What we envision is something similar to what the Scottish Green Party proposed in their rural manifesto for the highlands, "Creating the Second Great Wood of Caledon". That is, to cover Ireland with biodiverse forests once more, and develop a thriving forest economy.
In order to do this we need both the control of the forest land in our area and the imagination to manage it for our own benefit.
What is a forest economy?
A forest economy is simply a group of people living in a forest garden environment. Trees would provide fuel and raw materials for crafts and carvings. There would be plentiful supplies of nuts, fruit, berries, mushrooms, wild plants, fish, birds and animals like deer. So no problem finding food. Children would have a clean, healthy place to play and live in, and we'd all be a lot happier surrounded by beautiful trees. The water would run clear and unpolluted, the air would not sicken us, and a whole community of humans could rediscover what it feels like to be truly alive, a part of a forest community.
It's very simple and uncomplicated - we don't need experts, and we don't need someone in an office in Dublin telling us how to do it.
We've had a meeting in Sligo (Jan. 20th 2001) to plan the first steps of setting the organisation up. It is intended to spawn a network of local groups throughout the country and to provide them with the resources and support they'll need.
We agreed at the meeting that our community forest would have minimal human interference after initial planting and be on land that is owned outright by the community, not rented.
We're approaching some schools to see if the children are into planting seeds in little tubs, and keeping nurseries until we can find some land for this community forest.
It all seemed so simple to me that I felt like I was just describing the obvious. Wouldn't everyone prefer to live as part of a forest if they had a choice? Wouldn't they relish the chance of abandoning their concrete boxes and becoming part of a real community again? Wouldn't they shun their grey domineering civilised masters and allow themselves to be welcomed by a bountiful, beautiful forest?...
Ireland used to be covered by trees, and even til quite recently (the last few hundred years) held onto a fair chunk of forest land. The problems began with the farmers who started chopping down trees, clearing land for agriculture, lugging stones around and putting them in circles, and generally thinking that they owned the place. Before this, most Irish people (though of course they had more sense than to think of themselves as such) lived round the coast, living off the sea and the forest. They didn't cause any disruption to the forest and all was well.
After the farmers came things deteriorated steadily. Soon vast swathes of forest had been killed, iron smelting became popular, the English came and took trees for their war boats and "planted" their people here. By the time the English were kicked out, the spiritual and emotional damage had been done. The people had convinced themselves that industrial agriculture was the way to go, and instead of allowing the country to heal and regenerate itself, they bred an epidemic of cows and sheep.
Now there's less than 1% of our ancient woodland left and even that is under constant attack from greedy farmers and developers. There's a national obsession with pulling up hedgerows and tearing out every little wild patch. Roads to every nook and cranny, neurotic lawns outside each house, golf courses, wheat, cattle and sheep, sprawling towns. And of course, the tree factories managed by Coillte. Dead poisoned places. Rows of sorrowful sika spruce just biding their time before they're pulped. Even the "amenity forests" have no life in them. The one near us has numbers every few hundred yards, stage 1, 2, 3... no excitement, no magic.
The worst thing is that most people don't even consciously notice the loss. They don't feel what's missing, don't see the scars. Civilisation needs to do this, to erase all wild forest, and all memory of wild forest. It can leave no alternatives open to people. Its nature is to expand and destroy. It breaks the spirit of a land and people and posits itself as the only "realistic" way to live.
So we thought we'd try to get people to just become conscious for a while, to encourage them to imagine what life could be like in a forested island. Trees would provide fuel and raw materials for crafts and carvings. There would be plentiful supplies of nuts, fruit, berries, mushrooms, wild plants, fish, birds and animals like deer. So no problem finding food. Children would have a clean, healthy place to play and live in, and we'd all be a lot happier surrounded by beautiful trees. The water would run clear and unpolluted, the air would not sicken us, and a whole community of humans could rediscover what it feels like to be truly alive, a part of a forest community. Most people baulk at the simplicity of this, so we call it a forest economy - something along the lines of what the Scottish Green Party proposed in their manifesto for the highlands, "Creating the Second Great Wood of Caledone." This manifesto shows how the changeover from a sheep-based economy to a forest one is feasible and neccessary. But as they point out, the land must be handed back to the local community if it's to work.
There is a danger that a local counciller, big farmer, or expert conservationist could take over, and really I've no answer to that. Maybe the local community will allow themselves to be led by money or experts. But maybe they will be strong and focused and realise the benefits they will reap from a forest economy run by themselves.
And then there's the problem that we are perpetuating the belief that the land is there simply for our benefit. That somehow we humans have to manage the forest or else it wouldn't exist.
That's not what we're saying though, and it's something we have to make clear from the start. The forest doesn't need humans, we need the forest. The forest is indifferent to our existence, (apart from when we destroy it) but we will surely die out if the forest is obliterated forever. So this Community Forests network is for us humans in that our survival depends upon the forest being allowed to come back. Once we allow it to regenerate, then we should step back to our proper place, ie. do nothing.
The idea that nature is the only expert and we should just allow the land to heal itself is too much for most people, so initially this project will involve the planting of trees. We're approaching school children first, as most adults are too far gone to bother with. The children could raise the money for a few acres and plant some seeds in yogurt cartons. Each year the new class could plant more trees so that there'll be trees of different ages. About half the land won't be planted. This half will naturally regenerate and the children could conduct a comparitive study of the two different woods. They could observe how the unplanted part seeds itself, they could note how it feels to sit in there, what it looks and sounds like compared to the other part. It doesn't have to be all scientific and dull. The children could keep a personal diary of their thoughts and observations with drawings, songs, whatever they want to note down. They could gather apples, make small birch baskets, or sit there and soak up the forest, clearing their little heads of the clutter they're taught at school.
So this is where we're starting. Approaching one school at a time. Hopefully then others will be inspired to approach their local school. It's probably a case of too little too late, and as the Irish people seem hell-bent on development/destruction, I don't think anything short of the collapse of this civilisation will make any huge difference. But at least there'll be a few acres in Sligo that has been allowed to regenerate itself. And you never know where all this might lead...
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FIRST WAVE: 2000-12-08, 352. Night 12055 by the end of the year of The Abyss.