Author: Jay Rastogi

“It may be that some little root of the sacred tree still lives. Nourish it then, that it may leaf and bloom and fill with singing birds.” – Black Elk

1.0 Introduction

There is a growing uneasiness about the influence humans are having on the Earth and its biotic community. Over time we have generated a society which values a highly consumptive lifestyle and believes in continual growth. This belief is contrary to science, logic, or the inherited wisdom of many cultures. Examples that allow us to discover or rediscover more sustainable ways of interacting can facilitate changing our relationship with the rest of the natural world. Wildwood forest is a place where sustainable forestry has been pursued. Its main purpose now is to serve as a model for an alternative view of what is possible and for inspiring change in land stewardship practices. This important example’s continuance and further development has been strengthened by the involvement of TLC-The Land Conservancy. TLC is a land trust dedicated to the protection of natural ecosystems as well as areas of scientific, historic or cultural value.

2.0 Background

Wildwood forest, located on southeastern Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada, has been stewarded by Merv Wilkinson since 1938 and has become widely recognized as a valuable example of the pursuit for sustainable forestry. Under the guidance of Dr. Paul Boving, Merv was introduced to Scandinavian forest management philosophies and practices of the time. Key among what Merv borrowed were the ideas of harvesting less than the annual growth rate, so that the stand volume is not diminished over time; and Dr. Boving’s preferred tree selection method, single tree selection, or what Merv has sometimes called “sustainable selective forestry”. The underlying principle is one of sustaining timber yields over time. The standing volume was seen as being equivalent to the capital in a bank account and the annual growth rate as the interest. This analogy is helpful, however it does not present an accurate or complete picture. Thus, over time our reliance on this theory and selection methodology has changed. Never the less these principles remain important in understanding the history of this forest and its influence beyond its boundaries.

The 1980’s and 1990’s in British Columbia saw considerable conflict around views on the values of forests and the publics’ role in guiding the development of forest planning policy. Many people felt (and continue to feel) that the main method of harvest (large scale clear cutting) and harvesting volumes above the annual growth rate was irresponsible and had detrimental impacts, particularly to old growth forests and dependent species. Detrimental impacts were also noted in other areas such as fisheries, due to erosion and sedimentation of streams, increased water temperatures, and rapid fluctuations in water flows due to lack of water holding capacity on forested hill sides. Other values important to the public included areas of wilderness for wild animals, especially for rare and endangered species, recreation and aesthetics. New additional concerns include carbon sequestration, climate regulation, community water supplies and also upheaval in the economic and community structures of logging towns. In addition, the public institutions charged with responsibility for overseeing the stewardship of forests (95% of which in B.C. are owned by the “crown”), were seen to be facilitating the liquidation of forests, which are spoken of as renewable resources, and were thus serving industry rather than the public good or nature.

Figure 1 Journal Ecoforestry Institute Society

Figure 1

Comparison of the long-term harvest level with the volume harvested over time in British Columbia.

  • Solid curve is the actual harvest level
  • Horizontal dashed line is the calculated long-term harvest level
  • Note: The long term harvest level calculation assumes timber is the only forest value.
  • State of BC Forests 2004; Markey and Pierce 2000; Statistics Canada 1997
  • Courtesy Neil Dawe, Qualicum Institute

Merv became involved in the events of the time and both benefited from and contributed to these discussions. Exposure to new ecological knowledge contributed to changes in his stewardship practices – which continue to influence our trajectory today. His contribution was sharing his property, knowledge and enthusiasm with others. As a result Wildwood became well visited by those looking to bridge our culture’s gap between humans and nature, and by those wishing to explore other models of forest stewardship that do not degrade forest-associated ecosystems.

Merv also became involved in the large civil disobedience actions at Clayoquot Sound (blockading a public road used for transporting logs out of the area) and was among the 850 arrested and charged with contempt of court for ignoring a B.C. Supreme Court injunction against the blockage. An elderly logger protesting logging methods, representing himself at trial and being called “magnificently unrepentant” by the sentencing judge, certainly provided a good story to the press, thus propelling Merv and his work at Wildwood to greater prominence. The result was a greater number of visits and awards, and also the recognition that this example was inspiring and encouraging others to pursue more ecologically minded land stewardship. As Merv’s age increased it became a concern to a small group of friends and academics that Wildwood would not continue beyond Merv’s lifetime if plans could not be made to purchase Wildwood, which is now in an area of rapid residential development.

