I’ve been thinking a lot about forests and trees lately. They’re one of my biggest inspirations when I try to make sense of the city.
I love the way forests mature and diversify to provide a million microclimates for different species to flourish. I love how each layer from forest floor to canopy plays a role in the maintenance of the whole. I love the chatter of the forest and the sense that there’s a hidden economy of micro-organisms running the place. I love that every patch of scrub around me longs to be a forest.
Last week, my brother sent me this video.
It’s devastating. Decades of sunshine, the co-operation and competition of countless species frizzle. Trees we associate with lungs full of clean air become a stinging, choking haze. But of course, the forest has evolved to be anti-fragile. Wildfires perform essential functions for the landscape and are a natural part of maintaining healthy forests.
“Wildfires, when allowed to burn in areas where they do not impact human development, are regenerative for the forest, revitalizing for the watershed, renew the soil, and reset the clock for the ecosystem.” - Dr. Timothy B. Mihuc
People have affected that natural process in a horrifying way, whether it be through fire suppression, land-use or the effects of climate change. Fires are more often raging out of control. With people in the picture, it’s hard to tell what is a “good” fire and a “bad” fire.
Earlier this month, Ryan and I spent a week on Prince Edward Island for vacation. (For the unacquainted, PEI is the home of fictional Anne of Green Gables, Mindy Kaling wants to live there, and it’s a tiny agrarian island paradise in the summer) Shortly before the trip, the owner of a B&B in which we had a reservation gave me a phone call. He was sorry to say that the building had a fire and we would have to be moved to the B&B next door. No problem. I inquired about damage - are they doing ok? He said it was actually a good excuse to make a number of improvements they had on the back burner (no pun intended) for ages. I put this cheery attitude down to a good insurance policy and customer service but the episode keeps popping back in my head.
Ryan has heard me marvel on several occasions that cities used to routinely burn down. Fire used to be a major and constant threat in the city. Chuck mentions in the Curbside Chat that the significant (and sadly terrible) changes in Brainerd’s downtown core were largely attributed to fire. The best city-scape in this province was the rebuild after a great fire. Among the questions we considered to compile the Strong Towns Strength Test was, "If your city burnt down, would your community build it back?"
All of this got me thinking, as long as we’re studying how traditional cities grew, adapted, and maintained themselves, are we doing ourselves any favors by neglecting the bad stuff? Going forward, we’d obviously prefer cities free from the ills of bygone eras. The disease, the filth, the squashed and unsafe quarters, the fire… I don’t want any of that either, but what if some of the stuff we think we can leave to history were core features, rather than unfortunate side effects of the traditional city? What if we can’t have the good without some of the bad?
The forest can’t survive and regenerate without a whole plethora of systems and interactions that seem destructive in the short term. They ARE destructive, but they are also regenerative. The forest grows back. It’s a different forest, led by trees who thrive in the new conditions.
I get uncomfortable taking this analogy too far because nature is also really mean. Nature “thins out” the weak and vulnerable and has little regard for equity. I don’t understand the pain of the forest because I have never lived to be a smoldering tree or an elk fleeing flames only to discover there’s nowhere else to run. Maybe the forest hurts like we do in disaster and carries on mournfully. Maybe it would avoid the fire if it could.
Regardless, we're in a time of great change where those (both human and "natural") that fall, burn, or have a bad season face greater challenges to rebound. It feels like global change is outpacing our adaptability. It feels like disasters don’t necessarily provide the impetus to grow back stronger because they are becoming too fast, frequent, and devastating to catch our breath.
Or maybe it's just me, caught up in the urgency of the science and headlines of the moment and wondering what it means to be a civilization. Can we ever design a city devoid of the suffering and loss we've always experienced? I suppose the answer makes little difference in my resolve to minimize the hurt. But studying the forest does make me question the city - what is truly a problem and what is simply a feedback or system within a system.
Anyway, I’m sure there a bunch of you out there with extensive philosophy interests who can tell me what path I’ve stumbled onto this week, and where those who walked before me ended up.
I’m also sure there are those of you who have pondered the same thoughts - which characteristics of a traditional city should we borrow and what is the underlying ecosystem that made them work? Can we have the good without the bad or were they interdependent?
This essay was originally published on our site in 2015. Top photo by Gracen Johnson.