A tree grows on the web

"They took all the trees, put 'em in a tree museum..."

Things haven't quite reached that point just yet (though it could be argued that national parks do serve that role, among others), but there's no denying that the home planet is suffering from the embarrassment of a receding tree line. And while there are many organizations devoted to the end of deforestation and promotion of reforestation, one of the more surprising enterprises to be sponsoring a global awareness campaign on the subject is a multi-national photography giant.

Japan's Fujifilm company has posted an online museum of sorts at Forests Forever.com - and the result could easily lead to planet-wide incidents of tree-hugging.

Tree lovers or not, Forests Forever makes an immediate and arresting first impression on its visitors. This Flash production has one of the longest opening animations I can remember seeing - so long that the designers almost seem to be daring visitors to click on the "Skip" link.

But the visuals that accompany the text (as it trickles onto the screen) are aesthetically beautiful, technically intriguing, and, along with the peaceful accompanying music, might even manage to establish a sense of 'serenity' in viewers before they proceed to the main presentation.

After the intro, Forests presents two main avenues of exploration - a walk through a Forest Gallery, and an exercise in Consciousness raising. The Gallery holds eight interactive exhibitions, each highlighting a unique woodland from locations around the world, with the most recent essay -and the one that automatically loads when you enter the Gallery- exploring the forest that has regrown on the lava coated slopes of Mt. Fuji in Japan. (In addition to two other locations in Japan, the Gallery also features sites in Germany, Costa Rica, New Zealand, and North America.)

The opening image of this first exhibit also grabs the viewer's attention - by fading in to present Mt. Fuji, and then panning down to reveal the forest at its feet. Variations on this effect are used to open all the individual collections. The 'camera' pans up to demonstrate the size of the Laurentian forest as its Fall colors stretch past the horizon, and zooms out to uncover the "Lands of Eternal Jade" on New Zealand.

Each of the dozen or so photographs devoted to each location opens with a somewhat less dramatic bit of animation, but all are uniformly exquisite, demonstrating that at least a few 'magical' forests can still be found around the world. (It must be said, though, that the images aren't as tack sharp as those I've seen with some other high quality Flash presentations - a mildly surprising phenomenon given the fact that Forests is sponsored by a photography icon.)

After the images, each collection has a few Information pages - holding articles written by the photographers, history and ecology of the forest in question (including such items as a lesson in why leaves change color in the Fall), photographer profiles, and a horizontal scroll of the images featured - with captions and credits.

To move from one essay to the next, surfers can either select from a vertical index, or close the index and use their mouse to move around a world map. (Coordinating screen movements to mouse input isn't unlike trying to get a firm grip on Teflon, but each forest feature pops up as soon as your pointer is in the vicinity, so precise feedback isn't essential.) An abundance of greyed-out and inactive dots on the map also leads one to believe that more exhibits are to be added as time passes.

Consciousness presents a series of essays on the topics of "History" and "Nature." History traces developments from the first signs of life on the planet to the present day (the last section providing a very graphic demonstration of deforestation in Bolivia via some time-lapse satellite imagery). Vegetation clarifies such points as the differences between temperate and tropical, desert and savannah. Again, greyed-out links (with the titles, "Issues" and "Contribution") would seem to indicate further content in the future.)

A few additional features include essays by such friends to the cause as the President of the Earth Policy Institute and the Founding Director of the Green Map System, and the ability to send a very leafy musical e-card. A Navigation Bar that appears at the bottom of the screen when it senses the mouse pointer in the vicinity permits direct movement between the site's main sections.

From that opening animation to until you walk out into the final clearing, this site will slow...you...down. Not necessarily in the context of especially rich content (though a slow connection or graphics processor will carry at least some penalty - the panning was a bit jumpy on my old desktop), but in the way the presentation itself is designed. Images fade in and out, and gradually come into focus rather than snapping from one shot to the next. The music is minimalist and tranquil, and even the Information pages move gently onto the screen.

If you're thinking of dropping in, having a quick look around and popping back out again, it's just not going to happen. Wait until you've got some time, or need a break - you should never rush through a museum.

Forests Forever can be found at http://www.forests-forever.com/.

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