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The heART of Ritual


The Scottish man who has dedicated his life to Trees

In 1986 Alan Watson Featherstone founded the award-winning conservation charity, Trees for Life, which works to restore the Caledonian Forest in the Scottish Highlands.

In 1986, at an international conference at Findhorn on the ecological crisis facing the world, which he spent a year planning and organising, Alan made a public commitment to the 240 attendees. He pledged to launch a project to restore the Caledonian Forest.

He started with no money just a strong will to make a difference and was its executive director for almost 30 years. During that time it became the leading organisation working to restore the Caledonian Forest in Scotland planting over two million trees and took on ownership of the 10,000 acre Dundreggan Estate in Glenmoriston as its flagship project for native woodland recovery.

As he puts it:

“When I was out in Glen Affric in one of the remnants of the ancient Caledonian Forest, and I felt called to restore the forest there. In many places I saw the last few trees growing on steep rock faces and in river gullies – the only place where they are safe from overgrazing by deer – and I realised that those trees were literally the last vestiges of the forest clinging on by its fingertips for survival.

I felt that the trees, and the land itself, were crying out for help; crying out silently to anyone who could hear. It seemed as though the trees were calling out to me, as if they were saying ‘Come on Alan, you can see what’s happening here – do something for us’.

For me though, it’s not just a question of thinking like a forest, but living like one too. If I’m serious in my commitment to restoring the natural forest to a large area in the Highlands and eventually reintroducing the missing species of wildlife, I have to cultivate that inner knowing of how the forest itself would like to return, and then get on and play my part in making that happen.

This begins for me with the recognition that the forest is a not just a group of trees growing in the same area, but that it is a living, biological community, an interdependent web of plants, animals, insects and birds, sustained by soil, sunlight, air and rain, and uniquely adapted to its geographical location and climate. Each part has an important role to play in the whole, in the forest, and each needs to be there for the overall health of the entire ecosystem.

This includes the so-called controversial species such as bears and wolves. In the Caledonian Forest, bears used to feast on the berries which carpet the forest floor (and hence helped to disperse their seeds) while wolves kept the red deer healthy and at reasonable population levels.

Indeed, the beginning of the rise in deer numbers to their present levels (which is the main factor preventing the natural regeneration of the forest) coincides closely with the extinction of the wolf in Scotland in 1743.

From the forest’s point of view, bears and wolves are essential to its wellbeing, but when anyone talks about reintroducing those species to the Highlands the response is all too often one of disbelief or ridicule.

Sadly, this shows how far-removed people are from thinking or living like a forest. It’s an example of the collective myopia which our culture suffers from – the limited perspective which sees things only from our short-sighted human economic point of view, in which wolves are seen seen solely as a threat to farmers’ sheep. It’s the same narrow outlook which led to the loss of the forests in the first place – the trees were only seen as timber, not as vital components of the boreal ecosystem. People then couldn’t see the forest for the trees, and as a result in most parts of Scotland we now see neither the forest nor the trees, as they’re all gone.

My work, therefore, and the practice of living like a forest, begins with re-envisioning the forest, seeing in my mind’s eye the trees growing again in the glens and reclothing the bare hillsides with their beautiful forms. Just as a tree, by the nature of its being, brings certain qualities to where it is growing, so I, when I’m in tune with nature, can seed the vision of the restored forest in the landscape, thereby preparing the way for the physical work to begin.

From “Thinking like a forest” by Alan Watson Featherstone

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