Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson: Skogen. Om trær, folk og 25 000 andre arter (2023)

Conservation biologist Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson is a critically acclaimed author, popularizing biological research with an emphasis on the often-overlooked species diversity constituted by insects and their interrelationships with fungi and dead wood.

One of her previous books, Insektenes planet (2018), sold to 19 countries and is published in English as Extraordinary Insects (2018). Her most recent work Skogen. Om trær, folk og 25 000 andre arter (2023), which is available in an English sample translation entitled Forests: On trees, people, and thousands of other phenomenal species, still has much to say about insects, but is focused on the preferred habitat of the “thousands of phenomenal species” that dwell (mostly) in natural forests. Delving into both biological and cultural knowledge about forests, Skogen is relevant to the work of NaChiLitCul in several ways – not least due to Thygeson’s emphasis on how cultural and natural forces co-create what we think of as “the forest”.   

The volume is structured in a format frequently chosen by writers in the field of critical plant studies – as an herbarium, where each chapter is dedicated to one specific species of plant. Most of the chapters in Skogen are named after trees that are significant in Norwegian forests, represented by birch, spruce, and pine, the three most numerous species of tree in Norway (Thygeson, p. 22), along with aspen, oak, ash, and linden. In addition, the tiny, red listed heather bittergrønn (Chimaphila umbellata) has its own chapter, where the focus is on the significance of species diversity. Distinguishing it structurally from an herbarium is the inclusion of two chapters on fungi, kjuken (Hymenochaetaceae), which furthers the decomposition of dead wood (Thygeson underlines the symbiosis between fungi and trees), and kantarell (Cantharellus cibarius), naming a chapter on forest gathering and medical resources that may be harvested from natural forests.

Ranging broadly, Thygeson discusses among other things how the use of timber for ship building historically took its toll on giant (old) trees, how large quantities of pine was burned in the production of tar to preserve Medieval stave churches, and how the timber industry effected a decimation of 19th century forests, due to new demands such as telegraph poles and a growing demand for paper.

Underlining her attention to language, Thygeson starts out by quoting Norwegian poetry and by discussing etymological definitions of “forest”. Distinguishing between various definitions world-wide, she outlines a main distinction between “forest” understood as determined by “what grows in an area” (land cover) or by “how an area is used” (land use). Asking questions like “May an area be covered by trees and still not be labelled a forest?” (for instance fruit plantations) and “may an area without trees still be a forest?” (we might still call a clear-cut patch of forest “forest”), Thygeson highlights how cultural perspectives shape our understanding of what a forest is, and how diverse the areas labeled “forest” may be (p. 23, the translations are mine).

She returns to these perspectives in the penultimate chapter on “spruce”, where she makes a valuable contribution to the environmental debate by demonstrating how the different understandings of “forest” held by biologists (who value the species diversity only found in old forests) and by the forestry industry (more concerned with the growth rate of trees) can support very different factual statements about the condition of Norwegian forests. Thus, she shows how three very different statements might all be justified: 1) Forests in Norway are steadily increasing. Yes, if by “forest” you mean lumber volume, which has increased in the past few decades due to intensive forest farming. 2) Forests in Norway are declining. Yes, the amount of natural, undisturbed, biodiverse forest has declined. 3) Forests in Norway remain about the same. Yes, the amount of land area covered by trees has remained quite stable (old farmland is reclaimed by forest, while old forest is replaced by forest planting in clear-cut areas). Thus, Thygeson carefully qualifies the readers understanding of both natural and cultural aspects of “forest”.

Lykke Guanio-Uluru 10.01.2024