I speak of the forest, I speak to you

The writer Tiina Raevaara explored the recently founded Kulla nature reserve at our request some weeks ago and, inspired by the visit, wrote an essay about the Finnish forests, which are diminishing at an alarming rate.

Help me ‒ my forests are vanishing.

From all around my environment they are disappearing: from my neighbourhood and the road to my summer cottage, from the landscape of the once densely forested neighbouring town.

Here is an example: For various reasons, for the past fourteen years I have occasionally needed to drive from my home town of Kerava to Porvoo, sometimes once every few months, sometimes each week.

The journey takes me along highway 148. In 2003, as I began my trips to Porvoo, this distance of some eighteen kilometres practically crossed through the middle of a forest. I often saw elk ‒ once from very close and in dense snowfall when I was lucky to stop my car before hitting a pair of them standing on the road.

However, little by little, bit by bit, that forest has been taken away. The road no longer passes through an unbroken woodland. Here and there are still areas that could be called forests, but they have been thinned heavily. In some parts, a façade of sorts remains of the forest beside the road, with an emptiness gaping behind the line of trees. A plot of earth that has been scraped clean, rocks and all, is not a forest.

I set off once again on my journey.

Upon leaving Kerava and entering Sipoo, I find that the forest has given way to two enormous logistics centres. So much of the area has been cut down that I can only assume a third centre is in the works. Before, the road was flanked by densely packed, sturdy spruces. Today, there are logistics centres, a truck park, and a stone crushing plant, along with barren mud and gravel as far as the eye can see.

I continue along the familiar route. Beyond the logistics centres, the forest has been chipped away by logging and a crop of new houses that has risen across this unzoned area of Sipoo, built with special permissions. In the past, I came here to pick mushrooms, but no longer: the terrain is now impassable as a result of logging. I know that a part of these woods is owned by a farmer who sells the locals firewood, a valid use of the forest in itself.

There is one spot in the landscape, however, that saddens me for reasons other than the woods themselves. A while back, the body of a long-missing person was found at the edge of the forest. A piece of police line tape remains intact and marks the spot. The place used to be beautiful: the forest was old. There was a great, thick pine tree and a pretty, moss-covered mound.

I feel that the person who died there deserved a forest more beautiful than the current clearcut. From news articles on the matter, I had received the impression that the person was a nature lover.

Driving past Nikkilä, I cross the border to Porvoo. The logging area continues here, and the place of my near-collision with the pair of elks is now a massive, deforested motocross track. The forest has also been cleared to make way for a new test driving track and cut down between the two tracks for no discernible reason, other than perhaps as raw materials for the sitting government’s bioenergy initiative.

The reasons for logging are, of course, numerous. The ballooning metropolitan area needs its logistics centres. Local residents need their firewood, and what would be a more ecological way of heating than local wood? People build houses here because the location is close to everything and yet surrounded by nature. Motocross enthusiasts deserve their track.

For the forest, however, the end result is miserable. It is cut away for dozens of reasons. And it doesn’t grow back in an instant: I recently visited one of my favourite forests. It is a small patch, bordered by clear-cut areas, with lovely, frizzy pines atop a rocky hillock and a charming small spruce grove. The remainder of the area is commercial forest that has seen heavy management in its day. With some effort, the patch can be thoroughly crisscrossed in twenty minutes.

I counted the ages of the pines there: The trees were thirty years old but rather modest to be yet called a forest, with slender trunks and little to no bark. Thirty years may be a long time for humans, but a forest of the same age is still in its youth. It will take decades before the forest is restored as it was before it was logged.

It could very well take a century, but I know that it will never be granted such a lifespan ‒ it is doubtful to have even a few more decades. Everything else around it has been cut away, and its turn will inevitably come.

The claim “forests are growing faster than they can be cut down” is often heard in Finland. In principle, this may be the case, but it is of no great consolation when the growth takes place inside inaccessible woods. While the volume of trees is increasing, beautiful, easily traversed forests will not be produced for a long while. They will never be formed if the forests are again cut down.

