Posted by on Oct 12, 2013 in Food For Thought |

Filling a Hole in Our Forests

Cultures and landscapes co-evolve over time – each changed by the forces and pressures of the other.  Cultural evolution to better fit within a landscape’s opportunities and limitations takes many forms, including the emergence of new, specialized professions or callings – the bundling of necessary knowledge, skills, and attitudes within individuals and guilds of individuals.  The invention of agriculture called for farmers – extraction of metals required competent geologists and miners – computer technologies rely on programmers to write software  – ships couldn’t sail without boat builders, sailors, and navigators – to find the way…… .


Looking further back in time, I am intrigued by the emergence and perpetuation of one specialized role that, though considered antiquated by many, has underappreciated potential to instruct us and inform our future choices.  The short version goes like this:  as human populations expanded, people explored in search of new places in which to make their home – first across the land, and eventually across the oceans.  Exploring across oceans depended on successful innovation – boat building, sailing, provisioning…. and navigation.  The navigational skills required were initially rudimentary,  as people sailed along shorelines and to islands visible on the horizon.  But as people set out from Asia to find their way across large and challenging stretches of the Pacific – in small, fragile craft; upwind against the prevailing trade winds- their success depended on individuals having and using increasingly complex and sophisticated knowledge and skills.  In a time when European sailors’ navigational adventures kept them within sight of land, Pacific Islanders sailed their canoes across great distances to settle in many of the far corners of the planet’s largest ocean without the benefit of the compass or other more modern navigational tools.  How did they do it?  The answer to this question is clear, thanks to the knowledge and skills of ocean wayfinders that have been passed down through an unbroken chain from generation to generation  for thousands of years and continues to be alive, vital, and actively used today.


The keys to the success of their navigation deserves a more complete answer than I can give here, but in a nutshell, they provided support and intense, lifelong training to a select group of navigators who were able to blend four main components:

1) the ability to know and retain a daunting range of knowledge – from seasonal wind, current, and swell patterns to reading the heavens, bird migration routes, and the sea’s ever changing smells, color, and feel.

2) the ability to integrate the vast and disparate information in ways that brought the parts together into a larger, more coherent whole.

3)  the ability to apply the knowledge by making and acting on decisions of how best to proceed.  With dwindling food and water, finding the tiny island after crossing thousands of miles of open water was literally a life and death challenge and responsibility.

4)  And finally, the culture’s ability to develop and maintain a system to select, train, and support these remarkable individuals, because perpetuation of the ocean-based culture depended on not just one wayfinder, but on a reliable, ongoing, supply of wayfinders,

As Wade Davis describes in The Wayfinders, this process of cultures developing specialized roles and carrying them on through the generations is not unique to this Pacific Island example, but it is particularly remarkable in both its sophistication and in the fact that the chain is unbroken from ancient times to the present.  Though the feats of these wayfinders – ancient and modern – may seem unbelievable, it is important to consider that the knowledge, skills, and systems evolved over a long span of time, as the voyaging challenges grew tougher and with each generation standing on the shoulders of those who went before.


Why am I telling you this?  I believe that today we have significant unmet needs that will only be met with the evolution of sophisticated, new roles.  In the same way that PacificIsland wayfinders manage the relationships between their cultures and the oceans and lands of which they are a part, in our culture the profession of forester has evolved to manage our relationships with forests.  It too has progressed from the simplistic (“there are a couple million board feet up that valley – let’s cut it and sell it – where should we look next?”) to increasingly sophisticated approaches.  There is much that I admire and value about the work of mainstream foresters, but I also feel that there is a larger job to be done – a role that needs to be filled – now and, like the ocean wayfinder, on into the future.   We have not yet found adequate ways to grow diverse, multi value forests where economic viability does not come at the expense of degraded common good.  Much as cultural survival depended on the ocean wayfinder’s ability to successfully find the tiny, mid ocean island, we need to develop a specialized role that provides the knowledge, skills, vision, drive, and leadership needed to shape our approaches to forests and forestry – to create new, more constructive relationships between people and forests.  While this could be done through a single individual, following the Pacific Island model, it may be useful to also consider a teamwork model where multiple people work together with each providing their unique knowledge and skills, as has been done with research in places like the HJ Andrews Experimental Forest.


