Forests of Dune

The release of Denis Villeneuve’s wonderful film of the first half of Frank Herbert’s “Dune” has coincided with the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, but few reviewers have made the connection because the book’s ecological themes are largely absent from the screen version.

I first read “Dune” as a teenager and it strongly appealed to me and my friends as a science fiction parallel to our first love, “The Lord of the Rings”. Invented histories, and languages, and in this case whole planets with landscapes that drive the story. Another world to explore: complete with a map, glossary, and appendices. But whereas Tolkien’s reverence for trees fed my own early love of woodlands, Herbert’s book is almost entirely set on the planet Dune, which has no open water and is almost entirely covered by dry deserts devoid of naturally occurring plant life. Hardly relevant to our experiences here in Century Wood? Oh, yes! But we need to dig beneath the sand a little.

Frank Herbert’s publication of “Dune” in 1965 was the eventual outcome of time he spent in the dunes of Oregon, shown in this photo. As a freelance journalist he was researching a story about the US Department of Agriculture’s attempts to seed the dunes with grass to stop settlements being overwhelmed. They would have been the heroes of his article, but they instead made their way into the dedication of the book: “To the people whose labors go beyond ideas into the realm of ‘real materials’ – to the dry-land ecologists, wherever they may be, in whatever time they work, this effort at prediction is dedicated in humility and admiration.”

I wouldn’t want you thinking that “Dune” is all about people planting hardy grasses. It’s a story about a power struggle between aristocratic ruling houses in a society that is both interstellar and feudal. About how one young man struggles with his destiny and the terrible burden of responsibility that goes with it. There are battles and treachery, force shields and swords (“the slow blade penetrates the shield.”) But the ecology is there still.

One of the supporting characters in the book is the Imperial Planetologist, Dr Liet Kynes, who carries forward his father’s dream of turning the desert planet into a paradise with running water, grasslands, and forests. Like the world here that we have taken for granted. Later in the series of six books we learn that Dune was originally a planet with abundant water but that it was gradually locked up by a non-native invasive species, the sandtrout. So Kynes, father and son, are turning the clock back. It’s almost a rewilding project, but on the grandest possible scale.

Here is Kynes Senior introducing his ideas to the people who live in the deep desert:

“You see in this beauty a dynamic stabilizing effect essential to all life. Its aim is simple: to maintain and produce coordinated patterns of greater and greater diversity. Life improves the closed system’s capacity to sustain life. Life—all life—is in the service of life. Necessary nutrients are made available to life by life in greater and greater richness as the diversity of life increases. The entire landscape comes alive, filled with relationships and relationships within relationships.

The more life there is within a system, the more niches there are for life. Life improves the capacity of the environment to sustain life. Life makes needed nutrients more readily available. It binds more energy into the system through the tremendous chemical interplay from organism to organism.”

There have been some stark examples of nature restoration, reforestation, and rewilding projects which have come unstuck by failing to engage with people and their needs and hopes for the future. In Britain, we increasingly talk about promoting a Wood Culture, where people are involved with a wooded landscape, understand its benefits, and why systems like clear felling, continuous cover, and coppicing all have a place. Kynes set out to do something similar with the desert:

“To the working planetologist, his most important tool is human beings. You must cultivate ecological literacy among the people.”

He needed people to do planting and protect vegetation until it got established, and manage the capture of moisture from the air and then the water courses:

“Our first goal … is grassland provinces. We will start with these mutated poverty grasses. When we have moisture locked in grasslands, we’ll move on to start upland forests, then a few open bodies of water — small at first — and situated along lines of prevailing winds with windtrap moisture precipitators spaced in the lines to recapture what the wind steals.”

Britain’s tree planting goals, motivated by climate change, require something dramatic too but just on the scale of our island. A wholesale return to a much more wooded landscape. Can we do it? Not just on the uplands; not just in Scotland. But in low lying land in England and Wales, where our native broadleaves could flourish again as they did in those ancient, near impassable woodlands that were here when people first settled the island. We’ll have to balance the legitimate needs of farming, and the wildlife that has accumulated in some of the wetlands that formed from the cleared woodland. I believe much is to be gained for nature and ourselves as part of it, in addition to the economics of capturing carbon.

But Kynes gave dire warnings too:

“Beyond a critical point within a finite space, freedom diminishes as numbers increase. This is as true of humans in the finite space of a planetary ecosystem as it is of gas molecules in a sealed flask. The human question is not how many can possibly survive within the system, but what kind of existence is possible for those who do survive.

Men and their works have been a disease on the surface of their planets before now. Nature tends to compensate for diseases, to remove or encapsulate them, to incorporate them into the system in her own way.. The historical system of mutual pillage and extortion stops here … You cannot go on forever stealing what you need without regard to those who come after. The physical qualities of a planet are written into its economic and political record. We have the record in front of us and our course is obvious.”

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