The woods along my route between Kerava and Porvoo will appear just as miserable as they do today for decades to come, even as the saplings begin to gather biomass on their stems. As every remaining patch is cut down within the next twenty-odd years, there will be no proper forests left at all.

But never mind me and my feelings. As a person, I am drawn to the woods. I want to visit them every day and roam through them with my dog. Even if the woods near me are all cut down, I can go elsewhere.

This autumn, I visited the new Kulla nature reserve. I dipped my feet in the pretty pine swamp, admired the brook, and sighted ravens and even sea eagles. I can always go to nature reserves and national parks to escape my anxieties.

Nevertheless, the forest is merely a choice I make: I would continue to survive just fine if I never visited the woods. I can choose to remain in the city, or move to another country, or even live on a houseboat. For people, at least for us well-off westerners, the choices are plentiful.

Above all, we should grieve for those that have no option but the forest. For years, researchers have warned of the decline of Finnish forest habitats. The biodiversity of forests is decreasing, especially as old-growth forests and their species are wiped out. According to studies, they are disappearing for good. Even if the forest is allowed to regrow in peace, once-lost species rarely return. The forest ecosystem has no options. Once cut down, its life is over.

Bad news are now heard from all directions concerning many families of species. In October 2017, the journal PLOS One published a study by a team, led by Hans de Kroon, who found that the biomass of insects in dozens of nature reserves across Germany had dropped by 76 percent since 1989. During high summer, the decline was as great as 82 percent. Although the figures seem daunting, they were no surprise. The disappearance of pollinating insects has been a known fact for a long time.

Around the time of the article’s publication, I read a tragic Facebook update by my former university professor. It was about recent data on the territories of eleven Ural owls that had been part of a study back in 2004. The news was not happy: only one of the territories remained. As for the others, their forests had been cut down with nowhere left for the owls to live and nest.

The same message is heard from every direction, from extensive surveys to the separate observations of individual researchers. Both in Finland and across the world. Concerning insects, predators, and birds. Each individual piece of information can still be explained away: by criticising methods, or pointing out insufficient sampling or area, or the fact that only a few species were studied.

However, as a whole, everything points to the same direction: biodiversity is declining, species are going extinct, numbers are falling, and habitats are on the verge of destruction.

It feels offensive that politicians continue to fail to address the issue. During the past few years, Finland has seen an enormous amount of political decisions that cause a decline in biodiversity. The planned Mire Conservation Programme was cancelled at the last minute. The hunting of wolves was initiated for purposes of “population control”. More forests than ever are planned for logging in the name of bioeconomy and climate change, despite warnings from researchers.

There has been no sign of any intent to occasionally give something back to nature.

Nowadays, when environmental issues are discussed, the talk revolves around climate change. An important topic to be sure.

However, it is notable that society is able to only deal with one environmental issue at a time. It would be essential to discuss matters other than climate change, but as our list of topics already includes the economy, housing, health and social services reform, wars, fake news, immigration, Donald Trump, the new West Metro in Helsinki, and everything else, the space allotted to environmental issues apparently only has room for climate change.

Above all, we should be discussing biodiversity, since nature, our biosphere, is first and foremost about diversity: the enormous richness of species with each tiny part dependent on other tiny parts. Humanity’s existence on the planet is conditional to biodiversity.

There is a clear need for civic education on biodiversity. Its importance and our dependence on it should be understood. Unfortunately, school biology, for example, still teaches that the life cycle of a forest ends at the age of no more than 90 with a final cutting. Final cuttings have to do with forestry, not biology. They are a factor in the decline in biodiversity and should be discussed as such. The natural lifespan of a forest is endless.

As everything in nature is interconnected, biodiversity, too, is linked to climate change. While climate change reduces diversity, the decrease in biodiversity, above all the destruction of forests, serves in turn to accelerate climate change. At the same time, biodiversity could be a factor to help humanity adapt to a warmer climate.

