I spent most of my life in West Virginia, much of it outdoors. I’ve worked, hunted, and hiked countless miles over its thickly wooded mountains, hollows, and bottomlands until a love for forests is as much a part of me as my bones. West Virginia is the third most forested state in the country, after Maine and New Hampshire, with almost twelve million acres covered with trees--more than 94% of them hardwoods--, and living in, and being constantly surrounded by forests has left them as familiar and necessary for me as fish find the water where they breathe and live.
Then, four years ago, my wife and I moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, where we rented a house in town, a few blocks from my youngest daughter, her husband, and three grandchildren. Charlottesville is an enlightened sort of place, where there is a healthy community focus on art, music, books, politics, and environmental issues. It has curbside recycling, a good transit system, quality parks, and a slew of organizations like Wild Virginia, the Rivanna Conservation Society, the Rivanna Master Naturalists, Tree Stewards, the Jefferson Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society, a strong Sierra Club chapter, and the Southern Environmental Law Center. If I was going to be transplanted in a city, I consoled myself, this was one where I might find a niche where I could take root.
Despite Charlottesville’s cultural attractions and environmental inclinations, however, I struggled with the transition to city life--a fish out of forest, so to speak. It helped when I learned that I could access the Rivanna Trail, a near-continuous loop of almost twenty miles that circles the city, just by walking a few blocks down to the river from our house, and I began to walk portions on an almost-daily basis. Then I discovered Ivy Creek, a 215-acre natural area on the outskirts of town, with more than seven miles of trails through a variety of habitats--from a marsh flat to open fields to shady coves and upland woodlands-- and its sister reserve, Ragged Mt. Natural Area, 980 acres of rugged, somewhat eroded forest wrapped around the Ragged Mt. Reservoir. I bought a lifetime pass to Shenandoah National Park, which runs along the ridge tops of the mountains to the west. And I began to explore George Washington National Forest, the largest national forest in the entire eastern part of the United States, which was less than a two-hour drive away. I signed up for a Master Naturalist training class, and through that group I not only learned a great deal and formed new friendships, but became involved in trail building in county parks; an inventory of all the plants at Ivy Creek; a search for remnant American Chestnuts along the Appalachian Trail; and a research project to recover the history of human interaction with the Landmark Forest at James Madison’s estate, Montpelier. I began to do nature photography, lead hikes, teach tree identification, and in a variety of ways satisfy my need to be immersed in trees and forests.
As fulfilling as much of this was, it was also accompanied by a growing uneasiness. Almost overnight, it seemed, stands of hemlocks in Shenandoah National Park died and were left in gray array, as if they were their own sad monuments. I began to spot purple boxes in trees along the roadsides, meant to monitor the emerald ash borer’s progress as it sweeps southward, wiping out ash as it goes. Whenever I headed north of town on Rt. 29 to pick up someone at the airport or visit friends, I saw new parcels of forest being bulldozed and graded for commercial and housing developments. Concerns about the Charlottesville area’s long-term water supply led to the approval of a plan to raise the height of the dam at the Ragged Mt. reservoir by thirty feet, an act which would drown a significant portion of the current natural area and forest. The Forest Service proposed a management plan for the George Washington National Forest that leaves half of the forest open for full-scale logging, and much of the rest of the forest vulnerable at some level. Back in West Virginia as well as in southern Virginia and eastern Kentucky, coal companies were wiping out forests and gouging out the land beneath them to get at the coal buried beneath--thousands of square miles of forests. This was all happening within the range of my own experience--things I was seeing myself in my own surroundings.
|Ragged Mountain Natural Area~ part of area to be lost with new dam|
At that point, with a growing awareness that forests were in serious trouble, I set out to educate myself on the multiple threats facing Earth’s forests. That eventually led to my developing a presentation on the future of forests for naturalist groups and others interested. The presentation was far too ambitious--not out of hubris, but from a deep concern, a hungry curiosity, and my habitual tendency to underestimate a task going in. I kept reading, studying, scouring the Internet, talking with folks, and photographing. Eventually I had so many slides, sprawling over so many issues, that I had to admit the material wouldn’t fit into the presentation format. A book was its more natural home.
