A Pattern Language for Forestry

This week I'm digging a bit into the archives, to share some writing and an audio recording I did in 2009 as part of my semester work for Empire State College - this was my final project for a class called "Forest Ecology" which was mentored by an amazing local forester, Mike DeMunn.

I remember the first forest walk I did with Mike in the Cayuga Nature Center woods where I was working. He led our permaculture students through the woods, pointing out stumps and trees and telling us stories of history, ecology, and good management. I knew from one hour in the woods with him that my perspective and understanding was being called to change.

I approached Mike (at left) for this class with the goal of learning more by spending time shadowing his work in the woods. I'll excerpt a bit from my final paper to tell the story:

As we parked on the edge of his property on a cool September afternoon I hardly paid attention to the acres of goldenrod surrounding us. Rather I fixed my gaze to the hardwoods towering above the golden field. This was my first mistake. As we walked through the fields, Mike told me he was working just as hard in this part of his land to encourage regeneration of the next forest.

Mike had planted maybe fifty trees himself, and simply cleared patches in the thick grasses and goldenrod to allow for to establishment of new species. What I found interested was his approach; make a decisive and particular disturbance and let nature fill in the void. It was the squirrels and birds that did most of the work. In a few years the diversity on Mike’s land had jumped from several dozen to hundreds or possibly thousands of species.

As we headed into the woods, I felt the strong presence of a mature and diverse forest. The air was cool and moist, the calls of birds frequent, the vegetation in abundance and dark green in color. “We logged it several years ago, and you can’t even tell,” Mike commented. “That’s the way it should be.”

Mike showed me around and we talked about making impact- that every action carries consequences and that the long term health of the woods was more important than anything else. Mike’s main strategy was to minimize insect and disease problems and thin out trees with poor form. Those byproducts could go to market and turn a profit, but this objective was secondary to improving the health of his woods. I wondered if such priorities could exist in this modern world, but here was a living and breathing example of someone making a livelihood without compromising his values.

The importance of animals was highlighted again as we made our way through stands of oak, maple, and beech. “There’s no point in leaving the oak if you don’t leave a home for the people who plant the oak,” Mike noted. He of course meant the squirrels, and by home he meant the often dead and decaying trees that provided safety and shelter for a creature many consider a pest. Most foresters would consider those trees useless and thin them out, but not Mike. Standing deadwood (also known as “snags”) and these den trees are some of the most important factors to the biological productivity of a forest ecosystem.

This is but one snippet of the vast amount of knowledge I gained working with Mike over the semester. I realized after spending several sessions with him that he spoke a language - a dying language - that was the language of healthy forests and the balance between this and harvesting goals. 

Reflecting on this further, I quickly drew a connection to an amazing piece of work that catalogs a timeless collection of patterns of cities and architecture, written by Christopher Alexander in 1977. My favorite definition of pattern is "a solution to a problem across contexts," who I have heard was attributed to Alexander, though i could find no reference to this in my research.

Here is some thinking behind the book from www.patternlanguage.com:

...Now, a pattern is an old idea. The new idea in the book was to organize implicit knowledge about how people solve recurring problems when they go about building things.

...a pattern language is about patterns being like words. They stay the same but can be combined in different ways like words in a sentence. They can be used as in a network where one will call upon another (like a neuron network). When you build something you can put patterns together to form a language. So a language for your house might have patterns about transitions, light, ceiling height, connecting the second floor to the ground. A community might put together a language including patterns about public and private spaces, cars, pedestrians and parking. Using languages helps you to visualize and think about what will really make you comfortable, really comfortable. 

So, in this vein, I've been thinking for a long time about other systems in my permaculture work that could benefit from such development. Indeed, when Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier wrote Edible Forest Gardens, then included a Pattern Language for Forest Gardening in Volume 2, which my colleague Ethan Roland fleshes out in his own blog post.

An individual pattern is made up of a name for the pattern, a problem statement, and a solution statement. An example from the Forest Garden Pattern Language:

5. Site Repair
PROBLEM: People often build or garden in the most beautiful spot on the land, leaving the rest of the site to its own devices.
SOLUTION: Therefore, leave the most beautiful healthy, precious, and comfortable places on your site alone. Build a garden in those places that need the most repair and attention.

What has struck me is not that any one pattern is particularly amazing or profound; indeed many of them are mostly common sense. But I think there is a usefulness in articulating the pattern and also more importantly in looking for the language that develops as you combine all the patterns together. Ethan and another friend Connor Stedman did some nice work summarizing all the Forest Garden Patterns in this document, although I still recommend checking out the details and drawings in Volume 2 of Edible Forest Gardens to get the whole story.

I'm willing to take the next step and begin offering A Pattern Language for Northeast Forestry as a template for common patterns I have observed and heard observed from others who routinely work the woods. I think a language can help us better understand the important elements of good management and also educate those less aware of forestry in the particulars. Stay tuned for the launch of this project...

I'll leave you with a 30 minute recording I did as my final project, which includes segments from my time in the woods with Mike, as well as some cuts from presentations I attended by Dave Jacke, author of Edible Forest Gardens, and Peter Smallage, who is a NYS extension forester based out of Cornell's Arnot Forest. Listen for the mention of several patterns I heard while documenting these experiences...