree rings put the last major subduction earthquake on the Pacific Northwest after the growing season of 1699. Precise dating of the earthquake to January 26th 1700 was achieved from Japanese records of the tsunami that hit Japan from the earthquake.

Our lives are a fragile circumstance but they are probably helped by regular physical exercise and a forest is an interesting and peaceful natural environment to get the exercise of a good hike.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Diversity in forest tenure and aboriginal title in British Columbia

In the recent discussions about Tree Farm Licences or longer term leases in public forests in British Columbia, the concept of diversity of forest tenures was used as a selling point. Some forest land would be withheld from large corporate forest tenure holders for a diversity of smaller tenure holders. This was supposed to make long term leases of public forests to private corporate forest companies more acceptable. Like most public relations efforts the notion of diversity of tenure is a little disingenuous. 

There is really no diversity of forest tenure in British Columbia because all forest tenures fall within one type. They are all rights to harvest timber in public forests. Diversity is a good word that is used in a variety of public relations contexts. The diversity of forest tenure proposed, is little more than the fragmentation of the management of local forest landscapes between large forest tenure holders and a few smaller tenure holders. Do we really want to fragment the management or stewardship of local public forest landscapes? Rights to harvest timber are hardly a sound legal and institutional basis for sustainable forest stewardship. These institutional arrangements facilitated the big binge of virgin timber in BC over the past century. The forest sector is no longer in the pink, so it is perhaps a good time to think about some different institutional arrangements.

Forest stewardship or tenure arrangements met a big bump in the road recently in the form of the Canadian Supreme Court ruling on aboriginal title. Aboriginal title is not an individual ownership title but an aboriginal group entitlement and responsibility to sustain the natural resource and other values of the land and forest for present and future generations. Aboriginal title is little more than a devolution of the trust and responsibility that the BC Government is supposed to exercise through sustainable stewardship of our public lands and forests. A century worth of BC Government administrations have failed to exercise their responsibilities for public lands and forests. They have concentrated on the dough or moolah that can be derived from public forests. Will aboriginal title holders follow this example and just want to squeeze a share of the cash or will they be interested in the responsibility of sustainable stewardship that comes with the title. BC does not need more reprobate trustees of its lands and forests.

The solution is some form of devolved local sustainable trusteeship of public lands and forests. Aboriginal title needs some institutional arrangements for effective sustainable stewardship. If it is good for aboriginals, it should also be good for other resource dependent communities and rural areas. Local forest trusts with elected boards and professional resource management staff would suffice aa a good arrangement.