3.0 TLC-The Land Conservancy’s role at Wildwood

In December 2000, TLC – The Land Conservancy (a charitable land trust) became involved and purchased Wildwood. Its primary purpose is to continue to operate Wildwood as a learning site, where those who want to, can learn ecoforestry principles and practices. Since the essence of ecoforestry is to try to understand the landscape and our role in it, the focus of our educational activities is on forest ecology and the process of discovery. A variety of techniques is employed to engage and educate participants, such as site mapping to determine the composition and spatial distribution of trees; “barefoot mapping” to illustrate and share ones observations and values; and dendrochronological studies to illustrate the influence of past harvesting, as well as fungal, fire or wind events. In addition to imparting knowledge and skills, we also wish to instill an ethic of sustainable living.

Sustainability for us means being able to integrate our activities within the limits of our home landscape and the ecosystem processes which govern its functioning. We do not wish to compromise the ability of indigenous organisms or the forest to withstand stresses and disturbances.

Harvesting less than the annual growth has been the guiding principle upon which Merv Wilkinson based the management of Wildwood. The intent was to have a consistent flow of timber for use, while keeping the stand volume relatively stable. Over time we have come to realize that not only is live biomass or volume important (in that it is the “capital” which produces “annual growth”), but dead biomass is important too. How biomass is distributed has implications for individual species, and because species interact with each other and the physical environment, implications for ecosystem function. We wish to maintain the processes that have generated this forest so we look for a framework with which to do that.

Key concepts for us are:

A. Integrity
• Forest Structure: arrangement of living and dead biomass in the landscape.
• Composition: the plants, animals, fungi, mosses, rocks, soils etc.
• Ecological Processes: all of the biogeochemical phenomena which contribute to ecological function.

B. Function
• Water cycling and filtering, nutrient cycling, genetic flow, herbivory etc.

C. Resiliency
• The forest’s capacity to resist “normal” disturbances (those with which it is historically familiar) and generally persist in its structure, composition and processes over time.

This way of viewing the forest is important to us, but much of it remains theoretical or scientific and vague to many. This framework also obscures the philosophical basis of our actions. Numerous scientists have come to recognize that many land use problems are reflections of values and attitudes resulting at least in part from the influence of the reductionist aspects of science. The influence of this can be seen on governments and even on the environmental movement in efforts focused on threatened species or designated areas of protection. While this may be important, it is not sufficient because it does not address the root causes of the problems. There is a need to develop and help cultivate a view of ourselves and our economies as being part of nature. In contrast, protecting a small percent of the land base, as the BC government has done to provide the ecosystem services we depend upon; or flawed concepts such as “sustainable development”; are at best actions and ideas with which we can placate ourselves. We use them as excuses not to explore meaningful change.

3.1 Discovery, teaching and mental tool development

As a species we currently use around 125 percent of the Earth’s primary productivity (Wright 2004, Morales 2007, Global Footprint Network 2007). This is a combination of our population and our consumption habits. We are eating into the earth’s stored capital. This cannot continue indefinitely for the planet any more than it can for an individual forest.

To try to understand forests and nature at a textural level different language and methods of illustrating the myriad concepts, patterns, and connections are necessary. Aldo Leopold pointed the way for western society to make these changes in calling for a new “land ethic”. “We can be ethical,” he said (1966, p. 251), “only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in.” Explorations or attempts at sustainability are impossible unless one knows the inhabitants (at the very least the dominant visible ones) in your area. “When I knew nothing of plants,” writes Wade Davis (1996 p. 177), “ I experienced a forest only as a tangle of forms, shapes and colours without meaning or depth, beautiful when taken as a whole, but ultimately incomprehensible and exotic. Now the components of the mosaic had names, the names implied relationships, and the relationships resonated with significance.” Once a person starts observing characteristics closely they learn to distinguish not only different species, but they also realize that there is variability in structural form, colour, etc. within a species. Thus we open avenues for discerning patterns on the landscape, making connections among species and also physical features such as soil, light and moisture. This knowledge can then be applied to informing our role in the ecosystem. But to be successful, stewardship must be founded in an appreciation of the forest; of its structure, origins and the interrelationships which drive it.

