by Susan Leopold, PhD
Nearly twenty-one years had passed since I had cast my wish at Kanya kamayi into the visual well of both the sun setting and moon rising at the tip of southern India. The next place I landed after my pilgrimage travel adventure was Malaysia. Back then no one had cell phones, my Nikon camera used film, and backpackers relied on guidebooks and talked to strangers to navigate unknown terrain. It was a flyer at a hostel in Penang that would lead me on an ethnobotanical trip to the Malaysian rainforest to visit a community of Orang Asli. This opportunity was with a guide who was a Malay linguist and anthropologist. We would go where the wild elephants roamed the rainforest, along with mouse deer, millions of tiny leaches and stay in the forest as guests of the talented nose flute players and dance with them on bamboo platforms that bounced like a trampoline into the night. Now I had returned with a smart phone in hand as my digital camera and operative guidebook. Once I landed a reality check set in, I saw a landscape that was once forest now converted to a sea of palm plantations—unsustainable farming practices resulting in erosion of the mountains, population explosion, and the expansion of the sleepy town of Penang into a metropolis city.
My journey back to Malaysia seemed like opening a personal time capsule, but it is nothing compared to the long journey of how what has been claimed to be the oldest rainforest on the planet came into being. Estimated to have been in existence for more than 130 million years it is an ancient rainforest kin to the Daintree Rainforest in Australia. Upon arriving we traveled by bus and then by boat up river into Tamara Nagara. Here we climbed a gigantic Koompasia excels, a towering tree with large buttress and smooth bark known for the wild honeybees (Apis dorsata) that make their nests high in its branches. The Tualang Honey, as it is called, is highly valued and symbolizes the sweet interconnected journey into the living pulse of the rainforest. Tamara Nagara is Malay and literally translates into National Park. According to the World Wildlife Fund, from 1983-2003 4.9 million hectares of forest were lost due to deforestation in Malaysia. Without these fragments of “parks” humanity could have wiped out 130 million years of life in just a few 100 years of deforestation fueled by irresponsible land use practices. It’s hard to really wrap one’s head around the rate of deforestation and the impact to biodiversity, since numbers cannot quantify what has been destroyed. Its something you feel deep in your heart that is undeniable.
The connection between palm oil and coal extraction, feeding off each other
As we drove past the barren landscape that was once forest, watching it burn and then be re-graded for roads and palm plantations, I thought of how coal is the fire that fuels the factories, and the palm oil is the main ingredient in these factory products. From nutella to shampoo, palm oil is the cheap filler ingredient in everything, and coal/fossil fuels feed the never-ending production of material matter that fills the market place. It’s practically impossible for anyone to avoid these two cancers on the planet, yet we seek to find a balance between habitat destruction and industrial demands of resources. Perhaps they felt so intricately linked because of my personal connection to witnessing the devastation of mountaintop removal on my drive to the United Plant Savers Botanical Sanctuary through southern and western Virginia and Ohio. Then to arrive in Malaysia having heard of the deforestation issues and palm plantations, but to witness it was true devastation on such a scale it tore my heart apart.
Merging my passion for plants and a deep love for tree climbing, I set out on this personal journey to climb a tree that had been measured as the tallest tropical tree, Shorea faguetiana of the Dipterocarpecea family reported to be over 260 feet tall. My personal intention was to connect with a tree so magical that it could renew my sense of place in my own life. The Dipterocarps are the gentle giants of the tropical rainforests of Asia; growing straight like tulip poplars and then branching like broccoli at the crown makes them ideal for timber. Tragically the diptocarp tropical forests are also the hot spot of deforestation and thus all the species that call this forest home are in peril. These trees are windows into the past—they are storytellers of Gondwana and are our ancestral beings, and I was on a quest to meet one individual magnificent Shorea.
Dipterocarpaceae (Latin for two-winged fruit) has a wonderful spin as it circles and falls to the forest floor. The two-winged flyer took on a more symbolic connection, the fruit representing the once super continent of Gondwana and the two wings representing the dipterocarps still found in South America and the ones that now flourish in tropical Asia. Going back to the super continent of Gondwana, the dipterocarps are thought to have arrived an estimated 45 million years ago, when a moist corridor between India and Southeast Asia resulted in a major influx of plants with Gondwana affinities, such as tree ferns, arums, orchids, lychophytes, and hornwarts.
After this arrival the dipterocarps underwent a massive evolutionary radiation that resulted in the explosion of biological diversity within this family of trees that is unlike any other family of trees, with over 500 documented species throughout Southeast Asia. The rainforests of Asia are unique in this respect, and we have no real understanding of how and why the dipterocarps came to be the diverse dominating giants of the Asian tropics, just observational theories. Living dipterocarps are spread over the tropical belt of three continents of Asia, Africa and South America but in Asia they dominate with diversity, and the ecosystems reflect their strength.
