When we visited permaculture professor, botanist, and youtuber Andrew Millison at his suburban house in Corvallis, Oregon, we weren’t expecting to find a thriving homestead with lush vegetation and a high-yield garden.
We soon learned from Millison, who welcomed us wearing a comfortable guayabera shirt, that his house had been sitting not long before in a conventional barren suburban lot, with a grass lawn and a few flower bushes here and there. The transformation looked now even more surreal. How had he done it?
He only needed 1/3rd of an acre to develop his horticulture dream, documenting the process in his channel and using the experience to enrich his permaculture courses at Oregon State University in town.
But one thing caught our attention: it was a hot summer day in Corvallis; we had noticed it when we hopped out of the car. However, as we approached the Millison’s lot, we also benefited from the abundant shade and a significantly lower temperature; the previously dry breeze, now blended with plant moisture, helped us cool down. Andrew Millison had planted a garden in the back and a dense front yard with many trees and bushes. It looked and felt like a forest.
It looked good also, though some commenters, perhaps liking to keep their meticulously trimmed lawns up to their area’s codes, defined it as “messy.” Some see plenty, beauty, and a climate regulator, whereas others just see “disharmony” with the suburban surroundings and “messy.”
Biophilia hypothesis: a forest to boost wellbeing
Some wonder whether contemporary society consciously makes an effort to efface any enchantment and beauty from everyday tasks and surrounding things.
When any object or action is defined as a means to their utility, things miss their mystery and patina:
- food becomes body fuel;
- cities turn into efficient dormitories;
- relations are ranked by their return on investment;
- forests are wood factories, if anything at all.
And, like the Newspeak used by the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s 1984, words seem to be emptying their former meaning, replaced by hyper-processed, dematerialized alternatives that exploit our predisposition to instant gratification.
Such disenchantment in the world takes different shapes that, after a while, can be mistaken as the only reality there is: however, it only takes exposure to other realities to acknowledge how much our environment can be transformed by mere attitude.
Anyone can learn to see things from a positive framing and apply strategies to “re-enchant” their immediate surroundings.
We may not be able to adapt to our environment with the flexible generic expression of the axolotl, the strange, fish-like amphibian from the Valley of Mexico that regenerates its limbs if the freshwater environment where it lives dries out. Still, we can experience our own emotional transformation.
The aquatic amphibian that wanted to be a salamander
As it gets ready to leave the water and lead an existence in the surrounding arid terrain, the axolotl loses its gills and grows stronger extremities. It lacks thyroid-stimulating hormones and can only get them from the environment: the animal will only experience this transformation if the environment forces it to do so.
Like the axolotl, we can opt to experience our own perceptive transformation; in this case, not by ditching aquatic gills in favor of eyelids, thicker skin, and more muscular limbs, but by reconnecting with a more natural environment that is expressed in the biophilia hypothesis as the positive behavioral changes that we experience when we reconnect with all that is alive and vital.
The axolotl surprised the first zoologists scientifically analyzing the animal. In 1863, a few living specimens arrived in Paris’ Jardin des Plantes. Zoologist Auguste Duméril was shocked when, instead of finding the strange water creatures received, they had evolved into what seemed a new species similar to the salamander, with stronger limbs and protected eyes. Scientists soon discovered they could induce the animal’s metamorphosis by stimulating its thyroid hormones with iodine.
A mere three decades before Charles Darwin had accomplished the expedition of the Beagle, which sparked his ideas on evolution and exposed him to landscapes of primeval forests and nature’s adaptation to different environments:
“Among the scenes which are deeply impressed on my mind, none exceed in sublimity the primeval forests undefaced by the hand of man; whether those of Brazil, where the powers of Life are predominant, or those of Tierra del Fuego, where Death and Decay prevail. Both are temples filled with the varied productions of the God of Nature: no one can stand in these solitudes unmoved, and not feel that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body.”Charles Darwin in: The Voyage of The Beagle (1831 -1836) Chapter XXIII: Mauritius To England
Secret life of trees
Now, little is spared of the banalization treatment by the attention economy, and the complexity of forests is reduced to mere tree management. Suppose Winston Smith can read the slogans of the Party in 1984 carved in the concrete pyramidal administrative building of the Ministry of Truth (“War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength”). In that case, our society hasn’t reached the perceptive point of no return to not appreciating the abyssal difference between a tree farm and a forest.
The German forester Peter Wohlleben considers it necessary to vindicate an active re-enchantment with Nature beyond our reductionist, utilitarian view of the world surrounding us, from urban greenery to farmland to forested areas and last remnants of a primeval forest. In his acclaimed essay The Hidden Life of Trees, Wohlleben expands on the cultural limitations of contemporary society:
“Forests are not first and foremost lumber factories and warehouses for raw material, and only secondarily complex habitats for thousands of species, which is the way modern forestry currently treats them. Completely the opposite, in fact.”
Sensing the marvel of nature isn’t a mere reaction to the impoverishment of our relationship with forests and their complexity: dense forests are also good for wildlife; they regulate ground moisture and temperature, attracting wildlife to previously depleted areas.
In the early 70s, a Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki in his middle age, was among those concerned by the alienating qualities of intensive farming and urbanization in local ecosystems. As a graduate student in the late 1950s, he had learned about the natural regeneration concept of potential natural vegetation (PNV), or the hypothetical vegetation cover present in a given plot of land if it were in equilibrium with environmental controls and lacked human intervention.
Benefits of afforestation
Works on potential natural vegetation grew in importance as botanists realized that previously perceived environments as “wild forests,” thought to be largely untouched by humans, were the outcome of long interactions with our species that had detached the ecosystems from their natural vegetation. Along with other experts, Akira Miyakawi began working on maps of potential natural vegetation representing different ecosystems worldwide to improve forest regeneration and management.
