This is the first of two posts reflecting on ideas from writer-philosopher-poet Wendell Berry that influenced my art-forest-policy work over the last two decades. The next post details the odd coincidence in that I have been invited by curators to talk about a forest text that has inspired my work–for the 2020 Dock Art Centre ‘Whose Woods These Are’ 3-day online festival, starting tomorrow.
Last year I was very fortunate to have been invited by the wonderful creative placemaking international expert and director of the Co. Kerry codesres.ie programme (begun 2016), Dr Anita McKeown, to contribute an essay to a substantial new academic text, The Routledge Handbook of Placemaking (Dec 2021; ebook now available). I am beyond thrilled and honoured as Anita asked me to share my Hollywood Forest Story to an international placemaking audience!!
In my contribution to the text, I discuss The Hollywood Forest Story (ongoing in rural SE Ireland since 2008) as a form of placemaking for the Symbiocene era. My creative practice-led endeavour allows me explore new-to-Ireland continuous cover forestry practices that foster thriving biodiverse forests in perpetuity.
With the ecological emergency upon us, radical change to Close-to-Nature ecological forestry is necessary here in Ireland and across the world.
New understandings of how to live well with earth uncovered by forest ecologists and others is revolutionising a new vision for forestry beyond economic priorities to include important social, and vital environment values as well.
To me, this paradigm shift, this ‘ecological turn’ is urgent and necessary, in forestry as much as it is needed to guide the creative sector to help society move toward living sustainable living. Living that safeguards permanent thriving forests–whose wellbeings regulates life on this planet–is, well it’s a fundamental priority of planetary ecological citizenship.
A difficult article to write!
Notwithstanding I’m a slow writer and my Haumea Online ecoliteracy teaching work is taking a lot of energy, this essay was tricky to compose. This is because my creative practice, The Hollywood Forest Story covers more than a decade’s worth of activities! There was so much I wanted to share and I found I had to cut material to stay within the essay’s word count.
One part I was very sad to cut from the final Routledge Placemaking handbook was my reflections on an essay extract–‘a good forest economy’ that inspired me in the mid-1990s when I had only begun to live in Ireland and work with Crann, the environmental broadleaf forestry advocacy NGO, founded by Jan Alexander. I was immediately excited reading this essay that I re-printed it in one of the early Crann newsletters.
Why I am sharing this anecdote, is because the ideas in ‘a good forest economy’ resurfaced several times as my ecological art practice developed over the last two decades–’A Good Forest Economy’–literally helped me envision the philosophy and creative imagination of a good Irish forest culture.
But, what I didn’t know when I first encountered the essay extract, was that the author, was the great US agrarian writer/poet/philosopher/farmer Wendell Berry.
Now I realise I couldn’t have been ‘instructed’ by anyone better.
Now, in 2020 we still have a lot of work to do to bring a sustainable thriving forest culture back to Ireland… but with my work with Pro Silva Ireland and European members, I know once radical ecological forestry practices are being adopted enthusiastically by landowners across the island of Ireland, discussed in the Dail (Irish parliament), the Forest Service, in academia, in the forest advisory services like Teagasc, and there are even new support schemes available to assist tree plantation owners transform them into more biodiverse and permanent forests.
Contributing efforts for a more life-sustaining Symbiocene era is a great story to be part of... but I want to share below how I first came across Wendell’s article and his key points – which I still think embody a forestry worthy of ourselves for future descendants.
And in turn, Wendell’s keen forest culture observations, as he shares, were from native Indigenous peoples. As I often highlight in my ecoliteracy courses – the future of how we will live well with the Earth and all its inhabitants ‘will have an ancient heart…’
Wendell Berry’s ‘A Good Forest Economy’ ideas
New to Ireland in the mid-90s, the home of my ancestors, I benefited so much by working with a small team of enthusiastic forest, wildlife and hedgerow experts: a visionary forester, rare Irish cattle breeder and wildlife advocate, Noel Kiernan; hedgerow, woodcraft expert Neil Foulkes and local wildlife ranger John Matthews, along with Australian Crann founder, Jan Alexander. I was mentored by a truly incredible team.
Back then in the late 90s, I knew very little about Irish forests or environmental matters, but I got busy producing and designing the Crann Newsletter, worked on the Crann Hedgerow project, sold local Irish timber crafts, illustrated a simple award-winning Rare Irish Tree and Shrubs calendar (Kiernan and Fitzgerald, 1997). Most important, was I witnessed firsthand the efforts to advance Ireland’s biggest community native woodland afforestation programme to date, Crann’s ‘Local Project’, encompassing landowners reforesting 300-acres in County Leitrim, an area particularly affected by Ireland’s famine period in the mid-19th Century and absentee landlords. Coming from knowing pristine remnants, now World Heritage recognised forests of Aotearoa New Zealand, I instinctively knew that there was much to address about forestry in Ireland. But, back then, I couldn’t articulate that at all or why I felt creativity was a means to translate and inspire an alternative forestry story.
