The Word for Forest is Mystery

The Word for Forest is Mystery

When we say “forest,” what do we mean? 

I’ve been thinking lately about the way we talk about forests. At Earthshot Labs there are two very important languages we use to speak of forests, and both are necessary. The first is the language of data. 

We spend a lot of time working with data. The members of the science team spend their days measuring how plant allometric traits influence carbon allocation. They train deep Convolutional Neural Networks (CNNs) to model above ground biomass. They pore over Landsat images to create a cloud-free mosaic of the Azuero Peninsula of Panama or the Madre de Dios region of the Peruvian Amazon. Numbers are the science team’s common tongue. 

Our LandOS and Biome teams–engineers, designers, and machine learning experts–take the science team’s data and translate that into code, creating carbon project reporting software (LandOS) and an app for measuring trees (Biome), both visually arresting products that will ultimately help land stewards anywhere in the world restore their forests.

Meanwhile, the Global Operations and Business Development team gathers all our data to secure funding, helping land stewards transform financial capital into fully functioning, vibrant native ecosystems.  Each project they develop requires rigorous assessment: fine-tuning carbon forecasts, updating the latest projections on fire risk models, and calculating additionality. 

Our goal is to create and sustain healthy, functioning ecosystems, places of beauty and wholeness where human equity and well-being exist in balance with the web of life. 

Earthshot’s data flow is continuous, and our team’s fluency in that language is impressive to behold. Our work supporting planetary scale restoration depends on the language of the verifiable. The quantifiable. The measurable. 

There’s a lot riding on our data fluency, and our investors and project partners are counting on us getting it right. For each and every project we develop, we need to know exactly how much carbon will be sequestered on this many hectares over this many decades. It turns out that the hard work of planetary scale regeneration comes down to how well we speak the language of leakage risk, global high-resolution biomass baselining, or the Chapman-Richards tree growth function, which looks like this:

The language of data is necessary, complex, and strangely beautiful. And yet, our end goal is not to create more pixels or polygons or financial instruments. Our goal is to create and sustain healthy, functioning ecosystems, places of beauty and wholeness where human equity and well-being exist in balance with the web of life. 

We use human ingenuity, scientific acumen, and carbon markets to restore entire bioregions, which means that the language of data doesn’t stay on a computer screen. Eventually that data gets translated into the language of soil microbes and mycorrhizae, xylem and phloem, the mother tongues of the living world. 

A growing number of people are realizing that the climate crisis is at root a spiritual crisis, and that our disregard for nature has resulted from a profound disconnection from the web of life. To repair that rupture means we also need to speak the language of belonging. Meaning. Connection.

Our rational, calculating minds depend on data to quantify a forest’s functions and benefits. But we humans also speak a more ancient language in relation to forests, one that precedes our rational mind, and that relationship requires a different vocabulary. 

Which brings me to the second language we use at Earthshot, the language of belonging.

A growing number of people are realizing that the climate crisis is at root a spiritual crisis, and that our disregard for nature has resulted from a profound disconnection from the web of life. To repair that rupture means we also need to speak the language of belonging. Meaning. Connection.

In Panama, Earthshot’s country lead Andrew Coates sees a growing recognition that, while much of Panama’s forests have been cut down for cattle farming, Panamanians are hungry for the sense of connection forests provide. Earthshot is working on the Azuero peninsula to help cattle farmers restore their forests, and in the Soberania National Park, Andrew describes seeing more and more Panamanians coming to the forest for walks with their families. This demographic cuts across class lines. At the forest entrance, you’ll see both ancient, battered pickup trucks and brand new Mercedes parked side by side.

During a big tree planting push on the Azuero peninsula or seed collecting mission in the rainforest, Andrew reports, many of the volunteers are kids and teenagers. At first, the kids are mainly interested in getting their selfies. But after an hour they become fascinated with the planting, or the seed collecting, until finally their phones disappear and they find themselves fully immersed in the work of reforestation. “Putting a seed into the ground and expecting it to become a tree somehow seems to flip a little switch in people,” Andrew said. “People like to plant trees. There’s something deep in our DNA that wants to do that.” 