From years of working towards this goal and through monitoring and adjusting to increase effectiveness, we have found the education at Wildwood is most effective when it is a process of facilitated discovery. Having the desire and freedom to step away from a predetermined plan is especially important. The best learning happens when it is spontaneous and fun. Discovering something is both. Leaders need to be enthusiastic about individuals discoveries and use them as launch points to explore questions and share their knowledge.

Figure 2  Journal Ecoforestry Institute Society

Figure 2

A person’s natural curiosity can be utilized to promote the process of discovery. This can open opportunities for new insights, knowledge or skill development which can either be self taught or facilitated. The process of discovering and learning can become self reinforcing.

The techniques and activities we employ, sometimes with modifications, work well with all ages and backgrounds. One of my favourite activities is “meet a tree” – a game for groups of two, where one person is blindfolded and the other is the guide. The blindfolded person is led to an object in the forest – usually a tree, but a stump or rock works too – and is allowed to explore it in any way they choose other than by sight. Once finished they are led back to the starting point and I inquire from the participants what they were able to determine about the object. Then I ask them to find that object again without guidance (but with eyes open). In the majority of the time the participants can find their objects, and this is a great thrill! Adults are more afraid of failing, so often peek and they may not like holding hands with their colleagues. So unless I know the group well I modify it so that in groups of 3 to 5 we compare similarities and differences in trees of the same species. Both versions accomplish some of the same things – it forces close observation and discovery.

How often does a forester, a logger or a scientist explore the physical structure of a tree and observe the variety of life on even the lower 5 feet of a tree? More likely we compartmentalize ourselves into a narrow specialty and thus lose the big picture, the interconnections and the richness of life. These activities show each tree to be an individual. The second version in particular often leads to the question of why two trees of the same species show such differences in form. Later in the workshop I might use the groups’ observations to guide discussions about how different organisms use different habitat niches, and also how these same features can guide the selection of trees for our material use. Timber continues to be the main product which is harvested and we often discuss selection criteria and the consequences of our decisions on what remains in the forest.

3.2 Food as an educational tool

Another way to interest participants and to help shape a sustainable land ethic is by educating about food from the forest. There is increasing interest in local foods, spurred by the Slow Food movement and such books as “The One Hundred Mile Diet” (Smith and MacKinnon, 2007). Most groups find wild foods to be of particular interest, perhaps because they tie us emotionally and physically to the landscape. Wild foods provide people with another way to see the detail of the landscape, such as moisture and light influences and even plant associations. If I tell people the habitat requirements of a species they will generally only remember it for a few minutes, but once you gather and eat a particular plant the memory of that plant and where it was found will stay with you for a longer time. When gathering becomes a habitual practice, that knowledge will be with you always and will likely be passed on to those around you.

The things we look at, smell or taste vary depending on the time of year. Commonly we taste greens such as miners lettuce, sorrel and chickweed which are good by themselves or in salads; yerba buena has a wonderful smell and makes a lovely tea; stinging nettle leaves can be dried for tea, or the greens cooked and eaten as a vegetable. The green leaves and stems have fine “hairs” which release an acid and cause mild skin irritation. But if handled carefully, touching only the top of the leaf (which has fewer “hairs”), the leaf can be rolled and squished, then eaten without stinging the mouth. The taste is similar to that of green beans. Handling stinging nettle in front of their peers can be a confidence booster for children with low self esteem.

