Reforesting temperate Europe

in Rewilding - 9 min read

Temp – temper – tempering – tempera – temperature

These are some words and phrases I relate my climate category’s name with, in a somewhat free association… can’t help it, I just love word games like that across the languages I bear and the span I speak them.

Let’s see what I can tell you in all my heart’s honesty about the urgent matter of reforesting the temperate zone, with special attention to reforesting temperate Europe. In other words, I would love you to listen up as I remind us all of all the tempering the temperate zone has endured, for the longest of all climate zones, given the scale of the human population here and the extended-stay accommodation humanity has enjoyed in these parts of the northern hemisphere.

I am admittedly going to paint this picture (tempera) with a bias towards Europe, overall one of the most densely populated and affluent peninsulas of the world.

In the meanwhile I’ll try my hardest not to lose my temper as I proceed with this heated topic put on the back burner for way too long, whilst the planet’s average atmospheric temperature keeps on rising.

C’est le temp!

From the last ice age onward

Whatever the earliest Homo sapiens tribes have done before the last ice age, for most of the European continent we can safely disregard, perhaps. The ice mantle, like an enormous rough sponge from a slate, had wiped off the marks of their deeds on the landscape, save the less obvious cave paintings we are left with about the bye-bye-gone era of hunting-gathering on the presumably rich grounds found here.

It’s reasonable to focus our attention to the last ten-or-so thousand of years when, gradually, more and more of the continent was becoming habitable again by our species. That there were some fragmented, low organizational level hunter-gatherer tribes scattered in the southernmost fringes of Europe, just outside of the glacier shield, seems plausible. Our attention goes now, however, to those incomparably better organized high cultures that survived the frigid times in the sheltered south-eastern lands, ranging from the Caucasian Mountains to the Persian Gulf, from at least as far east as present Iran all the way to the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea and Egypt. Due to all sorts of pressures, socio-cultural and natural, these interrelated ethnic groups began exploring and settling this new land of promise.

Temperate climates in general are not only habitable, but hugely convenient to inhabit.

The lure of mildness

First of all, year-round temperatures fluctuate within a bearable to very comfortable range in Europe, especially given the ingenuity and resourcefulness of our ancestors in both clothing themselves adequately and crafting appropriate shelters, however permanent; ready-formed skills brought with them from their earlier homelands as ancestral cultural inheritance, to be just slightly adapted to the newfound conditions.

Free of climatic anomalies, such as extreme heat and drought, like increasingly found in the Gobi Desert, the Arabian Peninsula or Egypt of the time, here fertile grounds laid ahead for the peoples already experienced in agriculture, though densely forested above, which might have seemed daunting to deal with at first.

The multitude of islands in the Aegean Sea, and beyond, allowed for a steady island-hopping, while the long coastline also benefited the weathered sailors of ancestral coasts to explore further and further.

These interrelated cultures, still speaking a commonly understood (Hungarian in origin) tongue, although surely laden with dialects (considerably later to split off from one another and form new identities), commingled and complemented each other’s strengths for a most successful exploitation of the land.

Thinning coastal forests for vessels of all sizes, engaged in sea-commerce, trading between each other, new settlers, and surely with the more ancient world left behind, freed up land for grazing and farming. Settled farmsteading lifestyle and semi-nomadic herding had already been practiced by many of these cultures who gained their multi-generation experience back, somewhere between the Fertile Crescent (not so fertile anymore) and the Nile, including its fecund delta region (also under increasing climatic and cultural clash pressures).

Bounty, with limits

The European sea and land wilderness was a well-stocked, as of yet unexploited pantry, able to support large numbers of people – had they not continued on with the self-sabotaging greed brought with them from back east. Unaware, yet fully involved, the individual settling groups and all of them collectively, acted toward the so-called tragedy of the commons. According to this phenomenon, the harm done to the managed common wealth, in our case to the entire “European pantry”, although entirely preventable when conscious efforts are applied, all too often goes unnoticed or outright ignored, until too late and a (near-)collapse happens.