In places lacking ancient protected areas of natural forests around temples and shrines, oftentimes, their guess came through meticulous fieldwork and retrospective ecology, from paleoecology to paleobotany. But Miyawaki wouldn’t settle with high-scale, centralized forest regeneration management. The battle was anywhere, especially in urban areas deprived of dense, diverse forests.
As urbanism and sprawl expanded, local greenery lacked the biodiversity and ecological qualities of natural forests, a contrast he could study in the urban continuum thanks to the existence of high-diversity remnants of forests. Such tiny natural forests had been growing for centuries in protected areas around temples, shrines, and cemeteries, often tucked away in a labyrinthic alleyway, thanks to the Chinju no Mori tradition, or self-maintained greenery around places of worship, a remnant of the ancient Shinto tradition of designating sacred groves.
Unlike conventional forested parks, such forests around temples and shrines kept a much wider variety of native vegetation. Akira Miyawaki saw in them an opportunity of emulation to regenerate primeval-like forests in urban areas devoid of greenery through afforestation.
Today, as the method expands throughout Asia, Europe, and the Americas, the miniature forests acclimatize to local conditions. Due to their perimetral constraints and density, they grow 10 times faster, 30 times denser, and 100 times more biodiverse than conventional ones. To achieve so, saplings must be placed close together, up to three per square meter, recreating the layers of a natural forest.
A tiny natural forest by a shrine
The space these abundant, healthy forests occupied amid urban or arable land was tiny, sometimes smaller than a tennis court. Miyawaki thought he only needed the equivalent of six parking spaces to reclaim some land and quickly grow a forest, although he was convinced that the method used in parks was part of the problem and not the solution: like agriculture and silviculture, newly-planted “forests” were less a forest than a rationalized space with carefully selected plants, often planted with a distance derived from aesthetic proportionality ideas that had little to do with plants themselves.
His mini-forests, Miyawaki thought, could bring back wildlife and lots of other benefits to places that had been deprived of their ancient magic. The “Miyawaki method” soon had a surge in popularity, first in Japan and then in India and over the world, with native forests growing in tiny spaces formerly left to dusty periurban areas or hard squares dominated by monumental, concrete surfaces, with their uninviting exposition to extreme temperatures and lack of inviting areas for wildlife and human conviviality.
Miyawaki soon demonstrated that, done the right way, the micro-natural forests achieved mature heights in a fraction of the time (20 years or so versus a century) because of the constraints of their perimeter: relegated to a tiny plot, tiny natural forests thrive by shooting up instead of spreading out.
Like ancient, small, and very dense forests around Shinto shrines (or Chinju-no-mori), the new tiny forests needed to be dense and diverse, containing hundreds of plants at different heights, each one benefiting from sun and rain according to their biological niche and role in the mini-forest.
As the new equivalents of Chinju-no-moris grew across Japan and their enthusiasts brought the method to other countries, the affordable and outright-feasible strategy of planting densely-packed small patches with all sorts of native plants yielded many predicted —and unpredicted— benefits: they helped establish wildlife corridors, helped cooling urban “heat islands,” improved soil health, created habitats for pollinators (affected by pesticides and disorders).
Miyawaki’s legacy: you, too, can plant a small natural forest
More difficult to measure but important nonetheless was the forests’ effects on people’s well-being: more studies back E.O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis, reinforcing the idea that spending time around trees reduces stress, improves mood and even health, as our body absorbs natural oils from species like Japanese cypress have antiseptic qualities and could benefit the respiratory, immune, and integumentary systems.
Eastern culture has embraced nature therapy through practices like the so-called forest bathing (Shinrin-yoku), and small natural forests that can grow anywhere could reinforce such practices and activities.
Unlike tree plantations grown for timber, the Miyawaki method prioritizes the growth of rich forests using native species, attracting more biodiversity as microorganisms in the soil, mycelia, and mushrooms, and all sorts of animals find refuge and keep themselves in check there, with no need of human management like pesticides, etc.
As the forests mature, biodiversity takes over: local pollinators like butterflies, bees, beetles, and snails thrive, and even pollution and climate-sensitive amphibians (like salamanders, relatives of the mentioned axolotl) find a new refuge.
Four decades after he began planting tiny natural forests, there were over 1,000 such forests in Japan, India, Malaysia, and elsewhere. When Miyawaki died at 93 on July 16th, 2021, his method had found informed enthusiasts all over the world, eager to show the patches become 30 times denser and 100 times more biodiverse than conventional ones, all achieved by planting saplings of native species close together.
Gardens protected by temples in Ethiopia’s highlands
Interestingly, Japan isn’t the only country where religious practice prevented isolated natural forests from vanishing in areas threatened by urbanization and other causes, from erosion to intensive agriculture and its associated strategy favoring big, homogeneous monoculture stretches of land. Around 35,000 individual church forests survive across the Amhara province in Northern Ethiopia.
Such patches of isolated forests pulled through thanks to the tradition of maintaining a primeval forest (a “garden of Eden”) around churches, providing shelter and regulating climate in the mainly deforested Ethiopian Highlands. Only 4% of the original forests in the area remain intact. Such forests range from 7.4 acres (3 hectares) to 300 hectares (740 acres), with an average of 5 hectares, or 12 acres.
Political instability in the region is preventing serious efforts to preserve the last remaining church forests, as they become the remaining seed banks to guarantee the genetic diversity of native tree species that could bring surprises for science, as aridity and extreme weather demand new adaptation strategies.