Just as the coal and the palm oil seemed intricately connected so are the oaks and the dipterocarps
I sat at the base of the tallest giant tropical tree reading several scientific papers downloaded on to my iPhone. Amazed at what I was reading and that I could be in Malaysian Borneo with better and cheaper connectivity to the web than from my mountain home in Virginia near Washington DC., I sat on the forest floor among the centipedes and reflected on the irony of our modern world and the knowledge of others at my fingertips. I was reading about the complexity and similarity of the oak/Fagaceae forests of my home to the mighty dipterocarps. The mycorrhizea are the real links in the mutualistic relationship between the roots and fungi in which plants receive minerals and water from the fungus in exchange for carbohydrates. Almost all plants have mycorrhizal connections but unlike most other rainforests trees, dipterocarps are ectomycorrhizal trees, and their seedlings are linked by a network of fungal hyphae that transfer nutrients from decaying organic matter to seedlings. As soon as the two winged seed germinates they can instantly plug into the existing resources from its nearby parent/mother tree. What is mind blowing is that this is the same fungal association that occurs in the Fagaceae family.
It is striking to see the connection of how trees with ectomycorrhizae have thus chosen the evolutionary strategy of mass fruiting at multiple year intervals, satiating seed predators and ensuring a large genetic seed bank with its abundant seedlings.
These wise ancient trees have chosen a unique path to reproduction via synchronizing a massive flowering event that will happen “randomly” every 2-7 years. This prevents animals from going from tree to tree for an annual food source, and it allows for mass cross pollination resulting in a successful seed bank for the future. The tree puts so much energy into making this mast year happen when the time is just right that it will stop growing during this phenomenon. These seedlings then form a mass colonization of the forest floor around the mother tree and the ectomycorrhizae connection sustains these seedlings. Equipped to live as small understory herbs for 15 plus years, they await the opportunity to shoot up as trees when the conditions of sunlight stimulate a massive growth spurt. The dipterocarps are essentially a unique hybrid taking in strategies associated with temperate forests such as the oaks with the mass fruiting of acorns but in a tropical climate. This is different from the Amazonian tropical forests that I was more familiar with, where trees do not grow as tall, do not live as long, and the forest thrives off of trees that fall over creating light gaps that create regenerative opportunities among a thin layer of soil and a rich canopy above. The forests Asia felt more dark and dank to me then tropical forests of the Americas that I had explored.
I sat there in the living seed bank that formed a carpet below this massive mother tree as ropes were set to be able to climb to the canopy. I became lost in the fungal forest and meditated on the concept of the collective Gaia consciousness held in the seed bank waiting for the right conditions for one seedling to become a tree. The role of fungi is that they transfer not only sustenance but also intelligence; the scientific study of native fungi has only begun to document the diversity that is found in these forests. At the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia they have a research program to further understand the biology, ecology and identification of dipterocarp mycorrhizae in an effort to develop inoculation for reforestation efforts.
Reaching for the canopy and the resin icicles
Hanging from the rope and making the slow ascent, climbing nearly 200 feet, I finally reached above the first layer of the canopy. It is at this point that I start to sense the trees’ grounded force and what it must be like to be anchored and to serve as a home to so many species. It was at this crowning point in the unfolding of the branches that I saw the resin icicles dripping from the branches suspended in time shimmering in the sunlight. The dipterocarps produce a thick resin that hardens into the most beautiful formations. It was for me a total surprise. In the fungal forest it makes sense that the tree would produce an oily aromatic resin that presumably aids the tree in defense against certain fungi, bacteria, and mammals. The leaves have bitter tasting tannins and are inedible to most, such as the magnificent colugos, leaf eating gliding mammals; the orangutans; and the proboscis monkeys, which are also fond of young leaves, yet do not eat dipterocarps.
Tree climbing on a personal level lifts the heavy darkness that clouds my heart. With each reach to a higher calling my perspective starts to slowly shift, and my senses re-align with thoughts of grounding affirmations. The desire to go up to feel more connected to the earth is the only way to describe why I love tree climbing. It was a high for me to feel relief and yet as I felt this inner peace, I looked out into the distance to see that this tree existed within a small-forested island surrounded by a sea of palm plantations, essentially an island within an island.