At that time, in the small Crann shop (formerly in Mohill, Co Leitrim) that I lived in for a time and looked after during the summers of 1996-7, there was a tiny library of forest books and magazines. It was then, that I came across an article in the Scottish Radical Rowan forestry magazine, that seemed to articulate all the values for why and how we can establish permanent, vibrant mixed species, mixed-aged forests (like I had known back in Aotearoa New Zealand). Looking back now, the younger forest-learner Cathy Fitzgerald, who had a passion for nature art couldn’t have struck upon a more classic article for developing a ‘good forest economy’, ‘a good forest culture’. I remember ringing someone in Scotland to ask permission if I could reprint the article.
Below are the main points of Wendell Berry’s Good Forest Economy – it is a section in his essay ‘Good Forest Communities’, in his book Turning the Crank: Essays (1995, reprinted again in 2011)
A good forest economy
by Wendell Berry appeared in the CRANN newsletter in 1997, kindly reprinted from the Scottish Radical Rowan (forest magazine).
A good forest economy, like any other good land-based economy, would aim to join the local human community and local natural community or ecosystem together as conservingly and as healthfully as possible
A good forest economy would therefore be a local economy, and the forest economy of a state or region would therefore be a decentralised economy.
A good forest economy would be owned locally. It would afford decent livelihood to local people. And it would be serve local needs and fill local demands first, before seeking markets elsewhere.
A good forest economy would be properly scaled. Keeping the scale reasonably small is good for the forest. Only a local, small scale forest economy would permit, for e.g., the timely and selective logging of small woodlots.
A good forest economy would be locally complex. People in the community would be employed in forest management, logging and saw milling, in a variety of value-adding small factories and shops, and in satellite or supporting industries.
A good forest economy would obviously need to be much interested in local education. It would of course, need to pass on to its children the large culture’s inheritance of book learning. But also, both at home and in school, it would want its children to acquire a competent knowledge of local geography, ecology, history, natural history, and of local songs and stories..
And so, to complete my description of a good forest economy, I must add that it would be a long-term economy. Our modern economy is still essentially a crop-year economy, as though industrialism had founded itself upon the principles of the worst sort of agriculture. ..
But even the slightest acquaintance with the vital statistics of trees places us in another kind of world. A forest makes things slowly; a good forest economy would therefore be a patient economy. It would also be an unselfish one, for good foresters must always look toward harvests that they will not live to reap.
Below are some of my comments from this blog on Wendell Berry’s essay ‘A Good Forest Economy’ back in 2006, for my preparation for THE LOCAL PROJECT REVISITED 2006 Crann exhibition with Jan Alexander, that we created for The Dock Art Centre, Carrick-on-Shannon, Ireland.
When I revisited the [Crann] ‘Local Project’ in 2005 [to undertake a celebratory art exhibition of Crann’s work, I was startled to find that I still had my original photocopy of this article by Wendell Berry from 1995 ! Some of the ideas naturally flow through ‘The Local Project’ film I made [… (Berry describes his points in the context of the US Menominee local community forest he visited)].
I have always meant to write to W. Berry. He is, I believe, a farmer/forester and a well respected writer in this area. He writes in the magazine, Resurgence but I read somewhere that he corresponds only by pencil, so I’m not sure what he would make of this art cum tree film-blog project.
Re-reading these words affected me in 2006 – and I wrote
“It seems to me that there is a new type of forestry emerging in Ireland, involving local communities and broadleaf trees; it’s the beginning of a return to a sustainable Irish wood culture.”Cathy Fitzgerald, 2006
And Wendell’s concluding remarks in his essay ‘Conserving Forest Communities’ that made an impression on me in 1996, still inspire me still in 2020:
Kentuckians looking for the pattern of a good local forest economy would have to conclude, I think, that the Menominee example is not complex enough, but that in all other ways it is excellent. We have much to learn from it. The paramount lesson undoubtedly is that the Menominee forest economy is as successful as it is because it is not understood primarily as an economy.Wendell Berry, 1995, p.45
Everybody I talked to on my visit urged me to understand that the forest is the basis of a culture and that the unrelenting cultural imperative has been to keep the forest intact-to preserve its productivity and the diversity of its trees, both in species and in age. The goal has always been a diverse, old, healthy, beautiful, productive, community-supporting forest that is home not only to its wild inhabitants but also to its human community.
To secure this goal, the Menominee, following the dictates of their culture, have always done their work bearing in mind the needs of the seventh generation of their descendants.
In the next post, I share details of my discussing this text recently with the curators of the 2020 Whose Woods These Are festival.
As always, interested in any comments.