Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Forests: every Seattle resident loves them, most have spent at least a weekend wandering through them, and some are even lucky enough to work in them. My office is in the wilderness and my coworkers are trees, birds, and beetles. Much of my summers are spent bushwhacking while navigating through unfamiliar forests with nothing but a compass, a distometer, and a hatchet. That isn’t to say I’m wandering the forest purely for enjoyment; on the contrary, I’m a graduate student at the University of Washington and my research in disturbance ecology demands data collected in closed-access forests. Specifically, how tree-killing insects, tree diseases, climate conditions, and forest development may be affecting unusually high tree mortality in the 90,000 acres surrounding the primary source of Seattle’s drinking water: the Cedar River Municipal Watershed.

The process of becoming an ecologist was not a straight line for me. As an undergraduate in Florida, I studied subtropical estuarine and marine environments. The reefs, mangroves, and palmetto forests of Florida are radically different from the Pacific Northwest temperate rainforests which I currently study, yet the scientific principles governing them are the same. Working for the Washington Conservation Corps immediately after moving to the state began my education about local ecosystem structure and function. Now a current Master of Science student, performing my own research has changed my view of forests from a lush landscape with hiking viewpoints and large trees to an infinitely complex mandala of interacting systems.

Collecting data in the field means getting away from humanity and exploring areas only visited by humans once or twice per decade. This presents an unparalleled opportunity not only to discover unique microhabitats, but also to see how they fit into ecosystems at every level in what otherwise looks like a homogenous landscape of endless forest. When I go hiking now, I see so much more depth in the landscape on a scale from the microscopic to the enormous. Tiny systems fit together neatly: each deer contains a microhabitat of gut bacteria breaking down plant matter to provide energy for the brain and several parasites. Each Douglas-fir contains a complex community of symbiotic bacteria and fungi that help it obtain nutrients and photosynthesize. The canopy of a big leaf maple supports a variety of different microhabitats, including mosses, insects, hexapods, lichens, ferns, and algae that never touch the ground. Each teaspoon of soil contains billions of bacteria, plenty of fungal bodies, insects, and worms. There truly is a lot more going on than what you can see from quick glances to the sides of even rarely-traveled trails.

In that respect, I always encourage hikers to try to see the forest for the trees. That is, enjoy the hike for more than just the hike and final viewpoint Instagram. Take in the gestalt of the woods: roll over logs to see what’s underneath them or watch a colony of ants take apart a beetle and bring it back to their nest. Forests are more than just static collections of trees, birds, bugs, and mosses to walk through; they’re dynamic ecosystems that experience growth, disease, die-offs, and reassembly, and are every bit as fragile and essential as coral reefs. Furthermore, I encourage everyone to be a citizen scientist. Take a close look at the forest, then stand back and look at how everything fits together compared to the area two miles away. How is this area different? Are the trees shaped differently? Are there more dead trees? Is it different than it was a year ago? Taking the time to observe nature is the best way to truly appreciate its delicate complexities, and in a time of increasing scientific skepticism in the face of environmental destruction, nature needs all the appreciation it can get.




Screen Shot 2017-04-03 at 9.29.38 AM.png

Michael Freeman

Michael Freeman studies the active phenology of the Douglas-fir bark beetle in the context of recent increasing mortality of Douglas-fir in the Puget Sound region. A graduate student at the University of Washington in Seattle, he enjoys exploring the mountains outside the city and arguing about conservation and environmental politics.