A general collapse hasn’t in fact happened in Europe though, up to present day, yet several more localized ecological failures have been caused directly by human over-consumption (think for instance of Ireland’s or the UK’s voidness of trees, really, but especially a lack of established native forests). Some systemic, irreversible losses have also happened on the continent, if we look at all the extinct animal species for instance.

Would we have come to these lands had it looked like it is now?

Take ancient Greece with all its archipelago, the gateway to Europe, for instance. They diligently shipped (and likely “sheeped-goated”) not only their forests, but their topsoil too, to the seafloor. The Greece we love to vacation in nowadays for the romantic vistas, is but a very impoverished, stripped of abundance rendering of what it first greeted its human scouts as: lush Mediterranean oak forests. Greece’s natural backdrop today would hardly warrant any mass migration to a land of promise. Deforestation combined with a self-perpetuating proneness to drought, gradually left but a dusty scrubland mirrored in a blue sea behind.

After a while, such colonies were trapped in trading for sheer sustenance. This precipitated not more rain, but more tension and the need for ever more land and ensuing violence.

Be it enough to say that sooner or later Europe on a whole was plagued with more or less acute land-hunger. This inevitably translated into deforestation, and even though there is little to no obvious evidence of keeping nature’s local regenerative capability in regard, the forests of heartland Europe withstood the onslaught reasonably well, thanks to their density and old age, for thousands of years.

Imagine this venerable resilience of nature still in balance, with sufficient resources, well within its carrying capacity as an ecosystem; scarred, yet still able to outweigh all the mounting anthropogenic pressure.

Enchanting beauty on fourth power

There is something else here, with slight bias in me as I bring it up quite this way. However, and I am sure a great many of you can agree, there is a high degree of enchantment to be found in the Europe of four seasons, almost like no other place on Earth. “Viva Vivaldi!”, who gave such a wonderful musical interpretation of what goes on in nature and, in turn, in our bewildered souls, exposed to this arguably eternal cyclicity.

Our earliest European ancestors must have enjoyed the seasonal changes in spite of the associated challenges of those, as much as us, distant descendants do now. It is enough to vaguely examine the cultural diversity wilderness spawned here from those original animistic inclinations brought with us from further south-east.

So, once upon a time, Europe had this vast temperate and northern temperate jungle cover from the Atlantic to the Ural Mountains and from the Apennine Peninsula to Scandinavia. A luring cul-de-sac for migrating ethnic tribes, many of which were swallowed and digested, so to speak, given a final resting place here; some tried the nooks of the continent and left with ransack; yet others found new beginnings here, enriching a common European culture and further impoverishing its nature.

Stealthy offenders of European forests

Ungodly grounds

What animistic peoples and polytheistic cultures left unharmed and perhaps even worshiped as sacred, Europe’s insurgent new monotheistic religion, a Christianity that underwent several negligible shapeshifts, name changes and symbolism alterations under the same robe of one (male) omnipotent god, provided a huge blow, a near stroke of grace to the remaining forested wilderness.

Carried out over the span of several hundred years, but enjoying a steady forward march in order to tame and literally enlighten the dark, satanic mystery of dense forests (superstitiously feared to present day by certain rural and remote pious communities – such as the one we live on the outside of), the once contiguous strong canopy fabric was thinned threadbare, lacy and in many places completely ripped apart, stripped away.

On behalf of god almighty who ordered us, sinners, rule the world.

The case of Notre-Dame, where for the construction of the recently burned-down roof over a thousand 300- to 400-year old oaks were used 800 years ago, is a strong wake-up call not only for the church, but the entire continent and beyond: what still existed then, is no longer available now.

The catholic community of Île de la Cité had better close the ominous cathedral for worship, declare it a mere architectural monument site and wait patiently for 300-400 years, until a sufficient number of sustainably grown oaks will have reached the age of becoming roof-holding structural elements.

