“The forest helps us to live”

“The forest helps us to live”

Here we are at the foot of Quercus, a young 240-year-old oak, hero of the book that made you famous. How did you meet each-other ?

I was 15 years old, I was going through a difficult adolescence and to escape from my public housing project in Dreux (Eure-et-Loir), I took long bike rides to the Rambouillet forest (Yvelines). One day, on the way back, the chain on my bike jumped, a few meters from here. Forced to stop… I raised my head and, for the first time in months, I felt calm. I went back and looked for a tree to rest on.

After trying a beech tree, I finally sat there, against the wide base of the Quercus trunk (2). With my back to the path, no one saw me, I was peaceful. This is how it all started. Little by little, we got to know each other, he and I. When I had this little bike problem, I don't know if I felt the call of this corner of the forest or of the oak tree, but this event marked the beginning of a rebirth for me.

A rebirth?

Yes, because from that day on, I became aware of my environment and the place I could take in it. Many adolescents question the meaning of their life, the job they should do. A few months after this meeting, when I entered high school, I knew that I wanted to join the National Forestry Office (ONF). Selfishly, I told myself: from the inside, I could protect my tree. Little by little, this call led me to become interested in the entire forest, in the functioning of its ecosystem. It has become both a refuge and a job.

What role does this tree play for you today?

He accompanies me in all the important reflections that I carry out. Every time I came here with the strongest emotions, something happened. What I am going to say is very intimate. I had a colleague and friend with whom I shared a great deal of understanding about the forest. His favorite animal was the deer. This friend battled pancreatic cancer. His death in August 2022 plunged me into great sadness and anger. I came to the foot of Quercus to grieve. Arriving before dawn, after an hour I saw a deer approaching with velvet steps. It's been years since I've seen one there. He looked me straight in the eye and walked away. A deer, his favorite animal, at a time when I was grieving… It shook me. The next day, at the same time, the deer came back, sat down between two beech trees, and stared straight into my eyes again while ruminating. During the day, the sadness and anger were gone. The next day, at the same time, I was there, but I didn't see him again.

Does this intimate contact with nature create a spiritual journey for you?

What is certain is that the world of the forest and the living things that inhabit it is part of my cultural system. It nourishes my choices, my way of living with my family and relating to other humans. The experience with this deer leads me to consider that death is not an end in itself. Here I meditate, and there is always something happening in me and around me.

You are a scientist, specialist in forest biodiversity. Doesn’t your subjective approach discredit you among your peers?

When the book on Quercus was published in 2021 (3), I especially received a lot of thanks for agreeing to reveal myself. Several foresters wrote to me confiding that they too had a companion tree. One of them had hidden it from his family for forty years! One Sunday lunchtime, during coffee time, he put my book on the living room table and offered to show “his” tree. It was a surprise for his wife and two daughters. I have received many stories like this.

At the same time as Quercus, you discovered the world of bats, of which you are today an expert. What role do they play?

These small mammals are located at the very top of the food chain. Take the Bechstein mouse: it weighs barely 10 g and lives in colonies in tree trunks. It is capable of eating 250 green oak moth caterpillars per night. Its role in pest control is considerable. Also take the bark beetles which attack trees, especially in times of drought. These small insects have very rapid life cycles. Their proliferation may force us, as foresters, to intervene, but there is always a little left. And there, bats, particularly pipistrelles, are capable of providing very effective secondary control, to prevent expansion after initial treatment by humans. That said, I don't really like to use the “service” that an animal provides to an ecosystem. Bats are simply part of the forest, and the mere fact that they exist justifies our need to take care of them.

Demand for wood is increasing around the world and particularly in France. Can we really reconcile wood production and preservation of biodiversity?

In the short term, some may see the preservation of biodiversity as an economic sacrifice, but in the long term, the benefit is obvious. For example, there are only advantages to letting bats live in the forest, while preserving the few trees where they roost. They eat the caterpillars, which helps the trees keep their foliage, which in turn allows the growth of wood… hence an increase in the overall productivity of the forest.

In To be an oak, you write that “the forest can be a model for our societies”…

By sitting at the foot of Quercus and observing the different beings that inhabit the forest, I saw all the values ​​that underpin our society. Mutual aid goes very far. This can go as far as self-sacrifice in the case of bats, without territorial or warlike desire. The females live in colonies and raise their single offspring in “crèches”. When conditions are too bad, some give up breeding and help raise the young, even if it means staying permanently in the roost without feeding. Furthermore, all living people in the forest are aware of the presence of others. We are not afraid of otherness in the forest.

What do you mean?

A chickadee knows that a great spotted woodpecker can bore a hole that it will need at some point for nesting. When the jay plunders the seeds found by the blackbird, it may seem unfair! But if the blackbird had time to find these seeds, it is because the jay provided surveillance for the entire group. He did it for the collective, in the rounds formed by the birds, and therefore for species other than his own. This mutual assistance makes it possible to optimize energy expenditure. Beyond this observation, frequenting the forest allows you to cultivate openness to others. By working with her assiduously, I have personally evolved in my attention to living things, humans and non-humans.

1) Until May 26, fetedelanature.com

2) Latin name of the oak used by Laurent Tillon to name this particular tree.

3) To be an oak tree. Under the bark of Quercus, Ed. Actes Sud, 320 p. ; €23.

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