With a book, I found myself forced to think more deeply about the “why” of so many of the threats. Belatedly, I came to understand what a bizarre task I had set for myself: to chronicle, in sober detail and analysis, the acts of a civilization that seems to have gone mad. Claims that civilization has gone bonkers are common enough these days, and are often levied--in tones ranging from humor to hysteria--against the world for failing to conform to the complainer’s sense of the way our culture should operate. My take is more clinical--that the way we treat forests seems to exhibit a genuine detachment from reality, and a pattern of uncontrollable impulsive and self-destructive behavior. We know about addiction in my family; I recognize it when I see it.
Which brings up the issue of point of view. I didn’t set out to write a neutral, detached academic study. Nor, on the other hand, did I set out to harangue and harass readers. I’m writing about things I care about deeply, where some of the most important elements in our lives intersect: our surroundings, our values, our behavior, and our future. It’s not only understandable but essential to have views about those things, especially when one of the goals of the book is to encourage us to change our values, our behavior, and--hopefully--our future. I’ve tried to supply data and observations in support of my positions, to be open and reasonable, and to be fair-minded with those who disagree. Sometimes fairness and reasonableness say that anger and stern judgement are called for.
Another “point of view” issue is that I’ve--obviously--written different sections of the book at different times, and have often brought in what is happening in the woods at that season, or in my life, or in the news. That might work smoothly enough if the chapters were laid out in the order they were written. But they aren’t. I hope readers can adapt to the back-and-forth without too much trouble; I’ve inserted dates here and there in the text to help keep people oriented.
A related matter is that, throughout the book, I’ve found myself stuck with an awkward problem about the different ways I use the word “we.” There are multiple “we’s” in here, and hopefully the context makes clear who “we” are. On the one hand, “we” are the rapacious industrial civilization that is chewing up the earth. That “we” includes me. I have to admit, as Thomas Lyon says, that I too am “a working member of the civilization that is ruining the world.” But I am not willing to accept the proposition that political, economic, and military policies determined by soulless corporations and soul-bearing but greedy billionaires represent what I and probably you and “we the people” want and have chosen.
By controlling our political institutions, power- and money-worshipers haul all of us along on a course of mutual destruction. “The interests of the corporation state are to convert all the riches of the earth into dollars,” wrote William O. Douglas. And right now the corporation state is a bulldozer in high gear.
Forests could cope with the fires and floods, the insects and diseases that have always been a part of their lives. But they cannot cope with the multitude of ways in which humans are relentlessly devouring them, degrading them, and altering the very soil, water, and air upon which they depend--and which, in turn, depend upon them. We humans are utterly dependent on forests. They are an irreplaceable keystone for life as our species has known it.
What is the future of forests?
What is the future of our forests? For people who spend time working or walking in forests, and care about them deeply, the question can be an obvious one. But as urbanization eats away at the wild like an unchecked cancer, and as millions of people’s actual experience of forests fades into the “missing information” that Bill McKibben has written about, the question doesn’t even exist for many of us. This despite the reality that forests are an essential element in determining not just the quality of our lives, but the sheer livability of our planetary home. How galling is it that the most prophetic work of the twentieth century may turn out to be a children’s fable? Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, with its story of how deforestation and industrialization make a lovely world unlivable, looks more prescient with each passing day, forty years after its first publication.
It is a truism among naturalists, ecologists, biologists, and many others who look closely at the natural world that “everything is connected.” When an alien plant invades an area, for example, it usually displaces not just one but a host of native species. That in turn impacts the insects that fed on the native species and perhaps pollinated them. Reduction in the numbers of those insects affects not just other flowers in need of pollination, but other insects that prey upon them, and birds that feed on them as well. So it goes, on and on. The effects are not just hierarchical, up and down a chain of being, but also lateral and in every other direction. “An issue is genuine only when it is organically in relation to every other issue,” said Daniel Berrigan. The issue of the future of forests meets that test.
