People have lived in a close, dependent relationship with the forest ever since first settling in the Bregenzerwald. The steep mountain forests sheltered the valley and provided wood for heating and building houses. Traditionally, typical Bregenzerwald houses have always been built largely from wood and then covered with wooden shingles. Spruce, silver fir, copper beech, sycamore maple and ash are the predominant tree species in this region, which is home to an incredible density of timber harvesting and processing companies. The quality of the local wood craftsmanship is known far and wide and has been fostered, refined and passed on for centuries. In other words, the region that is named for its forest truly lives up to its name. Many of us spend a lot of time in the forest, working in and with it, seeking relaxation or even fearing it.
But what exactly is a forest? How do forests thrive and how do we profit from them? How can we learn to read its signs, protect its treasures and make use of all it has to offer? Forests are probably the most complex ecosystems in the world. Ecologists speak of an organism where everything has a role to play. The forest is home to countless forms of life. Each plays its part and is dependent on others as well. As a consequence, nothing in the forest is wasted and everything is renewed and has a purpose. In fact, forests are incredible recycling specialists from whom we can truly learn so much. The secret of the forest begins on the forest floor where the roots of trees often extend metres deep and outward towards the nearest trees. At the lowest level, fungi form a vast system of mycelia in kilometre-long threads, are symbiotically connecting the roots of the trees. Millions of tiny creatures live here where nutrients are exchanged and information is sent. In fact, there are more microorganisms in just a handful of forest soil than there are people on the planet.
Forest trees communicate via their root ends and through exhalation. Photosynthesis converts CO2 into oxygen and nutrient-rich sugars. In the process, messenger substances known as terpenes are released. These scent molecules are emitted by leaves and needles; this is how trees of the same species communicate with each other. To date, over 200 different signalling substances have been analysed. These signals can be roughly equated with words in our language. Taking all this into account, trees are therefore not the silent, taciturn giants we often consider them to be. Breathing in terpenes is good for human visitors within the forest. The messenger substances enter our body via the respiratory tract and through our skin and measurably change our blood count. The longer we stay in the forest, the better we feel.
While allergens and cholesterol levels decrease, killer cells and white blood cells increase! All of this happens more or less incidentally, without us having to exert ourselves or do specific exercises. The forest helps to keep us healthy while strengthening us with its messenger substances. While exploring natural forests, we breathe in the best air on Earth. Nowhere else is there more oxygen, nor are fine dusts so strongly absorbed by the leaf and needle surfaces. This leaves us with the most pure, fragrant and cool air anywhere. In fact, you couldn’t choose a better environment in which to relax and recover quickly! It’s hard for people to be in a foul mood in forests. It simply doesn’t work. Those who have spent any measure of time in forests will surely agree. After just a few minutes, the pressures of everyday life fade away, worries and problems are brought into wonderful clarity, and one can let go and find inner peace with the help of nature.
Author: Conrad Amber
Issue: Bregenzerwald Travel Magazine – Summer 2023