Sunday, 17 September 2017

Where Would We Be Without Forests? A Book Review

We live on the edge of Sherwood Forest, possibly one of the most famous forests in Britain and certainly very ancient. Pollen sampling suggests that there has been a forest here since the end of the last Ice Age. Recently there has been a massive outcry against proposals for fracking under the forest. Actually it's a bit more complicated than that. There are plans to undertake seismic surveys in the forest which could lead to prospecting for shale gas and, eventually, fracking. 

©Janet Henderson 2016

So I was pleased to come across the wonderful book by Peter Wohlleben The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries from a Secret World, published in translation from the original German by Harper Collins, 2015 here 

I grew up with trees; my father was a forester and my husband always teases me because wherever we go I'm prone to comment on the health and beauty of the trees before noticing anything else (even a volcano!) But, whatever you think you know, this book will absolutely change the way you regard trees, forests and life! It's been a Sunday Times Bestseller and the lady in Waterstones said, 'It's amazing how many people are commenting about this one book!'

It's written by someone with years of experience as a forester. He has an intimate knowledge of one particular forest in Germany - his affection for it shines through. That doesn't stop the book being extremely well and widely researched with illustrations from many contexts. It's hard to know where to start in terms of the impact on any preconceived ideas you may have about nature. What the book does, and does very powerfully, is undermine any notion that there is no communication, capacity for feeling, or social networking outside the world of animals, birds, fish and insects.

I was especially struck by the story of how the infant tree grows to maturity and the odds that are stacked against this ever happening. Drawing on scientific evidence, Wohlleben shows how trees parent their offspring, communicate using chemicals, electricity and, yes, sound, and support each other through times of sickness and drought. They do this most effectively when they are gathered together in a forest and where there is minimal disturbance or interruption from outside influences. Forests manage themselves far better than humans manage them! He explores the delicate balance of the forest ecosystem and demonstrates how trees have learned a lesson humans have yet to learn, 'an organism that is too greedy and takes too much without giving anything in return destroys what it needs for life and dies out' (p.113). The forest prospers as each tree takes just enough space, light, nutrient and water, limiting its growth so that others have space. They can indeed 'learn' in the sense that their experience will alter their behaviour and create 'memory'. Once a tree has suffered a drought, it will behave in ways that make its take-up of water more economical, saving what water there is for times when it is really needed.

The book is choc full of similar insights. The longevity of trees and 'the leisurely pace at which they live their lives' is reflected in the slow speed of their communication (electrical impulses travel at about one third of an inch per second). This means that they develop strategies for procreation and survival with the long term in view, preparing things like seed production two or three years in advance in some cases. This relationship with time allows them to develop extraordinary partnerships with their environment. For example, many trees share communication systems and even, on occasion, nutrients with fungi that have networks spanning whole sections of a forest. 

The life cycle of the tree throws up big questions for evolution as we humans tend to think about it. Species that procreate often and do not live long demonstrate the maximum capacity for speedy adaption. A tree might ask, 'Why the rush?' They can withstand extreme changes in climate and temperature and their aim is to use adaption and genetics in their favour to live to be ancient - workers near Zurich found fresh tree stumps that turned out to be from trees that had lived 14,000 years ago! Imagine what climactic changes they have withstood and the mind boggles! Trees can use genetics to their advantage to save a species: unlike animals, trees of the same species can have very different genetic structures and so those that die 'favour' those that have the genetic capacity to survive. In a whole forest, this can lead to something akin to the self-sacrifice of some for the sake of the survival of others who will carry the species forward. And, yes, there is a bit of competition between species!    

Wohlleben talks of trees feeling pain. When a dog repeatedly urinates against a tree, the tree probably experiences something akin to the discomfort you or I would feel if a dog repeatedly urinated on our feet - a burning sensation in its bark causing its roots to wither. 'Yuk!' Fracking is described in the dictionary as 'the process of injecting liquid at high pressure into subterranean rocks so as to force open existing fissures and extract oil and gas.' I'm not sure it would be exactly comfortable to have that going on under and around your roots. I'm not too keen on having it going on around my roots of home, hearth and feet. 

If you only read one book between now and Christmas, make it this one! There is much that is new and challenging to our thoughts about how we relate to the natural world and, indeed, it to us. We are not necessarily the dominant species. 

©Janet Henderson 2016

©Janet Henderson 2016

©Janet Henderson 2015

©Janet Henderson 2015

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Online Personalities

What is your online personality? 

There are definite types, aren't there? Some of us post in a way that gives no real clue to our own thoughts, simply recycling the information, comments, jokes, aphorisms and photos of others. It may just be possible to guess something about our mood from our choice of subject. Others do the opposite, bearing our souls to the world by telling stories about how the day has gone, sharing excitements and bemoaning problems at length and, we realise later, with perhaps too little thought for the feelings of others involved in the situations.

