Man of the Trees

Interview with Alan Watson

Alan is the founder and director of ‘Trees For Life’, a charity working to restore Scotland’s ancient Caledonian Forest. Their long-term vision is to restore the natural forests and rare wildlife to a spectacular wilderness region of the Scottish Highlands.

Years ago when hiking across the Scottish hills, Alan used to think this was how those hills had always looked. You can probably imagine the scene: a picture-postcard loch, purple heather on mountains with craggy rock formations, and the occasional half fossilised tree punctuating the spectacular view. It was some time later that he realised this was not how the landscape had always looked. Far from it. Not very long ago it had been completely covered in forest. 

 I sought him out on a visit to Scotland and talked to him about Trees For Life and the importance of trees to climate. 

‘I started Trees for Life in the mid 1980s’ he tells me, ‘inspired by seeing the dying forests in the Highlands of Scotland, old trees dying of old age and not being replaced because all the seedlings which grew out of the seeds of the old trees were getting eaten by deer, and that had been happening for 200 years. The old trees were at the end of their lives, in what I call the ‘geriatric 
forest’. If nothing was done they’d have gone’. 

So Alan decided to do something, and Trees for Life was born. ‘I set it up’, he says ‘with the idea of having the forest recover, doing what nature wants to do in the highlands, taking the Findhorn principle of 
co-creation with nature out from 
the vegetable garden and into the mountains.’ 

We are sitting at a picnic table on the edge of woodland that is part of the Findhorn Foundation, an eco-village situated close to the village of Findhorn in the north of Scotland. 

‘And that’s what we do,’ he continues…’we protect trees that are there already, with fences to keep sheep and deer away from them to 
allow young trees to grow of their own accord, and we plant trees in areas where there are no trees left’. 

 The Caledonian Forest once covered a large area of the Highlands of Scotland as extensive stands of Scots pine, interspersed with birch, rowan, juniper and aspen trees, but 
is now reduced to less than 5% of its former extent. Through planting native species of trees, removing non-native species and fencing seedlings to protect them from overgrazing by deer and sheep, 
Trees for Life aim to help the natural regeneration of the forest. Their long-term goal is to create a fully restored, healthy ecosystem, which will include the reintroduction of missing species of wildlife, such as the European beaver, wild boar, Eurasian lynx and Eurasian wolf. How, I wonder, do you go about re-introducing species like wolves? 

‘It’s not something we can do ourselves of course’ he tells me, ‘To reintroduce a species has to be a 
decision made at the level of the Scottish government. And although we own 10,000 acres of land, that’s not big enough to contain large free-ranging mammals, so it would need to be done at a national level. There would need to be some agreement regionally with a range of landowners or stakeholders, that are willing to have beavers or lynx back, or whatever it is’. 

Deforestation is, of course, one of the big causes of climate change, because forests play an important role in sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. The problems caused by the burning of fossil fuels are exacerbated by the destruction of forests the world over, often for the growing of cash crops for consumption in rich countries. I’m curious to know if at the time he founded Trees for Life back in 1989 Alan was aware of 
the connection? 

‘Well, to some extent’, he 
tells me, ‘but that wasn’t really the 
driver. Helping eco-systems to 
recover has multiple benefits, and definitely helping to redress the 
carbon imbalance is one of those things. Because trees, and in fact, 
all the vegetation in the forest 
community act as a reservoir of 
carbon. All over the world, it’s not just fossil fuels being burnt, but forests are being cut down and the carbon balance is shifting much more towards the atmosphere and away from terrestrial eco-systems’. 

‘What we’re involved with is what’s called ecological restoration, or perhaps in simpler, but more poetic terms, ‘re-weaving the web of life’. As humans we’ve become very good at cutting the strands in the web of life. But everything is connected, and when you cut down a tree somewhere or you exterminate a species somewhere, there are knock-on effects and you get this fraying of the edges, this unraveling of the web of life, so systems don’t function properly any more. The converse is also true though when you put a strand back, when you connect something again. Planting a tree is creating a habitat for insects, and insects are food for birds, and the birds bring seeds in their gut, which get deposited in their droppings and the whole thing 
moves in a positive direction’. 

 Since 1989 Trees for Life has planted 1.25 million trees, almost all of which have been planted by 
volunteers.

‘People come and they have an experience out in a remote place, where they’re cut off from the internet, they don’t have television. They have each other and the landscape. They do something positive, and it helps people to reconnect, and that to me is essential, because once people reconnect they have a sense of care, they have a sense of responsibility, and that’s what will inspire folk to make changes’. 

 ‘Today’, he says, ‘we live in a world in which humans have become totally disconnected from nature through the impact of our lifestyles. People live in cities for the most part, not just in the rich world, but everywhere now. They don’t know where their food comes from, they don’t know where their waste goes, and they don’t see the impact of the way they lead their lives, and that’s causing all sorts of problems, including the excessive use of fossil fuels and the likely climate change scenarios that we are facing at the moment’. 

‘Climate change is to some extent the big flagship, the alarm signal, because it has a lot of publicity and a lot of attention. I think it is actually not the most serious issue we face –I think biodiversity loss is much more serious. When we lose species – and scientists now openly admit that we’re in the middle of a sixth great extinction spasm on earth – it takes millions of years for new species to replace the ones that are lost. That to me is a much more serious challenge. But of course, if a species of beetle in the Amazon rainforest goes extinct it doesn’t affect somebody in London. Whereas if it starts to rain or flood or the temperature gets up to nearly 40 degrees as it did at Wimbledon a couple of weeks ago, then it does affect them and they pay attention’. 

‘The problem is we’ve forgotten that our lives are primarily determined by ecological factors, and we live under this illusion that the primary thing that determines our wellbeing and happiness is economic factors. So if you look at the media, it’s dominated by the state of the economy, and elections are dominated by the state of the economy. And we base our economy on a very small part of the cycle of nature. Our economic system takes only that initial growth stage and says we’re going to stay in there forever. But the only place where you get unlimited growth in nature is cancer. We are a cancer society on the planet, and we will kill our host if we don’t die first’. 

Is he hopeful that change can happen? 

‘At one level I would say I am quite disillusioned. I’ve been working to make my life an example of something different for years. But I still see mainstream society’s institutions heading in the wrong direction. On the other side of it though, there is a real grass-roots movement of people who are recognizing that we can’t rely on government, we can’t rely on big companies, we are going to have to take action ourselves. I think that’s where the hope for the future is. 
Governments will be dragged along kicking and screaming at the last minute because they’re all in the pockets of vested interests – big oil and multinational companies who make their money out of maximizing every last drop of oil and other resources we can squeeze out of the earth – out of greed basically’. 

‘I like to think of the other side as being like a forest. We see the trees, but the trees are only here because of the mycorrhizal fungi underground, that wrap around the tree roots and pass nutrients to the trees, and get nutrients from the trees themselves. Similarly there are underground global networks, like the eco-village network, transition towns, you name it… you don’t see it on your nine o’clock news or in your newspapers, but it’s happening, there is an alternative culture’. 

‘I think this is the drama of our times: The question is can that alternative culture be established enough to be viable, to actually step up and say “we can move forward, and we can find a new way to live in the world, and here’s how to do it” when the cancerous society collapses’.

‘Because it is going to collapse’.  

………………………………………….. 

Neil Baird, August 2015 

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