Thursday, January 19, 2012

Clear Cutting a Forest With My Liberal Friends

I've spent a fair amount of time in the Pacific Northwest in recent years. I travel there to sing my songs, and sometimes just to go. Five or six years ago, I drove to Portland with my son, Glen, and then we meandered through Eastern Oregon, eventually working our way through some of Idaho, and a lot of Nevada before heading home in the shadow of the Sierras. Along the way we saw plenty of wooded hillsides, and a good number that had been clear-cut. Some had been partially re-forested. Some were fully covered in young trees. And some looked plucked and beaten, like gruesome misfits from a Tim Burton movie. I almost wanted to cry, particularly with the memory of untouched and treasured redwood forests we'd passed through a couple days earlier still fresh in mind.

And as we drove later through the Eastern Oregonian plains, and rolled along past tree farms miles on a side, planted in rows as straight as a surveyor's gaze, spaced for ease of harvest and for the prudent use of land and water, I felt proud of us all. This is clearly the answer. Wood and paper are needed, and here was a way to get it that would allow forests to stand.

Do you remember those years? Do you remember Dave Foreman and the Earth First! crew driving spikes into trees so that sending one through a saw mill would present more threat to blades and sawyers than it was worth. I remember bulldozers and tractors torched, and all manor of quasi-military action on behalf of those big defenseless trees. And I do remember being conflicted, wanting those forests to go on unmolested for another thousand years ... yet knowing that the roof over my head was made of trees, and that the livelihoods of good, honest people were made of cutting them down.

It was a rough time, and it was easy to be swept up in the passions on either side. But there were cooler heads at work. People who knew that the way through to a sustainable lumber industry would not be made by saboteurs. It was necessary to communicate, and to find solutions that each side could live with. The timber industry is not perfect, but much progress has been made. It says something that the term, "Clear Cutting" has a shameful ring to it.

And so it goes. Somebody, some bunch of somebodies pushes too hard and recklessly in pursuit of something that is clearly a good thing for many. And then, after the push reaches siege level, another group arises to fight them off. And this group does not have the resources to match their passions. They fight with whatever they have, and the rules be damned. Sometimes these desperate souls are called heroes, and sometimes they are called terrorists.

I'd like to call a memory up in the minds of my environmentalist friends. I'd like for you to remember the last time you walked in deep shade through a virgin forest, the ground spongy beneath your feet, surrounded by a majesty so overwhelming that it took your breath away. At a moment like that, words fail us. We know in our deepest reaches that these trees must be preserved. If they serve no purpose but the inspirational, they must be here when anyone comes looking; as testament to the unbelievable good fortune that is our planet. Perhaps we can't explain why it is that a thousand-year-old tree is more important than a fifty-year-old tree. That a tree already growing when Europe was swept by plague, when Galileo first focused on the rings of Saturn ... ought to continue living. Why? Maybe if you have to ask, you'll never fully know. But we know, don't we?

Now I want to suggest that we modern liberal types have, for forty years, been doing our own clear-cutting. What? That's right. In our march forward, as we re-design society according to the theories of academics and whichever trend catches our fancy, we have taken a chain-saw to traditions that have stood sturdy as trees for numberless generations.

Somewhere, right now, as you read this, one of your fellow humans is as enraptured as you were on that day. She reads a passage from a worn book, and feels a connection to the eternal. She stands in a hushed sanctuary bathed in filtered light not unlike that in your forest and thanks God for her life. She lights a candle and leaves reverently, her bible snug beneath an arm, and her heart full. She can't fully articulate what she feels. But to her it is real. It is the comfort, the lifeline of a tradition that reaches back to before your tree was born in a rotting pine-cone. She doesn't think it. She knows it. And the preservation of it is as crucial as saving the environment is to you and I.

We know that all of nature's systems are inter-linked and cross-dependent, and that only a fool would remove pieces of it willy nilly. We re-cycle, and eat organic, and worry that a housing development might be the last straw for a tiny fish or field mouse. It's not hard for us to imagine the influence of a single mis-step rippling through the environment and causing disasters we can't foresee. We know that ours is a fragile world, in a delicate balance not to be taken lightly. This isn't hysteria to us, as some on the right would have it, this is doing the hard thing so that generations we will never know might have what we have.

She thinks that way too. She believes that all of society's workings are just like an eco-system, each dependant on the others and all guided by higher principles. She thinks that men are fatally flawed, and that only a carefully tended system of moral codes and traditions can keep his number stabilized. She knows that thousands of years have gone into constructing the lattice of disciplines upon which rests the bearing vine of civilization. To her the rituals and customs that we find quaint, are not to be taken any more lightly than an endangered species. Who can know for sure what destroying any part of it will do in the long run? You think people are naturally good? She doesn't. You think men will continue to act morally once God is buried and the rules of behavior left to the whim of voters and judges appointed for political gain? When nothing is sacred but the physical world? She'd like not to risk it.

But we're good people we say. We don't need myths and invisible gods to guide us. We treat each other well. We're the good guys.

Sure. But what forces shaped the society from which we sprung full of world-changing brilliance? Not forces that we ourselves put into play. Would we be free without them? Would we even be here without them? Maybe the root-system would serve as metaphor. And maybe a more respectful attitude might serve us all.

Dave Morrison, January 17, 2012

1 comment:

  1. Great post Dave. The not too distant growling of chainsaws and other weapons of oppression and destruction can be heard wherever you venture these days. A good, wide ranging knowledge of history and an ability to respect others and see the world though their the eyes is what it is going to take to navigate the stormy seas of change that we are heading into. The world we know may soon come crashing down around us and we will need all the love and wisdom we can muster to pick up the important pieces and reassemble them into workable lifeboats that will hopefully deliver us safe passage to a new world.