Do you control your temper at all times? Or are you given to the occasional exasperated spat with fellow tweeters? It can be surprising what suddenly gets you riled and, just as in 'real life', it can often have more to do with something you read six tweets ago than the actual tweet or post you are responding to. Days when there has been some dreadful disaster or political crisis seem especially prone to this kind of activity as someone picks someone else up for allegedly over- or under-reacting.

Do you wisely steer clear of all talk about personal relationships, or do you find yourself sharing the latest quarrel you've had with your partner and asking for advice and supportive comment? Do you steer clear of mentioning work, entirely respecting principles of confidentiality and loyalty to colleagues, employers and clients? Can you resist the temptation to tell stories that will identify people and situations that have annoyed, betrayed or upset you? Or do you use the internet to administer a good telling-off to companies that have made life difficult by failing in some aspect of their service?

Are your posts mostly political, personal, artistic, religious, humorous, practical or fantastical? Are you the one known for sharing recipes and pictures of garden produce or for bombarding your friends with invitations to sign petitions? Are you welcomed for providing an endless supply of pictures of unicorns or for promoting your own blogposts, pictures and poetry? Or are you famous for your involvement in training for the next sporting event with daily updates and sponsorship requests? Is your choice of subjects balanced and varied or does it suggest a 'specialism' (or perhaps an obsession)?

We all reveal far more than we realise, even those of us who think we're careful and controlled in what we put out on the internet. I find that I'm beginning to have a sort of affection for my internet community and it differs from the kind of affection I have for my real-life network of friends. Among my community there are people I've never met but who regularly contribute insights that I value and that have occasionally had a significant influence on my life. There are people who draw my attention to things I would never normally be aware of left to myself or who direct me to sources of information I now use regularly but would never have found on my own. There are others who can be relied on for an encouraging 'well done' and some who have interjected an unexpected comment that has the power of a 'well-done' simply because it was unexpected and, hey, they've noticed. 

Then there are the folk I've known but seldom see. It's heart-warming to see photos of their growing families, to hear news and to be able to feel a connection across the miles - maybe reaching as far as a different continent. You can of course feel instinctively that you have more in common with someone who lives in another culture entirely than you do with the person sitting across the table from you. And it's great to see projects I've been associated with taking new and different directions, though occasionally disappointing too. I have really appreciated the times that someone has responded to a post - 'You're in the area? Can we get together?' Or I've seen that a friend is on a visit to the UK and been able to set up a meeting. And I love being able to keep in touch with former students - maybe just once in a blue moon - to see that they have made a presentation at the UN or moved to a new kind of work or written a book.

Sadly, too, there have been times when I've become aware of someone's illness or death only through internet contact. On occasion this has resulted in renewed real-time contact and the possibility of visiting a dear friend before their death. At other times news has reached me too late and left me with that feeling of deep regret that the potential to renew friendship has gone - don't we all have past friendships we hope to renew in the future 'when we are less busy' or 'when we both retire'? The grief experienced at the loss of these has, for me, been heightened by the dawn of digital communication. There are a few friends whose families have left their statuses in place (or perhaps this hasn't been a deliberate decision but they have simply not known how to remove them.) This and the existence of 'memorial' sites is a new phenomenon we are coming to terms with. It's worth thinking about - what plans, if any, will you make for your own online persona after your death?

And then there can be times when you inadvertently stumble across something that relates to you that you didn't know was there. Maybe it's a welcome find! Some nice student has quoted you in their dissertation (always flattering) or a friend has made an appreciative comment about you and recommended your breed of wisdom to someone else - or just repeated your joke! Maybe it's not so affirming. Someone has named and criticised you for a past misdemeanour you have no recollection of and do not recognise - clearly their memory and yours do not co-incide. Should you comment? Probably not! Or maybe there is a concerted effort to bring your name into disrepute by a Facebook group or an anonymous blogger? Perhaps someone has misappropriated a photo you took (or one you feature in) for some purpose you really don't approve of? Or you have become the subject of plagiarism or bullying. What does forgiveness look and feel like, what does it require of us in this newly public and almost universally accessible network of relationships? How can we 'forgive' those we have never met or who have never identified themselves? In the pre-digital era it was not possible for prospective partners, friends or employers or indeed journalists and historians to pull our pasts quite so forcefully into the present and have them affect our future for good or ill. When we shape the reputation of others by what we post on the internet, we carry a heavy responsibility. 

