A British Ecological Society Special Interest Group
From Dan Bebber
by Jaboury Ghazoul
Oxford University Press, 2015, 150pp, £7.99.
Jaboury Ghazoul is Professor of Forest Management at ETH Zurich, and for many years was Editor-in-Chief of Biotropica, and is author of the OUP textbook Tropical Rain Forest Ecology, Diversity and Conservation. I heard his plenary lecture at an ATBC meeting a few years ago, and it was a most inspiring talk that made me glad to be an ecologist. I was pleased to have the opportunity of reviewing this new book, particularly as I am a fan of Oxford’s Very Short Introductions, which can be devoured in one go on a longish flight or train journey. In most cases, I read VSI’s on subjects about which I know next to nothing (the Koran, Time, Modern China) so I have no idea whether they represent a balanced, authoritative overview of the subject. In this case, I know at least something about forests so will be able to give a view on whether a VSI is of interest to the those in the field.
The book is written in six sections, covering social and cultural history of forests, the diversity of forests around the world, the evolutionary history of trees and forests, ecological processes of disturbance and succession, ecosystem services and use of forests, and the history of deforestation and potential futures of forests. The first chapter demonstrates that for most cultures around the world, forests play an important spiritual role, and that a connection to The Wild remains even in technologically-based, secular societies. Themes of use and abuse of forests return throughout the book, as expected given that the dominant global trend of the Holocene has been the conversion of forests to agriculture. The chapter mentions most of the important forest myths, although I had hoped the Yggdrasil, the World Ash of Norse mythology, would get a mention. Maybe this is one for a Very Short Introduction to Trees.
Chapter Two considers definitions of forests (varying wildly from 0.01 ha minimum size in Belgium, to 100 ha in Malawi). I really enjoyed the ‘walk through the forests’, where the author describes what we would see if we journeyed around the forests of the world, starting in the Congo Basin, and ending at the edge of the Tundra. The images are clear and I could picture myself standing among the trees. Chapter Three covers the evolution of plants, then the rise of arborescent plants, the origin of the seed, and the rise of the angiosperms. I thought that more could have been written about the immensely important polymer lignin, and also the significance of the seed and the various innovations of the angiosperms, but perhaps that reflects my personal interests and bias. I would also have welcomed a section, somewhere, on the importance of fungi in forests, as mycorrhizae, saprotrophs, pathogens, and endophytes. For example, there is a theory that evolution of lignolytic enzymes in fungal saprotrophs halted coal formation during the Carboniferous, illustrating the global importance of fungi. Likewise, the Box on ‘plants as rock breakers’ doesn’t mention the importance of mycorrhizal fungi in weathering.
Disturbance and succession are described in Chapter 4, with plenty of classic examples to illustrate the processes – Spruce budworm, eucalypt fires, chestnut blight, the Janzen-Connell mechanism, and the regeneration of Eastern White Pine. The chapter is dense with brief nods to important concepts in forest ecology, and a student could probably expand each sentence into an essay. The information density is satisfyingly high, as it is throughout the book. Chapter 5 deals with economic uses and ecosystem services, primarily timber but also NTFPs, carbon sequestration, climate regulation, and the maintenance of biodiversity. The latitudinal gradient in species richness is described, but no explanation given. Finally, the history of deforestation, the potential impact of climate change, and the prospects for future forests are covered. Somewhat ominously, the author concludes that “they might not be the forests that we readily recognize today”.
In summary, I very much enjoyed this book, and the exercise of thinking of things that I would have liked mentioned was part of the fun – there weren’t many of these; Jaboury Ghazoul has packed a huge amount into this slim volume. Reading about favourite examples like the Sook Plain and the Eastern White Pine was like seeing old friends again. I heartily recommend this book to forest ecologists, and suggest that anyone beginning a degree in ecology spend an evening reading it. Somehow it made me want to read Colin Tudge’s The Secret Life of Trees again…now I wonder where that might have got to.