WHOSE TREES ARE THESE?
A few years ago, I taped a broadcast of National Public Radio's "All Things
Considered" for listening at a more leisurely time later in the day. That
broadcast contained a report by Alan Sapporin on the old-growth timber
controversy. The logger's remark which opens this essay is written exactly
as I heard it Unfortunately, this was neither the first, nor the last, time
that I have heard such a remark. (EP)
"It's here to be harvested, and God put it
on this Earth to do that, and that's the way it is."
For logger Archie Sawyer (not his actual
name), these trees are for him. It is God's will.
"The Earth is the Lord's, and the fullness
thereof," saith the scripture. Not so, says Archie Sawyer, who claims, in
effect, that the Earth is his, and that God gave it to him. Thus it would
seem downright ungrateful, even sacrilegious, for him not to take it.
Too bad for those who follow, to whom he
leaves waste, refuse and desolation.
Just how did those trees get here in the
For hundreds of millions of years, the
internal convection of the Earth's mantle caused the Juan de Fuca plate to
be pushed beneath the western edge of the North American plate. Upon
contacting the intense heat and pressure of the mantle, the descending slab
of oceanic crust released water, gases, and magma, which then rose slowly
toward the surface of the Earth. Over millions of years, these ascending "plutons"
thus formed volcanoes -- the Cascade Range.
Prevailing winds off the Sub-Arctic and
California Currents dropped mist, rain and snow upon the Range, producing
one of the few temperate rain forests in the world.
Over countless millions of years, first the
lichens, then the meadows, the swamps and shrubs, and finally the forest,
accumulated humus to depths whereby cathedral-like forests of unparalleled
magnificence might be nourished and sustained.
Hundreds of millions of years -- from plate,
to mountain, to rock and ash, to lichen, to humus, to forest. All, we are
told, for the benefit of Archie Sawyer and his employers, and with the
subsidized largess of the American taxpayers.
All, we are told, part of God's great plan.
What colossal, cosmic, arrogance!
Under these trees, awaiting Archie's chain
saw, the villages of the Chinook, the Nootka, the Kwatkiutl, were
established and thrived, while the inhabitants thereof were unaware of the
European settlement on the far eastern shores, moving inexorably westward,
ultimately to destroy their cultures. Under these trees which God gave to
Archie, the great Chief Seattle met in council with the elders of his
Snoquamish tribe. Forty years ago, in the shade of God's gift to Archie, I
frolicked with my cousins on a log raft in a mountain pool, while my two
uncles (now long-dead) fished for salmon and trout. Likewise, millions of
our fellow-citizens have experienced in these groves a literal "re-creation"
of their natural senses and souls, away from the sound and fury of our
"civilized" condition. And so might millions more, far into the future -- if
we so permit.
But no, God put these trees here to be
harvested -- all of them, and right now!
No doubt, the ancient citizens of Tarsus
felt much the same way. This once-prosperous city on the coast of Asia Minor
(now Turkey), was ringed by forests of Lebanon cedar. It was a flourishing
Roman city, birthplace and home of Saul, later to be Saint Paul. The
citizens of Tarsus, we may assume, were assured that the Gods gave them the
cedars to use as these citizens saw fit. The citizens saw fit to cut the
timber. Down from the hillsides came the soil, filling the harbor. The hot
and barren hills no longer invited the Mediterranean mists and rain. Soon
thereafter the city was abandoned in ruins, and it has remained so for two
millennia, to this day.
The Gardens of Babylon -- now a desert.
North Africa, once the orchard and granary of the Roman Empire -- another
desert. Next, the Aral Sea, then Amazonia. And what of the cathedral forests
of the Pacific Northwest? If Archie Sawyer and his employers have their way,
these too will go. After all, God gave those trees to Archie and his
Just who do we think we are?
What right has this generation to impoverish
it's successors, far beyond the scope of our reckoning, as the vanished
citizens of Tarsus, Babylon, and Carthage have impoverished the wretched
peasants of Turkey, Iraq and Tunisia?
Some say that we are entitled to confine our
concerns to our own self-interest, and to let the future fend for itself.
"After all," asks the cynic, "what has posterity ever done for me?"
If we so choose, posterity can do a very
great deal for us. Posterity can give us a sense of worth and self-respect.
To be sure, we all desire a secure income
and the basic creature comforts. But do we not also desire an assurance that
the things we care about -- ideas, institutions, and yes, places -- will
endure after our brief personal tenure on this planet? What manner of man or
woman does not wonder, now and then, what succeeding generations might
think, not only of what we have done to this planet, but also what we have
left? Of what value, to himself and others, is a person who is never
troubled by such thoughts? What can our wealth be worth to us, without
self-respect -- without a sense of ourselves as valuable and contributing
parts of a broader and enduring pattern of life and history? "Owning," with
justification, this "sense of self-respect" is also in our "self-interest,"
however difficult it might be to place this asset in the economists'
"Resources" are no simply the stuff we
"take" from the Earth, put to our own use, and then discard. They are also
what we leave to the Earth, or what we "take" with care, leaving "as much
and as good" for our successors.
Plundered resources lead to the ruins and
deserts of Tarsus, Babylon and Carthage. Sustainable resources support
democratic institutions, literacy, the arts, the sciences, records and
memories of our footsteps in mankind's march through history. They also
conserve natural landscapes. Sustainable resources also serve us by granting
us the realization that these institutions and places which enriched our
natural lives will also enrich the lives of our successors, and thus that
these future generations will be comprised of individual that we might
admire, and who will admire us.
Ore and oil, beams and boards -- all these
are resources. But these too are resources: Mountain sheep and brown bear
along the Salmon River in Idaho. The morning mist rising above Thoreau's
Walden Pond. The tang of sagebrush in Edward Abbey's southwestern desert.
Omul and lake seals in the transparent waters of Lake Baikal. The rare
glimpse of the spotted owl in those cathedral forests of the Pacific
Northwest. Redwood and Douglas Fir, standing forever as the result of
tectonic forces, volcanic eruption, lichen, shrub, humus, mist and rain --
and the reverent forbearance and foresight of our generation and it's
successors. And these, paradoxically, remain as "resources" precisely to the
degree that we do nothing to them, other than simply admire them.
Might it not be possible that this too was
why God moved tectonic plates, ocean currents, and prevailing winds to put
these trees on the slopes of the Cascade Range? Or did the Almighty do all
this simply to put a paycheck in Archie Sawyer's pocket, windfall profits in
the annual reports of the timber conglomerates, and exported old-growth logs
in the mills across the Pacific?
A little perspective, please!
Copyright, 1993, by Ernest Partridge