CULTURE AND HERITAGE

We have valued forests and other wild places as part of our culture for as long as stories go back.

We have valued them for a wide variety of reasons, some of them quite basic, such as food and shelter, and some of them more complex. While our lives have changed fundamentally over the last couple of hundred years, with more and more people living in high-stress urban environments and our wild places becoming increasingly more rare and endangered, our connection to the natural environment, and unspoiled forests in particular, is becoming even more precious.

The south-west forests grow on Noongar boodja (country). Noongar people have had a continuous cultural, physical and spiritual relationship with forests for tens of thousands of years. This connection and custodianship forms the basis for the heritage and cultural considerations of the south-west forests.

In recognising this profound wealth of knowledge and tradition, Forest For Life proposes that a co-management plan be developed for protecting and restoring biodiversity in the forests.

At the Perth launch of Forests For Life in October 2016 we were privileged to be welcomed to country by Dr Noel Nannup - Noongar elder and custodian and acclaimed story teller, educator and mentor. Here is a video of his welcome in which he describes connection to forests and life around the Derbal Yerrigan (Swan River) area before the tarmac and bulldozers.

The far south-west where the Tingle forests grow is Pibulmun Noongar country. Wadandi Noongar country is over on the west coast around Margaret River. Pibulmun Wadandi Elder and custodian, Wayne Webb says:

“When I see forests, I don’t see dollar signs. I see a living, breathing organism, that sustains life, that gives us oxygen and clears our waterways. Why would you destroy a life force, that uninterrupted does so much just by ‘being’. People will be saying, ‘the meaning of life WAS’ instead of ‘what IS the meaning of life.’ By then it will be too late.”

Since European arrival in WA much of the forests have been cleared and logged for agriculture, infrastructure, urban areas and timber. Even at the height of the clearing, while the dominant view among group settlers seems to have been that the forests went on forever and the more clearing achieved the better, other new arrivals knew better and spoke up strongly for protection.

“It is true that trees to-day have no votes, but when the people develop a forest conscienceness (sic) the position will be entirely altered, and they themselves will see to it that the forest policy is maintained and the forests are used for the benefit of the community as a whole for ever, and not for the benefit of the few sawmillers, timber hewers, and timber merchants of to-day.” (Lane Poole 1920, 34)

Western Australians showed with great conviction how significant forests are to us, and reaffirmed a strong cultural position that they are worth more to us standing than logged, during the campaign for old growth forest protection that culminated in the protection of the identified old growth forests in 2001.

The psychology of forests and people

People who care about the environment know intuitively that being amongst the trees of an established forest is good for their mental health, though they probably wouldn’t phrase it like that. They’d probably say something like -

I feel at peace there, I feel I can be myself; I feel awe and wonder at the beauty of the trees – their majesty puts my little concerns into perspective. I feel grateful for the beauty of nature, it’s a refuge for my soul. I come away feeling refreshed, rested, invigorated, calm, peaceful and grateful that we still have unspoiled places where we can find refuge for our spirit, and silence.

Healing Forests' How Forests Heal People explains in 4 minutes how our health is connected to forest health.

https://vimeo.com/187181616

Science has now caught up with these spontaneous, intuitive responses to how it feels to spend time in forests, and studies conducted in countries throughout the world, from Korea to Japan, America, Canada, Australia and South America, to name only a few, have shown that spending time in the forest has a multitude of benefits for physical and mental health. It lowers blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol levels, all established measures of stress; it alleviates depression, aids memory and learning, boosts immune function, helps reduce feelings of loneliness and helps with sleep. ADHD symptoms are reduced after time spent in a forest environment. (Karjalainen, 2010).

People go to the forests to escape the demands of urban living, to reconnect with nature, to find a place where the hand of humanity is not in evidence. In our increasingly secular world, where traditional religion has lost much of its relevance, forests fill a need for spiritual connection, for experience of something ancient, unchanging, self-sufficient, transcendently beautiful. We find consolation in its longevity. To see a beloved forest felled is to feel attacked in our most vulnerable selves.

There are many theories about why we respond so strongly to forests, ranging from E.O. Wilson’s idea of Biophilia, the idea that humans have a strong affinity with other forms of life, as a consequence of millions of years of co-evolution. Researchers such as Appleton (1975) have looked at the idea that our affinity for forests and other natural landscapes is related to our ancient and ongoing need for refuge, for places of safety in a dangerous world. Nilsson (2011) writes that people retain a genetic predisposition to respond positively to environmental features (such as forests) that would have been conducive to the survival of their ancestors (p.148).  These tendencies are thought to guide people today who are in search of restoration of resources, physical, psychological, or social, which are depleted in the course of our everyday lives. Hartig (2006) describes psychological resources as the ability to focus our attention on tasks and manage increasing demands that are commonly made on us in the workplace. If we fail to restore these resources, problems with physical or mental health are likely to follow.

The notion of restoration has been explored by other researchers such as Kaplan & Kaplan (1989), with their Attention Restoration Theory. They believe that time spent in forests or other natural environments works in four stages to restore and renew psychological resources. First of all, during time in the forest, the person’s head gradually clears, and their directed attention capacity becomes recharged through focus on the natural environment, in what they call soft fascination. Thought then becomes clear, freed of distraction, and the person is able to reflect on their lives, priorities, possibilities, actions and goals (p.197). The natural environment must be aesthetically pleasing, coherently ordered and of substantial scope for this soft fascination and consequential reflective mode of thought to occur.

Another explanation for the fascination people find in trees and forests is the idea that fractal images in nature, especially in trees, contribute to stress reduction because the repetition of pattern combines complexity and new information with order and predictability. This engages the interest of the observer, with the restorative soft fascination that leads to reflection (Joye, 2007).

Many countries in Europe and parts of North America now protect their remaining forests, for some of these reasons discussed above, and for many more.

This profound and timeless human connection to forests - the spiritual, cultural and health benefits people gain from forests is another reason for their protection, and respect.

REFERENCES

Appleton, Jay. 1975. Experience of Landscape. Wiley.

Hartig T. & Staats H. 2006. The need for psychological restoration as a determinant of environmental preferences.  Journal of Environmental Psychology 26:215–26.

Joye, Yannick. 2007. Architectural lessons from environmental psychology: The case of biophilic architecture. Review of General Psychology, Vol 11(4): 305-328. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/1089-2680.11.4.305

Kaplan R, Kaplan S. 1989. The experience of nature: A psychological perspective.  Cambridge University Press.

Karjalainen, E., Sarjala, T. & Raitio, H. 2010. Promoting human health through forests – overview and major challenges. Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine 15: 1–8. 

Lane Poole, C. E. 1920. Statement prepared for the British Empire Forestry Conference, London, 1920. Perth, Perth: WAGPS.

Nilsson, K., Sangster, M., Gallis, C., Hartig, T., de Vries, S., Seeland, K., Schipperijn, J. (Eds.) 2011. Forests, Trees and Human Health. Springer.