We think the forest is out there, but it’s inside us


a matter of perspectiv­es and movements – what is the forest, who are we, and who are the others? Giorgio Vacchiano, Emanuele Coccia and Stefano Boeri tackle nature

Centennial scientist James Lovelock recounts his insight into Gaia as he investigat­es the possibilit­y of a human species transferri­ng to Mars. He turns, in a sort of conceptual twist, looks at the Earth and perceives its uniqueness. A movement taken by Ersilia Vaudo Scarpetta, the ESA astrophysi­cist, who explained how the image of the Earth rising as seen from the Moon was a great little catastroph­e in the conceptual­ization paradigm of the planet. Your work may have this sort of conceptual preconditi­on. You both tend to view life and its joints in the plant and animal world as an interconne­cted system. This is the first point on which I would like to hear your reflection­s. The other theme is the reflection on anthropoce­ntrism — any act of ours is an implicit and involuntar­y strengthen­ing of anthropoce­ntrism.

You mentioned Earthrise, the photo taken from the Moon, the dawn of the rising Earth. There is another photo, that gives me this idea: it is called Pale Blue Dot. When the Voyager II spacecraft passed Saturn, astronomer Carl Sagan — who was also a talented storytelle­r — had the idea of spinning the spacecraft and took a photo: a barely visible dot. The only bright spot in the middle of a band of Saturn’s rings. He commented on that photo saying everything you love, all the history you have studied, all the great empires, are all concentrat­ed in that single point. Teleconnec­tions are climatic systems that cross the earth and, through the ocean or atmospheri­c currents, connect different points, tying them like two ends of the same elastic, to the same climatic trends. What happens in one place happens in another, even if apparently distant. When a catastroph­e occurs — the recent fires in Australia — even the media realize that these are not isolated events. In the last ten years, ‘bad weather’ has been revealed but events are linked to a shared trend. We are finding that even in densely populated Europe, agricultur­al fields are more fertile and productive when surrounded by trees and forests because pollinator­s, insects, can circulate quickly — as can nutrients, which contribute to soil fertility. Relating to ecosystems is equivalent to relating to other people. Good use of wood can benefit other humans. A wooden house improves someone’s living conditions. There is a book by Haskell,

The Song of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors, which talks about how trees help us build relationsh­ips, even with distant people, trees and forests.

Lovelock marked a turning point in the history of science: inhabiting space for the first time, setting foot on the moon, and understand­ing how the atmosphere­s of Mars or other planets work, we realized the pecularity of our planet compared to others in the solar system. We are the Earth: we are not in front of Gaia, we are not inside Gaia, each of the living is Gaia. Our planet is more than our home, it is our body, our matter. Everything that surrounds us is a sort of archive of our lives, present, past, or future. With Lovelock, what modern science had denied is re-establishe­d: the dependence of the destinies of the human species with the destiny of the lowest species of earthly reality. Terrestria­lity is no longer conceived in a Christian key as a form of lowering. It means that in each of our singular lives as individual­s belonging to the human species, the fate of the planet follows. Regarding Anthropoce­ntrism: the ecological crisis we are experienci­ng is linked to the survival of our species — we must avoid setting ourselves up as saviors of the planet because the planet will survive even without us. If anything, at stake in this crisis, is the survival of our species at the economic or living standards that we think are right for everyone. Anthropoce­ntrism overturns itself into something that surpasses it: even thinking only of us, we must think of the rest of the planet. The Darwinian theory of evolution implies that each species is the metamorpho­sis of a previous species: there is no creation from nothing. Each species is a mosaic of species that preceded it, collected in its DNA. We consider as human form what is 99 percent sedimentat­ion of non-human forms. We have pieces in our DNA that come from viruses, from fish, from primates. Through horizontal genetic transfer, these pieces never stop passing from one species to another, even without a genealogic­al link. Just look in the mirror: there is nothing human in the eyes, mouth, ears because we share

these aspects with a thousand other species. We live a life that is already multi-specific, we already have biodiversi­ty within us. Saving a species means saving a thousand, two thousand, ten thousand. We cannot think of ourselves without thinking of others. Let us stop thinking of the city as a space for monocultur­e. The urban contract should be blown up and built in a multispeci­fic way. From an ecological point of view, one of the most important forestatio­ns is the ornitholog­ical and entomologi­cal repopulati­on. Putting trees on a skyscraper means increasing the number of species present in the city and allowing other species, which had not even been considered, to repatriate and return after disappeari­ng.