Various berries such as thimble berry, salmon berry, red huckle berry, salal berries and Saskatoon berries are good eaten raw and can also be preserved and prepared in a variety of ways. Douglas-fir and grand fir needles are high in vitamin C when eaten raw. They can also be boiled for tea. Honeysuckle blossoms provide sweet nectar. Big leaf maple blossoms make good additions to stir-frys, omelets and quiches. Maple sap can be consumed fresh as is, used in cooking as a substitute for water or boiled down to make syrup. The variety of mushrooms is staggering. Favourite edibles include Morels, Boletes, Chanterelles, Pines, Lobster and Conifer Tuft. Many of these food plants and mushrooms serve important ecological roles as well and gathering them provides opportunities to examine and reflect on their roles in ecosystem function.

There are also the traditional game animals, but there has not been hunting at Wildwood in the last 20 years. The animals we do consume are spittle bugs and western thatching ants. The thatching ants in particular are a great hit – they taste very good – especially with miners lettuce or chickweed. But it isn’t just about taste. These ants (Formica obscuripes) use small trails which radiate out from the ant hill and lead to various trees where the ants predate on other insects. Topics of habitat requirements, carrying capacity and sustainable harvest rates are easier to discuss at the scale of an ant colony, than that of a woodlot, an island, a continent or the globe, but the idea of energy flows and interactions with other organisms/environment remains the same for all species including humans. By seeing the footprint of an ant colony it is easier for students to understand the idea of people and communities also creating a footprint on the Earth. The ant colony lends itself well to learning sampling techniques (math skills) which can then be used with other inventories including measuring their own ecological impacts using “footprinting” exercises (Wackernagel and Rees 1996, Global Footprint Network 2007). These exercises can be done at a variety of levels of details – with the more detailed ones giving more accurate rates of ecological impact. But even the short questionnaires and calculations give a ballpark idea of ones consumption and the amount of productive area needed to produce the goods one consumes and the area needed to absorb wastes. The results also express the issue of equity, because the answers are also expressed as the number of planet Earths needed to support the human population if everyone on the planet consumed the same amount as you do.

These exercises illustrate our direct reliance on nature and also illustrate problems with our current economic models which view the human economy as being separate from nature. Nature is seen primarily as a source of raw materials and a dump for the wastes of production. For societies to be sustainable there needs to be recognition that humans are a part of nature and we need to organize our economies to be subsets of the natural economy. Leopold (1966, p.251) expressed this when he wrote, “What we thought of as our resource, our commodity, is really the community to which we belong.” The sun energizes all of the Earth’s productivity. Sunlight captured through photosynthesis is the basis of our economy and also the economy of the ant.

3.3 Plants as a guide to First Nations stewardship practices and culture

Food plants, plants used for tools, and the distribution of plants in our forest landscape all give strong links to the traditional practices of local First Nations. The structural and spatial patterns we observe at Wildwood are the result of past actions. The distribution of the largest Douglas-fir trees (and stumps), the fairly large size of branches and the low height of the lowest braches (relative to some other areas) indicate a relatively open stand in the past which would have favoured berry producing shrubs and possibly lily species which were valued for their edible bulbs. We believe intentional fires, the evidence of which can still be seen on the bark of some trees (even though there has not been a fire here in the lifetime of local residents), maintained this stand structure.

Some consequences of having switched to a timber focused management approach are obvious – such as higher tree densities. But the unintended consequences on other organisms and ecological processes are less obvious to us and need further examination. Recognition by western science that aboriginal practices have had significant influence on the landscape is increasing. The diversity of aboriginal cultures and the variability in land stewardship practices even within groups meant that there was variability on the landscape – something ecologists recognize as increasing the resiliency of ecosystems.