Sheep see, sheep do

My kin, Hungarian speaking ethnic groups, might well be responsible transfer agents of sheep and shepherding, colonizing newer and newer sites in Europe with sheep in tow, domesticated by the ancestors of the same folk, few thousand years prior, in Mesopotamia.

Now, if you have watched a flock of sheep graze, be it singly or shoulder to shoulder, you must have noticed the end result: grass, broadleaf herbaceous plants and the seedlings-saplings of woody species alike, are eaten to the ground. Extrapolate from a single flock to millions, throughout millennia, and you will get to the core of the problem we have today in reforesting temperate Europe.

From sheep to steam – the industrial revolution overrun of European forests.

The steady economic growth of colonial Europe prompted an interest like never before in technical solutions to further improve capital growth, much like a runaway steam engine that was just about to be invented. A self-fulfilling prophecy.

Hungry for fuel, industrialization sacrificed a great many natural sites of grandeur, including old-growth forests eaten up by saw mills like there would never be a tomorrow.

And where it all initiated, in the United Kingdom, it has the longest history and some of the gravest signs of harm.

Intellect has been abound, but intuitive intelligence has been lacking for way too long.

Look closely at all of the above pressure factors combined and you get the present grim, but by most people taken for granted image of modern Europe. Semi-desertous Mediterranean and Balkan regions, the monoculture of grazing paddocks in the British Isles and Ireland with little more on them than short grass, gorse and heather, as well as clear-cut hills and vast mountain plateaus resounding of bells on sheep and the bark of shepherd dogs in central mainland.

The rationale behind reforesting temperate Europe

Temperate climate, moderate growth

Oaks grow slowly and so do many other economically and habitat-wise valued plant communities of Europe. The fallout zone around Chernobyl, deemed uninhabitable by humans for 20 thousand years (?!), due to radioactivity, is a great bad example. In a little over thirty years, the native flora and following fauna, have shown an awesome, albeit precarious comeback among the ruins of the ghost town and surrounding area. Even wolves have returned.

It should not and does not take a nuclear scale catastrophe to allow wild nature to regenerate, and once it is given the opportunity, wilderness bounces right back, unfailably.

Lower risks of forest fires

Not counting the Mediterranean region, the interior of continental Europe is less or much less prone to forest fire hazards than many other parts of the temperate zone or the subtropics, including California and the eucalyptus forests of Australia. This means safer investment in reforestation projects for those engaged in carbon trading.

In our region of northern Romania we enjoy a hydrologically well-balanced mesoclimate year round. Gale-force windstorms are also relatively rare, so far they have occurred about once every forty years.

The reforestation to-do list is short and simple: first, do a little restoration work with passion, and secondly, step back, waiting with passion.

Roland Magyar, Sustainable Lifestyle Designer

Ecological equality

Tropics, the poverty-stricken and frequent natural catastrophe-ridden parts of the world always do and, justly, always will constitute a great subject of international attention and support from investment capital concerned with nature restoration.

Supporting nature’s recovery in these charismatic areas alone, could potentially create an ecological imbalance, discriminating against ecosystems the drawn-out decline of which present generations have not witnessed and, therefore, cannot fathom with sufficient empathy.

This is when our intuition is called for to improve on our collective and individual emotional intelligence, both of short memory. Humanity has abused Europe’s nature some of the worst on Earth, given the long stand and magnitude of the influence.

It’s high time to turn the tide and reconcile ourselves, Homo sapiens of Europe with our wilderness in a harmonious coexistence, based on interspecies equality.

Oxygen unites

Oxygen (O2) as a life giving and supporting gas component of the Earth’s atmosphere is equal quality regardless where it is produced and how. So oxygenating in the heartland of Europe is as good opportunity as any.

Let’s hold hands in reforesting temperate Europe.

Roland Magyar

Passionate rewilder, who lives outside of the world of compromises.

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