Climate change has changed the manner in which we discuss environmental issues. We no longer talk about our own environment and its condition in concrete terms. We don’t talk about tangible organisms, forests, or fields, but of abstract phenomena that are described with terms borrowed from economics: energy balances, carbon taxes, and carbon banks.

The practice of nature conservation has moved away from ordinary people to multinational consortia with their calculations, balances, and offsets.

It is true that nature requires major political decisions. Yet it is also essential to maintain a discussion that enables everyone to understand their shared responsibility for nature and the conditions for organisms to exist and reproduce.

The responsibility for the conservation of species is always gladly passed along to others. The wolf is an endangered species in Finland, yet a part of the Finnish population feels that it is worth exterminating wolves altogether from the country. After all, the same grey wolf is common elsewhere, even right across the border in Russia.

Therefore, keeping them around feels pointless: What do our some two hundred wolves matter if there are tens of thousands of them worldwide? Or, what good are the 30,000 barnacle geese in Finland if their global population is half a million?

As long as a species is still extant somewhere else, our part in its conservation feels unimportant. If a species becomes bothersome, such as wolves, barnacle geese, and cormorants, it may seem like a good idea to pass along the responsibility for their existence to others.

Of course, the world does not work this way. Every single part of a species’ habitat is important, and as we cannot guarantee that our neighbours will be any more responsible than we are, we would do well to keep our focus on our own actions. Each species inhabiting our area should be treated as though the population were the last of its kind. This is the only way to ensure a sustainable relationship with biodiversity.

Every nation, every town, everyone whose decisions impact our environment in any way must all be held responsible. Politicians. City gardeners. Those who decide to hack the road sides bare of flowers. Forest owners. Forest management planners. CEOs of energy companies. Small farmers. Summer cottage owners.

Especially you.

Biodiversity can be saved through environmentalism. The label “environmentalist” is sometimes used in a derogatory sense. Its Finnish version ”viherpipertäjä” is even more derogatory. However, it refers simply to everyday actions for the benefit of organisms, such as conserving local forests, building bird houses, advocating urban nature, and gardening with respect for the environment.

This type of small-scale environmentalism can be crucial to many species. Pollinators, butterflies and other insects, need gardens and yards with dense shrubbery and places to hide, old trees, ditches and ponds, flowers with varying blossoms, and leafy composts.

When insects thrive, birds will soon follow. Even in cities, the diversity of bird species can be astonishing if some patches of forest are preserved in a near-virgin state with decaying and dead trees. Moreover, bird houses are a true help for hole-nesting species.

Environmentalism begins with ordinary people, but it must carry over to the official level. Urban forests are not parks and should be left free of management. Nature needs meadows and free-flowing streams. Dear city gardeners, be sure not to overmanage!

Biodiversity increases when nature is given enough time to bring species together and create small and large biotopes. Excessive management is detrimental and unnatural. Humans are not the master gardeners of nature.

We can all do something to protect the biodiversity of our immediate environment:

Refrain from clearcutting. Preserve a diverse range of habitats in a forest: dense spruce groves, lush brook banks, marshes free of ditching.

Do not over trim your garden. Leave space for insects. Do not use pesticides.

Help with nesting: build bird houses, winter nests for hedgehogs, and heaps of composting leaves.

Make sure there are flowers in the world: restore meadows and do not interrupt blooming. Plant flowers for butterflies and pollinators.

Do not dig ditches in marshes, and leave ponds as they are. Do not dry wetlands.

Do not poach. If you hunt fowl, make sure that you are able to identify species correctly.

Donate to nature conservation.

Let policymakers know that nature is valuable to you.

Live with the fact that nature is sometimes a disturbance. Do not hold unfounded fears. Nature gives us so much that we can afford to endure a little inconvenience.

If you are able, do as Kone Foundation is doing: give something back to nature. Buy a patch of forest. Preserve a patch of forest. Plant just one tree.

Do everything you can.


Tiina Raevaara

Photos: Jussi Vierimaa