Cultures encode knowledge in various forms and when cultural norms and traditions are taught, ethical considerations are also taught (Nabhan 1997; Raymond and Wildcat 2000). Nabhan (1997) points out that many conservationists have been mistaken in presuming that biodiversity can survive where indigenous cultures have been displaced or disrupted from practicing their traditional land management strategies. Pointing to the work of David Harmon, who compared a list of 25 countries with the greatest number of endemic species to the 25 countries with the greatest number of endemic languages and found 16 countries to be in common, Nabhan posits that wherever many cultures have coexisted within the same region biodiversity has also survived.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) adherents also point out that not only is human well being dependent on the nonhuman, but also the reverse is often true, and certain plants, animals and habitats can “degenerate” if not properly cared for (Raymond and Wildcat 2000, Martinez 2005, Turner 2007). Martinez points out that Indigenous North Americans have no words or concepts such as Wilderness. There is no distinction between humans and nonhumans – all are part of a kinship network and humans are of equal standing. This way of speaking and thinking may be difficult for those with different worldviews, but it has been pointed out that there is an analogy between biodiversity and language. Gary Nabhan (1997, p. 20) believes “both are wellsprings of information” and offer “time tried wisdom of ways to live well in this world.”

While we have an incomplete understanding of practices used, conservation biologists and ecologists are beginning to acknowledge and view as important the role First Nations played as agents of forest maintenance and change. Deepening our understanding of this is now an important pursuit at Wildwood – one that we see as vital in modeling and understanding how humans can live sustainably in our local habitats, and on this planet.

The worldviews and practices of indigenous peoples may be difficult to understand for those who have different worldviews, but learning from each other offers the potential to guide the creation of new ways of seeing and being – ways of being where we can acknowledge and act on the belief that all of our destinies are mingled. Western ecological sciences have great power and merging TEK (values and science), with western sciences could offer an alternative to the current global consumptive economic worldview.

4.0 Conclusion

The practice of forest stewardship at Wildwood has largely been timber focused and in the western economic tradition – though with longer time frames than is typical. It has also been and continues to be influenced by other views and cultures, and our respect for and appreciation of the forest. We continue to be open to the process of discovery and are humbled by the complexity of nature and the myriad ways that various organisms interact in the balance and flux of the forest.

If society wishes to achieve ecological sustainability we need to participate in the development of bioregional cultures that reclaim our place as members of the biotic community. Wildwood is one place where the experiment in the development of a woodland culture is happening. We hope to reverse the “extinction of experience” – the phrase Robert Pyle (2007) uses to express the cessation of direct contact between children and nature – but it applies to adults as strongly.

Places to experience and be involved with “non-domesticated” plants and animals and their everyday behaviours are essential to foster an appreciation of nature. Knowledgeable mentors who can nurture curiosity and share knowledge as well as values are also important. The creation and maintenance of a culture of sustainability will require multiple generations looking both forward and back in time.

It is no accident that the work which has gone on at Wildwood since 1938, is being continued by The Land Conservancy. Land Trusts are well suited to carrying out such experiments as most have long-term mandates of protecting our heritage – this includes humans and non-humans. At Wildwood TLC’s goal is to use the cultural and natural heritage of this site to inspire and educate others to adopt better land stewardship practices and to contribute to the exploration and development of a sustainable land use ethic. We meet this challenge in the woods with discovery and fun.


Davis, W. (1996). One River. Simon and Schuster: New York.

Global Footprint Network (2007).

Leopold, A. (1966). A Sand County Almanac with essays on Conservation from Round River. Ballantine Books: New York.

Martinez, D. (2005). Eco-cultural Restoration Workshop, February 14-17, 2005. Galiano Island.

Morales, E. (2007). Letter to the UN, September 24, 2007.

Nabhan, G. P. (1997). Cultures of Habitat: On Nature, Culture and Story. Counterpoint: Washington, DC.

Pierotti, R. and Wildcat D. (2000). Traditional Ecological Knowledge: The Third Alternative. Ecological Applications, 10(5), 1333-1340.

Pyle, R. (2007). Keynote address. The Land Trust Alliance of BC conference. March, 16 –18, 2007. Cowichan Lake.

Qualicum Institute (2007) Presentation to the Ecoforestry Institute Society. September 22, 2007. Nanaimo.

Smith, A. and MacKinnon, J.B. (2007). The One Hundred Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating. Random House: Toronto.

Turner, N. (2007). Personal Communication. September 22, 2007.

Wackernagel M. and Rees, W. (1996). Our Ecological Footprint. New Society Publishers: Gabriola Island.

Wright, R. (2004). A Short History of Progress. House of Anansi Press: Toronto.