During the global climate negotiations, COP 26 in Glasgow, Scotland we share one way that our community in Plum Village Monastery, France is taking action to contribute to the solutions in this time of climate and ecological emergencies.
We offer an update from Mick McEvoy who alongside manages the regenerative agricultural Happy Farm project.
Helping Nature Heal
Alongside managing the Happy Farm, I serve alongside a team of my Monastic Brothers in Upper Hamlet to care for the land in our Hamlet. In the last few years, Upper Hamlet has purchased approximately 47 acres of what was previously agricultural land and smaller portions that are beautiful native deciduous forests that were neighboring our existing property.
This agricultural land was tired. The soil stressed. It was arable land and cultivated each year by neighboring farmers in an annual rotation- producing wheat one year, the next sunflowers for oil, the next maize for animal feed. In Europe, there has historically been an overproduction of these crops due to agricultural policies. The community met in 2019 and agreed a plan to manage these sizeable new lands. Together we had the aspiration to help the land heal. To regenerate, to transform. We will rewild this land. We know that we are in the midst of a series of emergencies: climate, ecological and social. Together as a community, we wished to take concrete action on home soil, here in Plum Village to contribute to cooling the flames of these emergencies as the great unraveling unfolds before us.
Already in Plum Village, we are blessed with beautiful and significant amounts of intact, ecologically diverse native, deciduous forests with oak as the apex species. We all know in this era of huge global deforestation the more trees the better, but recently climate science has proven that trees can make a huge impact on reducing carbon emissions globally. With the acquisition of this new land, we had the opportunity to help. The great bodhisattva vow declares that we will aspire to bring happiness to all beings. So our efforts to rewild and regenerate huge amounts of native oak forest are not just to contribute to the reduction of carbon emissions but are concrete action to act in the face of this ecological emergency also.
Recently with many hands and much hard, loving, joyful (at times!) and sweaty work, we completed the construction of a new solar-powered electric fence to keep the wild deer off a portion of this land. This land that is fenced will rewild. It will go through the natural processes of regeneration, transformation, and healing and the final ecological and apex ecological niche will be a native deciduous forest. The deer graze off a significant amount of new natural regeneration and slow the process of reforesting significantly so together we decided to fence them out of this land. The aim is for the native, broadleaf forest to naturally regenerate itself. This is very possible and the rate of natural regeneration of native forests in this region of France is very fast. The area we have fenced is 10 acres or 4 hectares and nearly 2km of fencing. The fencing is temporary and will stay up for no more than 10 years.
This method is known as natural forest regeneration. Distinct from active tree-planting, trees are allowed to grow back spontaneously, or with limited human intervention, on land where the original forest cover had been cleared for uses such as agriculture. Trees grow from seeds blown in by the wind, carried there by animals or birds (such as the native ‘Jay’), or from plant parts such as stems, leaves, or roots. For this reason, the greatest potential for natural regeneration is in areas next to existing forests which we are lucky to be surrounded by. We have majestic oak, ash, hornbeam, elm, poplar, willow, hawthorn, field maple, blackthorn, wild apple, and many more woodland species. It does not necessarily involve sitting back and letting nature take its course, some intervention is needed and in our case, it is removing grazing animals, namely the wild deer. This is needed to give natural processes a kickstart. This is known as assisted natural regeneration. Forest restoration is fundamentally natural, and humans can assist it, but ultimately it should be governed by natural processes.
By working together with the earth in this manner the tree species will choose where they wish to grow and in which communities and relationships. Like us humans living in Plum Village, they will find and create harmony with each other. As nature creates the community some fantastic benefits will occur. We will not need to water, prune or weed the trees. Naturally regenerated forests and trees are super resilient to drought and to pests and diseases, much more so than trees planted by humans. Recent research has shown that natural regeneration can potentially absorb forty times more carbon than plantations of trees planted by human hands. Young naturally regenerated forests have the capacity to absorb two and a half tonnes of carbon per acre each year from the atmosphere. So potentially our new forest can sequester twenty-five tonnes of carbon a year. But as I shared we do this not just for carbon; by rewilding we are creating habitat, literally meaning home. We are in the middle of a mass extinction of living beings caused by mankind. By rewilding, we are creating home for countless living beings.
In future years we may plant very small numbers of native trees with our community and guests during deep ecology workshops and retreats but it will be very small numbers.
Now after our intervention with the deer fence our role as human beings is to get out of the way and let Mother Earth regenerate, heal and transform the land. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches us that, “Doing nothing is doing something”.
Upper Hamlet: A Wildlife Reserve
Apart from this new rewilding endeavor, it is important to share that Upper Hamlet, Plum Village is of course a monastery and a mindfulness retreat centre, but it is also essentially a huge wildlife reserve. The total land area of Upper Hamlet is 76 hectares, that’s 76,000m2 or 187 acres. Of that land, 41% is already native oak forests. 19% is pine forests, only 8% is our built environment and of that, a lot is beautiful gardens, 7% is open water habitats such as West Lake which is home to the elegant and elusive bird the kingfisher and sidewinding grass snakes who swim to feed on the spring tadpoles. Finally, we have the last 25% which is our new 47 acres. This will rewild, regenerate, transform and heal. We act for our Mother Earth and all species who are all our siblings.
The Ecological Emergency is not Separate from the Social Emergency
In terms of the social emergency we face as a human species we observe that the rewilding of these lands in Plum Village by our community can help in a significant way for those who will be able to spend time here out on these lands. Many of us have lifestyles and routines that have disconnected, removed, and fractured us from the natural world. Even more chronic is the disconnect in our minds and bodies from the reality that we humans are part of this natural world. Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that “we are the earth that carries us”. Our modern society has put such emphasis on the cultivation of the self and the needs of that self that we forget we are the earth, we are the sky. Simply by providing access to these lands for the humans in our community and the humans who come to practice with us in Plum Village by creating and maintaining beautiful pathways through these lands as they regenerate, heal, and rewild allows for a deep, intimate, and healing reconnection with our Mother Earth and the reality that we are the earth. This experience has the radical potential for all of us to dissolve the notion of a separate self and come home to our cosmic bodies by being in and of the natural world. This is the panacea for our social disconnection.