I will take the risk of suggesting that what is needed is a forest wayfinder, because they need the same four attributes: 1) deep and broad knowledge and skills, 2) the ability to integrate this wide range of information into a comprehensive picture, 3) the ability and motivation to apply the information to achieve outcomes, and 4) the support of a system that perpetuates and improves the traits.  Additionally we need the forest wayfinder to help us “find our way” in three areas: 1) better understanding the ways that forests work, 2) better understanding the ways that forests exist in our minds, hearts, and spirits (because perceptions are often more powerful than realities), and 3) the ways that we can, and will, most constructively use and sustain the forests we depend on.

While I have respect for foresters, and believe that we will continue to depend on them to fill important needs – just as coastal SE Asians still rely on good coastwise navigators, even if they don’t know the constellations – the forest wayfinders need a different and additional set of traits from those we have to date cultivated in foresters – as outlined below:



Forest Wayfinder

Knowledge of Forests and Forest   Ecology Relatively simplistic and segmented.  Many natural processes made less important   due to technological options.    Agriculture-based model Complex, sophisticated,   holistic, and integrated. Ecosystems – based model
Responsibilities Management – maintain the   status quo.  Leadership the   responsibility of others.  Markets   relatively fixed. Management and   leadership – effectively shape new knowledge and options.  Accountable for outcomes. Markets must   evolve.
Focus Relatively placeless with   knowledge and skills being relatively easily transferable to other places.  Tree-centric Place specific – ecologically,   economically, culturally.    Forest-centric.
Ratio of Knowledge to Ignorance Confident that most of what is   needed is already known.  “We have the   answers, and our job is to apply them”. Humbled by how much more needs   to be learned than is already known.     High emphasis on learning.  “We   have the questions”.
Wayfinding? The way has been found; follow   it The ways must be found by   working together


Components of the forest wayfinder’s knowledge and involvement would include: ecological, cultural, economic, historical, silvacultural, political, legal, aesthetic, technological….

For forest wayfinders to succeed, our culture must follow the proven example of the Pacific Islanders by identifying candidates at an early age, providing an excellent, deep, and ongoing education based on rigorous training and apprenticeship, provide the support necessary for the chosen wayfinders to concentrate on their work (not unlike monks or nuns), and by building societal understanding, honor, and respect for the work that they do.

How do we get there?   I suggest the following five steps as a starting point:

  1. Commit –      Discuss and acknowledge that we have an important, unmet need that we must      fill
  2. Build on      Success – Acknowledge that we are far from starting from scratch; find      and draw together existing nodes of wisdom and leadership and find ways to      build on them.  One example is the      good work related to A Critique of Silvaculture by Puettmann,      Coates, and Messier that advances many related concepts.  Find, draw in, and learn from like      minded people and organizations.
  3. Start Where We      Can Start – Work with others to develop a simple, clear, and powerful      vision and a realistic strategy for achieving it.
  4. Models –      Adopt a mental model of the ideal forest wayfinder and use him or her as a      reference point for assessing the necessary knowledge, skills, and      attitudes– “If —- were here, she would know what insect that is and its      relationship to….”
  5. Determination –      Find and use the best balance between patient persistence and constructive      impatience that is needed to drive progress.


As you read this, an ocean wayfinder somewhere in the Pacific is hard at work perceiving myriad signs (swells, clouds, birds, stars……) and using them as a basis for deciding how to proceed.  Their skills, knowledge, and attitude come from their position as explorers sitting on the shoulders of generations of  mentor wayfinders who proceeded them.  We too are challenged to be successful explorers.  Society – and the land – need us to successfully explore for, and find, ways to reconcile our society’s needs, wants, values and ethics with the realities of what our forests and land can reasonably provide.  Could there be a higher calling?  How will we find our way?