Why do we feel a deep sense of calm when we spend time in a mature forest? Brain science is confirming that Nature is a strong medicine against depression and anxiety, but how have we drifted so far from our natural habitat? What has driven us to destroy it and live in an unhealthy and artificial world while yearning for something else? Is it time for us to go back to the forest?
In the Mayan highlands of Southern Mexico and Central America gnarled old oak trees rule the mountain environment. Their twisted and irregular branches tell us of ancient and laborious growth. Many scars and burls mark their trunks, with bromeliads and mosses growing thick in every available crevice. The ground underfoot is thick with layers of leaves and countless other plants that thrive in the rich mulch.
We may think of this as a pristine and untouched environment, but what is not immediately apparent is the influence of thousands of years of human habitation on the richly diverse ecosystem. Anthropologists and human ecologists tell us that a majority of species in the Mayan forests, both in the temperate highlands and the tropical lowland jungles, are of human interests and have been an integral part of traditional Mayan economy and society. This is no coincidence, as these forests have been fostered and managed according to traditional knowledge, religion and culture since humans first inhabited the area. Far from being untouched, the Mayan environment has been a painstakingly managed forest garden, market and apothecary for many generations.
On closer inspection, the highland oaks show signs of careful firewood harvesting, which allows for the healthy growth of the tree and forest while providing sustainable fuel to the human groups living there. The mosses and bromeliads are harvested and managed too, as are mushrooms, medicinal plants and animal species. Of course cutting the entire tree down, or even the entire forests grove for that matter, would provide a larger immediate return for the effort. But ancient and modern Mayans demonstrate and understanding that such a mentality is shortsighted and ultimately unsustainable.
Similar care is taken by Mayan peasant farmers when clearing areas of forest for crop production, which they do in rotations of 20 years or more, allowing for the forest to regenerate continuously for generations, continuing to provide material, food and medicine while maintaining a healthy living environment for people, animals and plants.
This example is not unique to traditional Mayan communities. Local and Indigenous groups around the world demonstrate a profound respect and understanding for and of their natural environments, organizing industry, culture and stories around the forest and the species that conform it. Individual and short term gains are consistently compromised in favor of sustainability. Ecosystem health is ingrained in the social and cultural fabric, and actions that destroy it for personal gain are beyond taboo, and could even be considered signs of a mental or spiritual illness.
As we stare into a grim future, anticipating a total collapse of the ecosystems that sustain us, can we look towards the remaining holders of traditional knowledge and wisdom for solutions? Is it possible for 8 billion humans to regain a deep and practical respect for Nature and restore some kind of balance? Can we incorporate this knowledge and respect with our scientific advancements and resilience to become stewards of a healthy planet? Can we return to the forest?