In Forests Trees Fall
"If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"
There are some old puzzles that have physically and philosophically raised questions about what happens when a tree falls if no one is there to perceive it. It questions not the role of a tree in a forest ecosystem but the reality which is perceived by an individual – be it you, I, the tiger, the deer, the butterfly, the ant. It is a fundamental question answered soundly by science, but failed to be understood as an extension to other things, say, for example, if a tree falls and no one is around to hear it – or see it – does it matter anyone?
|A road winds through Kanha's prime Sal forests at the edge of a meadow|
The philosophical question therefore raises an eye, it twitches my nerves, and I find something little but vital missing. This missing information, perceived today more than it was in the yester-years, is that of the raging war between ecology and economy that the world has been at odds with. The question, therefore, can also be seen more from a political point-of-view. If a tree that falls makes a sound when someone is there to perceive, it will be considered unperceivable if the listener is unable to express the sound that the falling tree made, therefore in effect the tree never fell. As an extension of this context, many concerned citizens, which the media dubs as “activists”, have been silenced for hearing a falling tree deep in the forest, or the dredging of sand from the rivers, or hacking of mangroves in the name of development. The point is not merely to tell you of the sound of a falling tree, for we are far from it to listen to it happening. The point is about our perception of the illusion that is fed to us in the name of development at the cost of nature and often at the cost of the lives of our fellow humans.
|A Hard-ground Barasingha under the shadow of central Indian forests|
Why is it so difficult to perceive things such as forests to a majority of the citizens of this world?
Berkeley’s puzzle puts this as such:
“But say you, surely there is nothing easier than to imagine trees, for instance, in a park, […], and nobody by to perceive them. I answer, you may so, there is no difficulty in it: but what is all this, I beseech you, more than framing in your mind certain ideas which you call […] trees, and at the same time omitting to frame the idea of anyone that may perceive them? But do you not yourself perceive or think of them all the while? This therefore is nothing to the purpose: it only shows you have the power of imagining or forming ideas in your mind; but it doth not shew that you can conceive it possible, the objects of your thought may exist without the mind: to make out this, it is necessary that you conceive them existing unconceived or unthought of, which is a manifest repugnancy.”
George Berkeley, in short, points that you can imagine a tree but no one to look at it, however you happen to be the sole person to perceive it since you are imagining it. He further puzzles that although you have the power to perceive trees, tree is an object that exists without your imagination, and to imagine this tree you need to have seen it before. John Campbell calls it “explanatory role of experience”: The principle is that concepts of individual physical objects, and concepts of the observable characteristics of such objects, are made available by our experience of the world. It is experience of the world that explains our grasp of these concepts. What the world is lacking today is the experience of imagining a tree, thereby imagining a forest, and its residents, and so on, for we have become oblivious from resting too long inside our cocoon of frivolous technological advancements, and ignorance.
|When was the last time you imagined trees? The beauty of it?|
This lack of experience is reflected only by a handful-few today. Richard Louv calls it “nature-deficit disorder” – the lack of nature in lives of today’s wired generation, linking it to some of the most disturbing childhood trends, such as the rise in obesity, attention disorders, and depression. However, it is not restricted only to the young generation, whose mind and hearts can still be molded, who can still hear a tree falling in the forest and raise an alarm. If the nature-deficit disorder has struck mankind, it has started from the grown-ups living insensible to the sound of the falling trees.
Let me state a plain fact that in forests trees fall: they fall naturally, but they fall and bleed when they are hacked ruthlessly. To those who have heard the sound of a tree that falls naturally, it is a godly, like a heavy and a thundering sigh. To those who have heard the sound of a tree that was cut down, it crackles and cries of murder. And when forests are cut down, we’re killing all that lives in it.
According to UNEP, we are losing approximately 200 sq. km. of prime forests every day, averaging to about 60,000 sq. km. of forest cover lost per year on the modest scale (Greenfacts.org). The visible consequences of forest loss, such as the extinction of animals depending on forests, is studied and followed by very few people, but loss of forests does not mean that those in the cities will not suffer from it. Loss of forests means that we are releasing about 66 billion kg CO2 per year (considering there are 50,000 trees per sq. km1, and one tree sequesters 22 kg of CO2 per year2), in the form of transport, burning of wood for fuel, refurbishing of the wood, and everything in between. One may argue that a considerable number of other flora species re-sequester this release, but it is not to the magnitude at which we’re felling trees. On a positive note, the planted forest area has increased by 7% (FAO 2010).
A tree is like a sewing needle, it spins a cloth of such magnificence that many want to robe it. The older it gets, the more complex its design. This relationship is profound and the kind is not reflected anywhere man has invented – even the tiniest bee provides valuable services as the deer and the tiger. But we wear a veil of delusion over our eyes. We often don’t see trees for forests.