The changes taking place now are on a whole different scale than the invasion of a state park by stilt grass or garlic mustard or Tree of Heaven, however. That difference in scale is a major reason we have so much trouble comprehending what we are doing to our global home. No one sees eighteen million acres of forest disappearing each year.
Interdependence and relationships
As scientists document the changes in local ecosystems already taking place, and attempt to imagine the shape of the world in fifty or a hundred years, their understanding of that connectedness is continually growing. Our awe of nature’s complexity, which is so intricate, so multilayered, and so variable that it cannot be reduced or captured, gives way to alarm as we discover the gaping holes being ripped in the world we have known.
The problem isn’t just an intellectual one. Knowing more doesn’t mean we care more. If we don’t feel the connection, we are disconnected. Yet the connection point we need has been a part of human thought for eons; it is precisely that connection that an industrialized, urbanized, commerce-driven world has lost.
Kierkegaard, Camus, Sartre and other existentialists not only recognized our alienation but exacerbated it. They emphasized the individual, tasked with forging his or her own meaning and purpose in life. Broader social movements have likewise focused more and more tightly on the individual. It is no coincidence that the fastest-growing religions in the U.S. are those which preach full throat on individual salvation and the nuclear family, or that cutthroat capitalism, disdaining social responsibility as well as governmental regulation, has become a sister religion.
We have exalted independence and ignored interdependence. And deep within ourselves, we hunger for more. We intuit that this unrelenting emphasis on our singularity, our isolation, is unreal. It is wrong. This doesn’t apply just to the people around us and the communities we hesitate to acknowledge. Somehow we must recover, on a grand scale, our relationship to the rest of the world around us. To trees as living beings; to forests as living communities; and to all living things--including humans--as relatives, bonded by interdependence, genes, and history. It is not an exaggeration to say that our survival depends on it. “All men are brothers, we like to say, half wishing sometimes in secret it were not true,” wrote Edward Abbey. “ But perhaps it is true. And is the evolutionary line from protozoan to Spinoza any less certain? That may also be true. We are obliged, therefore, to spread the news, painful and bitter though it may be for some to hear, that all living things on earth are kindred.”
And we are kin who share a home. We refer to the place where we humans live as our home. “Where do you call home?” we ask someone we meet, and the answer might be something like, “I live in Charlottesville, in the Piedmont region of Virginia.” But when we speak of where our wild fellow beings live, we refer to their “habitat,” and the vocabulary shift has the effect of separating the human and non-human realities. If we thought of the world around us as a home we share with countless other beings, perhaps we could begin to exercise some of the respect and thoughtfulness called for when we live with others.
Trees are fellow residents of our home, and many aspects of their lives should be readily familiar. Like humans, trees are made up of living cells. They breathe. They drink and eat and metabolize. They have a circulatory system. Like us, they are young, they mature, they age, and they die. Like us, they respond to the world around them--sunshine and rain, the seasons, their neighbors. They are prone to the same “ills of the flesh” from which humans suffer. Accidents break their limbs; diseases afflict them; viruses and bacteria attack them; insects plague them; funguses invade them. Like humans, they can become stressed, with stress lowering their resistance to those pests and infections. Once they come of age, they lead rich and varied sex lives. They are male and female and more. Like us, they have DNA, and as parents, they combine their genes in their offspring, which resemble them but are not identical to them. Like us, they have a predictable life expectancy. Like us, they simultaneously live as individuals and as members of communities. Like us, their growth is affected by both their genes and the conditions of their lives.
Trees aren’t just vital parts of an ecosystem; each tree is an ecosystem, alive with numerous insects that feed and breed in its bark and leaves; with birds that nest and hide and feed and rest there; with mycorrhizal fungi that live symbiotically with its roots; with mammals like squirrels and opossums and raccoons and beaver and black bears that feed on their seeds or fruit, den in them, shelter in them.
Life speaks to life--or at least it does if we are listening. Life attends to life. But when our sense of oneness with other life is muted, trees become nothing more than lumber on the hoof, and forests become “undeveloped” land, waiting for an entrepreneur who sees a chance to make a buck.