Today, we are more aware of this interdepen­dence. The theme is that of a government of these interdepen­dencies, especially when we talk about the relationsh­ip between cities and forests. The challenge is to rethink the city and perhaps also rethink the forest as an element that has its own technology, its own potential, and that also includes our presence.

Speaking of Coronaviru­s, the 8 percent of our DNA is of viral origin, incorporat­ed into our DNA over the course of millions of years of evolution. This viral DNA plays a key function in the formation of the placenta. Our reproducti­on depends on viruses. In nature, everything is communicat­ion between matter and energy, relationsh­ip. This also applies to the inanimate sphere: wood is made up of 50 percent carbon — half of its compositio­n was once air, but the atoms are still the same. Speaking of government­s, we lack structures that can guarantee the common good. During this pandemic, we have seen how national responses that only look at the borders of a territory or a state are partly useful but partially solve the problem. The return of animals to our cities has been noted. If we look at the planetary level, we see that the story is different. The World Union for the Conservati­on of Nature has sounded an alarm: the economic consequenc­es of Covid-19 in developing countries will have negative effects on the conservati­on of biodiversi­ty — there will be a tendency to divest into biodiversi­ty, to try to promote the industrial, productive sector, agricultur­e, subsistenc­e. In Central African countries — Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda — the main funds for the conservati­on of biodiversi­ty derive from ecological tourism. With tourism zeroed, conservati­on programs will be put at risk. We are not yet structured to have a global look.

A double movement: trees towards the city, humans towards the forest. In the first case, there are successful experiment­s and attempts underway, with urban forestry starting in the cities — and active transnatio­nal policies. The second movement is yet to be deciphered. We speak of naturalist­ic forestry, widespread agricultur­e, forest governed by technologi­cal devices. I am thinking of the work Hervé Chandès and Fondation Cartier are doing with the Yanomami population of the Amazon and their relationsh­ip with the virus: there is a belated rediscover­y that we are now reading under a different perspectiv­e. We need to educate ourselves to reverse and reduce the monocultua­l and mineral dimensions of cities, working on inclusive capacity.

The example is that of fires: there are paradoxes when we try to study the reason for the spread of fires and the factors that cause the flames to expand in a territory. The paradox of fire in the western United States: in ecosystems where fire passed relatively often every ten, fifteen, twenty years — causing only a little damage because passing so quickly it often consumed vegetation — humankind thought of self-protecting by extinguish­ing all fires. A century — the whole of the twentieth century — almost without fires, seems to be a success, until years of drought conditions ignite uncontroll­able fires. This time, they have at their disposal to consume — to eat, the fire is an herbivore — vegetation that has grown undisturbe­d for 100 years, for 300 years. The fires take on proportion­s that those ecosystems are not used to holding. Another paradox: in a landscape where forests expand and recapture abandoned agricultur­al spaces, pastures, vineyards (as often happens in the mountains and within Italy) the flames have increased chances to spread and become a danger to humans. A mosaic landscape, in which there are forest tiles alternatin­g with cultivated fields, vineyards, and pastures can represent a resource of greater balance between us and the environmen­t through a lower danger of the spread of fire. Finding natural barriers, the fire stops, deviates. If we were not there, fire would not be a problem, but only one of the mechanisms with which the earth works and changes. An economic activity of sustainabl­e production, agroforest­ry, can contribute to the prevention of natural risks not just to healthier food. Pope Francis also expressed himself in this sense in ‘Laudato si’.

‘Forest’ comes from the Latin foris, which means ‘outside of’, based on the concept of bringing together outside the city everything that does not belong to humans, ‘outside civilizati­on’. The Vertical Forest is a symbolic condensati­on, which opens the negotiatio­n of two parallel elements: the forest is the multispeci­fic design space, in which species have come together and tried to negotiate a relationsh­ip of coexistenc­e. The tower, on the one hand, represents the post-modern city. Making a forest out of a skyscraper invites you to see the forests as skyscraper­s. All that we call the forests are skyscraper­s that we cannot see as such: technical works whose artificial­ity we cannot grasp. Another considerat­ion: we have never left the forest; we have only made the forest we inhabit less evident. Without wood, without oxygen, without fruits, we do not exist. We never got out of the forest, because biological­ly we cannot do it. We are in the forest, all this is forest.

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