The following is a section of a longer essay I am working on entitled "Defining a Forest Aesthetics." It is not complete unto itself, but I thought I would post it now and get your reactions, while am working on the rest of the essay.
Ed Frank, April 05, 2009
Why do people enjoy a walk in a forest? Foremost, I think, is a sense of escape from civilization. There is a chance to escape from the sounds of industry, traffic, and urban living. There is a chance to escape from the hardscapes and sharp edges of developed landscape. There is a chance to escape from the rigid orderliness of painted white lines, exactly space lots, telephone poles. There is a release from the pressures of these trappings of civilization as the forest provides a buffer to our senses. The sounds of animals, birds, rustling leaves, and trickling water dampen the echoes of civilization. The upswept trunks of trees and cushions of bright green moss, and touches of color from a forest flower smooth the remembrance of the edges of civilization. The forest is not chaotic, but the subtle patterns of spacing and size are variable, malleable, and flow freely from one to another. Both size and degree of naturalness of the forest play a role in the escape. The larger the area, the greater chance to avoid the encroaching effects of civilization. The more natural the area, the fewer aspects are present to remind someone of from what they trying to escape.
A second factor oft described as being go in the presence of something greater than one's self. This is both in terms of size and in terms of age. Large trees are massive in size compared to an individual and the idea that they are alive, just as a person is alive gives a person a sense of scale. Old trees tap another aspect of the same thought. The old tree in the forest may have been here before Europeans came to the new world. It might have been here to bear silent witness to great events of history. It may persist long into the future. It demonstrates how ephemeral is the length of a human lifespan when compared to that of some of these aged trees. If the visitor is of a religious nature, he may see the forest as someplace that has seen the touch of God, untrammeled by the hand of man, and feel the presence of the divine being.
A third factor is the sense of mystery encountered when exploring a forest. In a natural setting someone does not know what he will see around the next bend of the trail, or on top of the next rock. People are curious by nature and have a drive to explore their environment. In a forest there is a feeling that not everything is known and planned. A patch of ferns may pop up anywhere growing in a pool of light. There may be young tree seedling growing on a fallen log. Not only is there a question of what you may find, but a question of why it is there, and how does everything work together. It has been argued by a few that knowledge of forest processes may detract from this sense of mystery, I believe that knowledge of the forest simply changes the focus of the mystery. Knowledge allows you to see relationships and processes a casual observer might not have noted.
A fourth factor is the survivors in the forest. These are trees, plants, and systems that have survived harsh time and are still alive. Dwarfed, twisted and gnarled trees fall into this category. They have been described as "aged with adversity." Perhaps seen in their twisted forms is a reflection the struggles a viewer has gone through in their own lives. Likewise the presence of rare or unusual creatures or plants in an area testifies to their struggle to survive as a species. There are signs of the cycle of life in the forest. Wherever a tree has fallen, new plants spring up in the opening created. Fungi grow on dead wood breaking it down to nutrients. Fallen trunks form the seedbed for the next generation of forest as small trees grow amongst the moss and ferns breaking down the fallen tree. It is a sign not of survivor of an individual, but of the forest community as a whole. It is a sign that there is something beyond death for these fallen giants.
A fifth factor is one of simple beauty. The trunks of the trees and outcrops of rocks form a framework for small vignettes of forest life. These scenes show the interplay play of light and dark and the varied textures and colors of the life, the soil, and stone of the forest. Enhancing these visual elements are the background of forest sounds, the smell of the air and soil, the feeling of the wind and the rolling ground, and textures and patterns of the forest itself. There are scenes of a single tree demonstrating its size and power; demonstrating its perfection of symmetry and form. There are scenes of less flamboyant trees, each with their own personality, and scenes of family groves of trees. There are larger scenes of tree trunks fading into the distance into the depths of the forest. Old growth forests are often fairly open as the canopy of old forest is nearly closed and less light reaches the forest floor. People tend to find this openness pleasing. It is not manicured, but still open. Occasional open patches in the canopy give rise to a profusion of growth where light reaches the forest floor. These light patches adds to the vitality of the forest experience overall. In contrast young forests, those regrowing after timbering or cutting, are typically filled with brushy growth and are messy. What is appears to add vitality in small patches is less inviting when it consumes the entire forest.
The final major factor is the emotional connection people seem to have with the forest. It has been suggested that this relates to our ancestors living in a forest as some time in our long evolutionary past. Others might say we are relating to human life before we were tossed out of the Garden of Eden. Our connection with the forest is reflected in each of the factors already discussed. While this may the most difficult of the factors to describe, it is none the less a real and critical aspect of how we as a people relate to a forest. Some people see the forest as something menacing that needs to be controlled, others see it as a welcoming entity to be embrace. Few people are totally indifferent to the emotional impact of a forest. The vast majority of people have positive feelings about the forest. I am sure to some degree that a person's emotional perspective on a forest is related to cultural factors. As such there is a need to promote a positive respect for a healthy, natural forest. I am also sure that some of the emotional connection we feel to a forest is hardwired into our genetic makeup.