Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Satoyama Forests

Right after my first ecological design workshop the mid 90s, I went to an Earth First! meeting at Evergreen and tried to introduce this very notion to the deep ecologists; they shunned me, of course. It just wasn't a strong enough idea to compete with "No compromise! Not one single tree more!"

Well, the trees were cut, of course, so the deep ecologists moved on to the next crisis. Meanwhile, the very community-managed forests I was suggesting are thriving wildlife homes and cultural nodes in Japan today, while the forests that have been "let be" are dying  from erosion.

I've been writing a lot lately about how weak ideas trump strong ones over time. Strong ideas tend to be mostly drama, and tend to require a lot of energy despite being very simple and easy to iterate. This energy quickly burns out, at which point the weak ideas that had already been around forever (and take no energy at all to follow) are still going strong, working quietly away.

Satoyama are historically peasant-managed forests. Peasants bow low before nobles and present themselves as vulnerable, weak and poor, because they are. So why does the practice of Japanese peasant forest management outperform all other methods (both in total yield and aesthetically: our Northwest USA national forests are mostly horribly pitiful in comparison), this long after the Japanese nobles have vanished from the landscape?

Meanwhile, the people making the wisest use of our forests here in the northwest are peasants, if not called by that name. They are foragers: mushroom pickers, primarily, but also others. Most of these are refugees from other countries, with exceptions. People with their lives so sliced and diced, on the average, that most of the time they feel like aliens on a strange planet...but aliens with a certain kind of freedom you don't get in the rural areas of other nations, or even here in the city. These folk don't tend to get much respect, either from forest management (aka government logging) people or from environmentalists.

And where are the big, strong, respectable loggers and their opposition, the brave, strong, uncompromising deep ecologists? Where have these noble figures gone? They're wherever there's big timber to be cut for big companies. Deep ecology is as out of its depth as an out-of-work logger. Khmer, Mien and Hmong tribesmen from SE Asia, Japanese Americans and rural American Vietnam vets are used to being fish out of water, because they've always had to operate in environments where they couldn't be sure of anything, including their next meal.

Nobody here is idealizing poverty; satoyama forests are not poor environments. Our American national forests, in contrast, are the most miserable shambles you've ever seen: neglected, dirty, eroding, overgrown and full of disease. Also, our economy sucks.

Most of this insight is coming from Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing and her new book, Mushroom at the End of the World, but I've been a forager all my life and an eco-designer for about 21 years, and I've been waiting for someone else to be saying this stuff with me for a long time.

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