Real life personalities and online ones can be subtly different. Shy people become more dominant, over-users get ignored, infrequent commentators are noticed and listened to, shadow-side attributes and hidden talents come to the fore. The never-angry person always complains, the prosaic administrator turns out to be a fantastically observant photographer capable of portraying the natural world in extraordinarily beautiful ways. Communities form around the most unexpected people and break up suddenly or fade away without anyone noticing except the one person for whom it was a life-line.

Most people don't spend much time consciously thinking about their personality or how they impact other people. It tends to be when we go to team-building events, on a retreat or enter counselling that we self-consciously examine who we are and how we come across. Behaviour on the internet is not an exact replica of behaviour in 'real' life but it has in common with it the ability to impact others powerfully for good or for bad. We all know people whose horizons have been opened up by the internet and we know others who have been damaged by it. Sometimes both are true for the same individual. Most of us, once introduced to it, get into the grip of its fascination in ways that can be challenging and hard to control. 

Before what historians call 'modernity', people acknowledged individual personality but they also understood themselves to be located within an extended family, a local community, a clan or a tribe that had a strong sway over them and defined the possibilities of what it was to be human in that context. Think, for example, of Old Testament sagas like those of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, Isaac, Leah and Rachel, Joseph and his brothers; individuals are set within a defining tribe or subset of a tribe or they are ejected or displaced and this, at least in part, defines who they are and what is expected of them. During the Enlightenment period which heralded what philosophers describe as 'the turn to the subject', the concept of the individual became that of the person who, through choice, is self-defining and self-referential. Increasingly we have thought of ourselves in terms of people shaped by our genes, our immediate family and our own endeavour, differentiated from one another by the autonomous decisions we make in time and space. The dawn of the internet and the digital world is slowly beginning to make a similarly revolutionary impact on our understanding of the self and we are now just beginning to see the effect of this on personality and our own sense of who we are. What we have previously thought of as our 'real' selves now swims (for want of a better word) along a river with changing currents - at one moment buffeted by the responsibilities of those with whom we are geographically, spatially and practically linked and at the next pulled along by those to whom our connections and responsibilities are partially or entirely non-spatial, located in abstracts such as attitude, reputation, celebrity, anonymity, power to access knowledge, image and internet space. We are becoming people who understand ourselves in a new way and there is no going back as more and more people become deeply immersed in the culture - or some might say cult - of digital personality.                 

An Aid to Meditation

A year or so ago a friend introduced me to a method of meditation based on the Sixteen Guidelines for Life articulated by King Songtser Gampo of Tibet in the seventh century. It works very simply and is based on the idea that our values and our behaviour are formed of the things we habitually think and do, the ways we relate to others and the sources from which we draw meaning. The method focuses on 16 qualities:


right speech

Relating to other people and our environment

Finding meaning

Each day, it has been helpful to meditate on one of these qualities. What do I understand by it? What do I feel about it? How and where does (or doesn't) it show up in my life? It obviously takes 16 days to get through the process and it's interesting that when I've repeated it over the next 16 days the nature of my relationship with each quality has changed. I've found that certain biblical stories have sprung to mind as I've meditated. Of course, many stories are appropriate to each quality, but here are some I've found helpful:

Humility  Matthew 20 The Labourers in the Vineyard
               Mark 10.35-45 The Request of James and John
               2 Kings 5 Naaman is Healed of Leprosy

Patience  Deuteronomy 29.2-5 & 34.1-5 'I have led you 40
               years in the wilderness...'

Delight    John 20.11-18 'Mary! Rabboni!'

Content   Psalm 131   

Right Speech  John 18.28-40 Jesus Before Pilate
                      Matthew 15.1-20 That Which Defiles

Generosity  Leviticus 25 The Jubilee Year
                   Matthew 20 The Labourers in the Vineyard
                   Luke 21.1-4 The Widow's Offering

Kindness    Acts 28.1-2 Unusual kindness in Malta
                  Matthew 5.42 Give!
                  Isaiah 25.6-8 God's Kindness

Respect     Luke 7.1-9 The Centurion's Son
                 Matthew 15.21-28 The Syrophoenician Woman

Gratitude   Ephesians 5.19-20 Giving Thanks at All Times
                  John 6.11 Eucharistic Thanksgiving

Forgiveness  2 Samuel 9 David and Mephibosheth
                    Luke 15.11-32 Father Forgives Son

Loyalty        The Book of Ruth (4 chapters)
                    John 21.15-19 Jesus' Loyalty to Peter

Aspiration    Galatians 1.10 Pleasing People or God?
                    John 13.7-10 and Luke 28.29-36 Peter's
                    Misplaced Aspiration

Principles     The stories of Daniel, Esther and Pilate  

Courage        Luke 8.43-48 The Woman Who Touched Jesus

Service         Isaiah 58.10 Satisfy the Needs of the Afflicted