Random Rhapsody | The value of chaos
I seemed to have developed amnesia right after marrying my wife. All the sudden I couldn’t remember where I put things. Of course, I’d ask my wife if she knew where it was, and of course, she always did.
It took me a while to figure out that I’m more comfortable operating in what she would call chaos, so if my wife found something she thought was out of order, she’d “put it away.” Hence, I could never find anything, and she always knew where it was. We’ve since worked it out.
Truth be told, I can tolerate only so much chaos before I too get lost in my own litter and have to do some housekeeping to clean things up before getting too out of control.
Natural forests untouched by man work in much the same way.
Much of the old-growth forests left in California are found in national parks. I’ve done a great deal of trekking through our national parks and, without realizing it, have developed an innate sense for old-growth, or at least long-standing, forests.
Prior to a recent visit to Sagehen Field Station and Experimental Forest, it would have been difficult for me to verbalize exactly what it is that makes a forest untouched by man feel serene and comforting.
With few exceptions, national forests have a completely different feel to them. They’re more uptight and less easy-going, which is what prompted me to write my “Forest Through the Trees” column last October.
In doing research for that column, Scott Conway, Vegetation Management Officer in the Truckee Ranger Station of the Tahoe National Forest, invited me on a tour of Sagehen to help explain what’s being done there to help return forests to more natural conditions.
As an aside, the tour provided me with a basic understanding that was sufficient for me to do research for this column, so if there are any inaccuracies, send me an email, not Scott.
The instant I walked into Sagehen, I got the feeling of being in a naturally developed forest. I had yet to know exactly why, but I immediately told Scott it felt spiritual.
My biggest take away from Sagehen was that nature is chaotic. Henry Adams once said, “Chaos was the law of nature; Order was the dream of man.” It’s the chaos of old-growth forests that brought on feelings of serenity.
The challenge is how to reintroduce chaos into an artificially uniform forest — a forest that’s been clear cut or ravaged by fires intensified by man’s intervention; then naturally regenerated from an artificial state, or regenerated with the assistance of man by replanting of a single species; and then starved of fire again.
Those are the challenges being studied at Sagehen, which is what makes the experimental forest so unique. There’s obviously science involved, but a good deal of art is required to achieve the desired results.
The science includes a practice called “silviculture,” a new word for me that I ran across doing my research.
Silviculture refers to a sequence of operations — thinning one area of trees, leaving some as snags, clearing debris and logs here, adding some there, assessing pest problems, ensuring wildlife habit is preserved and nurtured, etc. — that transition an existing stand or landscape from its current condition to a state that would be found in nature at more of a microenvironment level, rather than across the entire forest.
By assessing current conditions — vegetation, soil types, slope, moisture and a host of other variables — the forester enters the information and a desired outcome into a complex program that runs on powerful computers to produce a report that tells the forester how to get from current to desired conditions.
That’s where the art comes is. The report is just the starting point. The feeling I got when I walked into the study area at Sagehen is the feeling that Scott has the knowledge, skills, experience and expertise to know how to turn those feelings into the art that’s necessary to achieve the desired results.
I try to convince my wife that the chaos I create around the house should be comforting, like an old-growth forest. She’s still not buying it.
Nick De Fiori is an actuary by profession and holds a bachelor’s degree in earth science. A Truckee resident, he enjoys exploring the wilderness with his wife and two young sons in the summer and skiing in the winter. He can be reached for comment at email@example.com.
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