Will forests still be beautiful if they're gone?

Published on 2024-01-19

I'm taking a class on forest science and management this semester, which is really exciting. It's the closest thing I've taken to a course on ecology at this university thus far, which is more or less the reason why I got into environmental science in the first place.

This week, we were talking about the value of forests: ecological, social and economic. One of these values, my professor explained, is aesthetic. Naturally, forested landscapes look more pretty than deforested landscapes--especially when they aren't converted for some other use and just get left there.

This got me thinking.

Way back when I was in high school, I was taking a course on world issues, and we watched a documentary called Manufactured Landscapes by Jennifer Baichwal, featuring the work of Edward Burtynsky, following him on a trip to China as he documents the vast manufactured landscapes produced by rapid industrialization.

This documentary is incredible. It starts with a eight minute continuous shot of a camera being pulled on a dolly across a factory floor, which I love.

Afterwards, I had to write a paper on it. Burtynsky's work fascinates me a lot because while his photos feel haunting, they also feel incredibly beautiful. In my paper, I wanted to make the argument that not only are they beautiful in their composition, but that in the near future, people may see these manufactured environments as intrinsically beautiful as well--the way we see forested landscapes today.

I love forests. I love the experience of being in them, and I love the way they look. But on some level, I feel like I have to accept that my appreciation of the aesthetic value of forests is a product of my own experience being exposed to them throughout my life. I'm not convinced that anything has inherent aesthetic value; I'm more inclined to believe all aesthetics are socially constructed.

I didn't grow up in heavily forested areas; I grew up not exactly in the city but pretty close to it. My province, however, was very heavily forested. Forestry was our significant and arguably only real industry, so while I may not have been able to access the forest immediately, I was surrounded by it. Going to the park and seeing these massive forested landscapes was a very special thing.

Not everybody's childhood looked like this.

My partner, for example, grew up in Chinese megacities among other places, where accessing a non-manufactured forest is much more challenging on a practical level. Something that's always fascinated me is the way people who spend much of their lives in these environments seem more attuned to the beauty of industrial landscapes in a way most of the people in my life are not.

When you spend your entire life in manufactured landscapes, that is your nostalgia. Industrial society feels like home.

It's not entirely unlikely that in the near future, many more people will be living in a world with more manufactured landscapes than old growth forests. I do really hope that won't be the case. I want to do as much as I can today to make sure that doesn't happen, but I am very curious about how the younger generation may feel about forests going into a future where they may play a much smaller role in the landscapes I grew up with.

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