There are many things we mean when we say “forest,” and one of them is kinship. 

Lucia von Reusner, a member of our Global Operations and Business Development team, describes the forests of her upstate New York childhood as full of imaginative possibility. She remembers the special way the light filtered down through broad deciduous leaves. The trees captured humidity, feeding fungi and mosses, which Lucia picked to build fairy gardens. Her desire to dedicate her career to protecting and conserving forests stemmed from an impactful childhood trip to the Peruvian Amazon, where she simultaneously fell in love with the unimaginable richness of a tropical rainforest ecosystem, and also saw the devastation of widespread clearcutting. The magic of forests could no longer be taken for granted. Nourished by those early memories of childhood forests, Lucia’s current work involves developing forest restoration projects in places like Uganda and Ethiopia. 

It was in Ethiopia I had my own experience of the mysterious, magnetic pull of forests. In February 2019 I spent several weeks in the Gondar region of Ethiopia, reporting a multimedia story on that region’s amazing church forests. My guide Dr. Alemayehu Wassie, a forest ecologist with a PhD from Leuven, was that rare scientist who speaks eloquently in both the language of data and of meaning-making. Dr. Wassie directs an organization called ORDA, one of the main organizations working to protect and restore Ethiopia's old growth forests [I’m pleased to say that ORDA has become one of Earthshot’s project partners, but that’s another story].

In the end our best attempts to measure and verify and quantify will always fall short, because life is a mystery.

I remember walking with Dr. Wassie through the forest of Zajor, one of the many old growth church forests he had helped to protect, and as we paused along the shady path, he told me something I’ve never forgotten. 

In the Amharic language the word for forest is ch'aka, he told me. Ch’aka means “wild.” It also means “mystery.” 

When we step into a tropical montane forest like Zajor, or a deciduous temperate forest in upstate New York, or walk beneath the dense tropical canopy of Soberania National Park, we’re not entering this many board feet of lumber or that many metric tons of CO2. We’re entering something wild. We are entering the web of life. In the end our best attempts to measure and verify and quantify will always fall short, because life is a mystery.

Forests give us many useful things: food, fuel, and fiber. Ecosystem services. Carbon sequestration. They also give us feelings of awe and reverence, interdependence, connection. 

Forests return to us our childlike sense of wonder, reminding us that we are one small part of a much greater whole. They dispel the myth of our separation from nature and remind us that our every breath is dependent on what the writer and chemist Primo Levi called “the solemn poetry of chlorophyll photosynthesis.” 

The language of data is both necessary and beautiful, and yet when we step into a forest and feel the air cool against our skin, noticing the way the sunlight filters down through the canopy and illuminates the fine hairs on our arm, we find ourselves reaching for a different vocabulary. 

In this time of global warming and biodiversity loss, the work of conserving and restoring forests requires us to become translators, fluent in both the language of data and the language of love and devotion. 

The word for forest is mystery.

Fred Bahnson
Fred Bahnson
Storyteller

Fred Bahnson is an award-winning author, journalist, and essayist. About his book Soil & Sacrament (Simon & Schuster), Bill McKibben wrote, “This book is profoundly, beautifully down to earth, which is almost certainly where we all need to spend more time on a planet in crisis.” His writing has appeared in Harper’s, Orion, Notre Dame Magazine, Emergence, Oxford American, The Sun, Best American Travel Writing, and Best American Spiritual Writing. His writing awards include a W.K. Kellogg Food & Society Policy fellowship, a North Carolina Artist fellowship in creative nonfiction from the North Carolina Arts Council, and a Religion and Environment Story Project fellowship from Boston University.

Collaborating with director Jeremy Seifert, he wrote and produced “Horizons,” a documentary film about climate change as seen through the eyes of writer Barry Lopez. The film was commissioned by the Sun Valley Writers Conference and published in Emergence Magazine. In the years before joining Earthshot, Fred founded and directed two environmental non-profits: a grassroots mini-farm serving food insecure families in rural North Carolina, and the Food, Health, and Ecological Well-being Program, a national leadership program at Wake Forest University which he directed from 2012-2021. He lives with his wife and sons in southwest Montana.

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