How we perceive our relationship with trees is intricately woven into the restoration of our hearts and that of the planet. Andrea Wulf’s new book, The Invention of Nature retells the story of Alexander Von Humboldt’s extraordinary life. He was called “the great apostle” by George Marsh, author of the monumental environmental book, Man and Nature. Humboldt was the visionary who wrote about the deforestation taking place at the hands of colonization through his travels of South America in the late 1700s. In Ecuador he climbed the Chimborazo Volcano and had his vision of plant geography, so phenomenally illustrated and coined “Naturgemalde,” linking global connectivity between plant communities in regards to elevation and relation to the equator. His writings of concepts were critical to our understanding now of Gaia as a living being based on his observations of species survival, keystone plant species in the ecosystem, and human impact on climate change. His writings mentored Darwin, Jefferson, Thoreau, Muir, Simon Bolivar, and so many others. His greatest gift, from my perspective was his ability to connect feeling nature with his heart as he merged science, art, and poetry into a verbal well deep in knowledge and insight. Recent estimations are that we have lost 46% of forest cover since the beginning of human civilization (Pennisi, 2015). E.O Wilson’s latest book, Half Earth: Out Planet’s Fight for Life, interestingly enough calls for setting aside half the earth for wild nature as a solution to combat loss of biodiversity. It’s the tropics and subtropics that support 43% of the forests on the planet, and this is where we see the rapid rise in forest loss. Data is currently being gathered via satellite imagery, so we are able to visualize change like never before. In one study using this technology 2.3 million square kilometers of forest loss were documented from 2000 to 2012 with forest gain of 0.8 million square kilometers at a spatial resolution of 30 meters (Hansen et al., 2013). We are taking down forests in the tropical belt at a rate far greater than it can regenerate.
Non timber forest products
What has been very well documented is that even though dipterocarp timber is the main “value”, it has little economic contribution to local communities. NTFPs from dipterocarps such as nuts, leaves high in tannins, dammar, medicines, resin, and camphor, have a much larger impact on the economies of the rural people and forest dwellers, not to mention the many other edible herbs and ferns, medicinal plants, and ecosystem services of the intact forest. When you compare all of this to the monocrop landscape of palm plantations, it is madness.
There are so many amazing non-profits working hard to educate the global public to curb the deforestation practices, and France has just imposed a first of its kind biodiversity tax on palm oil import as a way to combat the deforestation. Further understanding of NTFPs in the market place is the critical link in my thoughts of how we might sustain local economies, but sadly this has been overlooked in the wake of global demand for palm oil.
On the flight over from Borneo to Penang I began reliving my story in my head like a movie. I was traveling on semester at sea at that time, and we had docked in Penang. As I had just had the most magical few days of my life, I ended up returning just a few weeks later so that I could join the ethnobotanical trip. Penang flourished as a free port under the British East Indian company attracting migrants from all walks of life who brought with them a diversity of languages, cultures, religions, customs, and trades all expressed in the unique architecture and diversity of flavors, colors, and scents. There I was once again walking the same streets on a mission to visit the Goddess of Mercy Temple, to once again pay my respects to Quan Yin, whose name means one who sees and hears the cry from the human world. According to the Chinese legend, she renounced her privilege to enter eternal bliss after having attained Nirvana and chose instead to stay back and help lost souls in the world of suffering. So far from home, yet in the Chinese herb store just down the corner from the temple there was a small pyramid of American ginseng prominently displayed. This brings me full circle to the balance of how we integrate forest products into commerce, how we steward wild medicine, and how we reverse the trend of deforestation. “In wildness is the preservation of the world”, Thoreau stated in1851. Just a few months after Humboldt’s death, he proclaimed that every town should have a forest of several hundred acres “inalienable forever”. This one mighty Shorea is holding down her island of biodiversity in the hope of repopulating her kind if we can restore our hearts and shift the paradigm of how humanity interacts with the forests of the future.
Susan Leopold, PhD is an ethnobotanist and passionate defender of biodiversity. She is the Executive Director of United Plant Savers and Director of Sacred Seeds. She serves on the Board of Botanical Dimensions and Center for Sustainable Economy, and she is a co-founder of the Medicines from the Edge Conference. She is a proud member of the Patawomeck Indian Tribe of Virginia. She lives on and manages a productive farm with her three children in Virginia, where she raises goats, peacocks, and herbs.
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Hansen et al. 2013. High-Resolution Global Maps of 21st-Century Forest Cover Change. Science 15 Nov 2013:Vol. 342, Issue 6160, pp. 850-853 DOI: 10.1126/science.1244693.
Pennisi, E. 2015; Earth Home to 3 Trillion Trees, Half as Many When Human Civilation Arose http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2015/09/earth-home-3-trillion-trees-half-many-when-human-civilization-arose