Beetles, Forests and Climates: Introducing Sinead Earley.

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My dissertation, entitled “Beetles, Forests and Climates: Historical and Cultural Geographies of Forest Entomology and Forest Management in British Columbia, Canada,” expresses both my interest in history and my investment in the future of forest practice in the province. As I explore cultural values and meanings embedded within specific managerial paradigms, I aim to complement the prevailing techno-scientific approach to forest management with some socio-cultural storytelling.

I use the most recent and most extensive Dendroctonus ponderosae (mountain pine beetle, or MPB) outbreak to frame my discussion about the history of entomological research in British Columbia. Forest inventories indicate that the outbreak in British Columbia has spread over 16.3 million hectares, resulting in tree mortality for roughly half of the mature Pinus contorta (lodgepole pine) trees in the province. Cumulative estimates of the outbreak, which peaked in 2004, suggest that 675 million cubic meters of pine were killed between 1998 and 2008 (Natural Resources Canada, The State of Canada’s Forests Annual Report, 2010). The social and economic impact of high mortality rates for the most lucrative of commercially harvested tree species in BC’s southern interior is formidable, as are the impacts on global carbon dynamics.

In many ways, the current MPB outbreak has transgressed our notion of ‘natural disturbance’ in which the beetle has always played an important role within forest ecosystems. This transgression, not only of biophysical processes but also of certain conceptualizations in theoretical ecology, is unprecedented. It begs questions of causation that lead me to review historical management practices (fire suppression, silvicultural methods, pest control strategies), our human contributions to a warming globe, as well as the biological characteristics of a bark beetle species.

Exploring the discursive formations of a particular set of socio-cultural forest values will allow for a genealogical understanding of BC’s forests. As Bruce Braun expresses (The Intemperate Rainforest: Nature, Culture and Power on Canada’s West Coast, 2004), the advantage of a genealogical approach “allows us to recognize understandings of the forest – and our interests in the forest – as historical rather than timeless and partial rather than objective.” Historical geographies of the present can be powerful textual tools when trying to grasp at the fissures of a nature-culture dichotomy that continues to spur humans towards profligate modes of resource use. I will attempt to identify the cultural politics and philosophies of nature that have guided entomological research and forest management decisions, using specific paradigm shifts in BC’s forest management – the introduction of the Sopron School of Forestry beginning in 1957, and the MPB outbreak beginning in 1998 – as examples. I am interested to discover what cultural values and meanings (of insects, trees, and forests) are embedded within specific managerial paradigms.

The most effective way to convey the situated and (most often) highly contentious claims to forest knowledge can be achieved by drawing together a wide range of narratives: from the industrial to the personal, from the institutional (educational and governmental) to ecological accounts of forest ecosystem dynamics. Such a highly variegated gathering of narratives calls for a mixed methodological approach. By way of archival materials, government documents (Forest Insect and Disease Surveys, 1952-1985; Royal Commission reports), life history interviews (with foresters, entomological researchers, and industry representatives), and my own autoethnographic recordings, I plan to deliver content that depicts a crafted forest.

A creature of tiny scale – the MPB is on average 6mm in length – is presently implicated in environmental change of global proportions. The choice to connect (or not to connect) such sizable differences in scale is a political query, and is revealing of human attitudes towards social and environmental responsibility. Throughout my life forests have been a primary source of employment, of academic interest, and have always been sites of personal and emotional contemplation. I carry this forest intimacy with me as I work through my doctoral studies, and continue to invest time and creativity towards a publicly engaged dialogue about forest history and environmental ethics.

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