One of the most infamous illusions set before us in India is that forests remain for tigers roam in them. It is important to understand that for an increasing number of tigers, higher should be the area available to them, and higher should be the prey species of the tigers, but it is not so. The simple yet startling fact facing us is that if the tiger population has increased, the space for this population is rapidly shrinking. Smaller space and higher density is a formula for an increasing conflict between tigers for territory. Irony will be when man will say that tigers killed tigers, not mankind.
|A sub-adult tiger, Panthera tigris tigris, strides from behind a curtain of trees|
For argument’s sake, let us consider the following logics on the premise that forests are for tigers:
If a tiger walks in a forest and no one is around to see it, does it mean that it does not walk that forest?
If a tiger does not walk in the forest yet we all are looking, does it mean that it left that forest?
If a tiger does not remain, do the forests remain?
The first logic is the simplest form of ignorance imparted by humans. Many of the forestlands are given less priority because there simply is no tiger walking there – unless someone finds signs of tigers following which patrolling and security is boosted up. India is probably the only country to have so many Tiger Reserves – because it has the highest numbers of wild tigers remaining, and partly because it is a species on which people spend money on to watch.
The second logic looks at the first logic from a different perspective; it questions the management of forests for tiger as a focus species than as a sanctuary for wildlife as a whole. There are other rather critical species compared to tigers out there, including plants. Although authorities are doing every bit to protect such species, it is not enough in comparison to what is done for tigers.
The last logic, derived as a simple explanation to the first and the second, has far-reaching consequences to the one on the perceiving-end, for it looks at forests as a reserve for tiger, and not as a reserve for wildlife as a whole. What is, then, the meaning of a reserve, and the value of its residents? This is one of the major problems we face today, for we see forests for tigers, and not vice versa. So far the scenario of tiger extinction has not been modeled, for we do not want to imagine that future; but if tigers become extinct, the what’s next scenario will be a large void in deciding the future of our forests. In essence, we would have to reshuffle our management strategies not only by changing the names of our authorities but by changing the very policies, until this is done, more harm than good will be done to other wildlife species. Having said that, I do not want to impart anti-tiger sentiments, rather highlight the obsessive status quo entitled to just one individual species.
|The Hard-ground Barasingha, Cervus duvauceli branderi, is a subspecies found only in Central India, and once was critically endangered. Thanks to the efforts of Government of India, they now thrive in Kanha, |
but sadly not many know about them.
Just as the Government of India so successfully branded Project Tiger, other lesser known projects such as Project Barasingha, Project Elephant, as well as conservation of rhinoceros, gharial, and vultures, needs to be boldly highlighted to gain support from national and international communities.
Perhaps I look at nature from an emotional pessimist perspective than a scientific optimist; perhaps I belong to a group of people the media dubs as tree-huggers. But I prefer it than the otherwise. I’ve met people who are hunters today, a kind which observes hunting as a tool to control populations much like the apex-predators, and a kind which hunts merely because their fathers and forefathers were hunters. And when I think of the latter kind of people taking over the hierarchical hunting preferences once our apex-predators are gone, I prefer being emotional than trigger-obsessed hunter in the name of wildlife management.
|An Indian Peafowl, Pavo cristatus, basks on a fallen log|
The simplest feeling I get by being in the forest is something in-between of slumber and solace. It is dream-like and entrancing. To stalk a butterfly is as enthralling as it is to stalk a tiger. And a fallen tree is as beautiful and purposeful to an animal as a standing tree, be it a peacock, fungus, termites, or what have you sitting on it. The differences lie in our perception of things, but more so because of the veil over our minds.
|A bonding pair of a Chital (Axis axis) doe and her calf|
To have expectations, and opinions, and choices, all of which confining us in man-made environments, serve no purpose in nature. This doesn’t mean that nature is raw and wild, that it is only in the context of survival of the fittest. It is this attitude which holds many of us back in fear, which keeps us from exploring. If I am going to put it in two words, it will be: come out.
The most challenging task at hand today, in addition to stringent protection measures of forests and wildlife corridors, is the change in the attitude of the masses. For how-much-ever the people are kept in the dark, or prefer to be in the dark, the fact remains that trees fall in an alarming rate whether anyone is there to hear it or not. On this factual premise, one needs the “explanatory role of experience”, to come out into the natural world and to experience it first-hand.
|A Peahen on an early foggy morning|
Whether you come to seek the beautiful patterns in nature or the harsh ones, it is bound you leave an impact on you which you never thought would happen. It will leave you wanting for more, it will make you ask questions about what’s what and what’s happening, and it will make you do something about it.