A realization that trees are our relatives is a big first step, but it’s not the journey. I remind myself that humans are much more closely related to one another than anyone is to a pine or an oak--and then look at how we treat our close relatives, other human beings. We live in a country which now licenses itself to launch preemptive wars, gives itself the right to torture and kidnap and assassinate people--including its own citizens--, and willingly accepts “collateral damage” in which 90% of those killed by our remotely controlled drone aircraft attacks are women and children. In the U.S. we have the highest incarceration rate in the world, with people routinely consigned to long terms, brutal conditions, and little or no opportunity for real rehabilitation. A woman in the U.S. is ten times more likely to be raped than to die in a car crash, and every 45 seconds someone in the U.S. will be sexually assaulted. That is how we are treating our own species, our full brothers and sisters. So I’m not going into this believing that the answer is easy. Neither intellectual understanding nor would-be mystical “connections” move us to where we need to be. We need to wake up. We need to really see.
What is happening to forests?
So this book is an exploration of what forests mean to the lives we want to be living-- what threats they face, what changes they are undergoing, and what the outcome of those changes appears likely to be. Some of what we’ll see is grim. Even frightening. It’s no pleasure to spin horror stories. But who can love something and sit silently by while it is desecrated and destroyed? I once heard Larry Bell say, “You cannot inspire people by boring them to death--but some people give it a shot anyway.” I would rather scare people out of their seats than bore them into their coffins. Many of those who read this will be people who who are already scared, who recognize the critical role trees play in our lives and are putting time and energy into being their champions and stewards. Bless you. My hope is that there may be other readers, newer to the issues, who move from passivity to passion, from understanding to action.
Some of the finest foresters I know, with a pessimism bordering on despair, foresee earth’s forests becoming a shrinking, mongrelized mass of the most aggressive, fastest-growing, earliest-maturing, most prolific-seeding, wind-pollinated, pollution-tolerant trees that can survive climate change. They see unbridled consumption; a Malthusian population explosion; and the ripping up of forests for beef ranches, dope patches, getaway cabins, shopping malls, megachurches and car dealerships, subdivisions and eucalyptus plantations. Men and women who have tended, guarded, nursed, and nurtured forests for twenty, thirty, or more years offer sober assessments that sound like the Apocalypse.
These folks are not alarmists by nature or by trade. They are not enviro-fundraisers or authors trying to scare their way onto a bestsellers list. These are men and women who have spent years in labs and forests and experimental plots. Doing tree counts. Measuring the growth of seedlings. Experimenting with strategies to corral diseases and devastating insects. Documenting dieoffs and declines in growth rate. Waiting for funding that never comes, or waxes and wanes with the blowing of political winds. Watching programs appear and disappear, not because of science, but because a new administration is running things.
I am a naturalist, not a forester or botanist or climatologist or economist. Naturalists are by definition generalists, and that probably fits my disposition as well as it describes my background . So it may not be surprising that I set myself the task of examining all the major threats to forests. I am an expert in none of them, and there are no doubt omissions and misjudgments aplenty here. Still, the task is well worth doing, and I have drawn throughout the book on the studies and experience of hundreds of people wiser than myself. For better or worse, I have used my own eyes, and the eyes of many others--those of people whose treasure is wild forests, “part of the great and timeless excellence of things,” as Robinson Jeffers put it; those who believe that “The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof,” as the Psalmist writes; those who believe, with William Blake, that “everything that lives is holy.”
Among the eyes I have used are those of friends and mentors like Tom Dierauf, Tim Tigner, Chip Morgan, Tim Williams, and Laura Seale, as well as the friends I’ve met only through books--people like Michael Williams (Deforesting the Earth: From Prehistory to Global Crisis and Americans and Their Forests), Peter Thomas (Trees: Their Natural History), E. O. Wilson (The Diversity of Life and The Future of Life), Bill McKibben (The End of Nature and The Age of Missing Information), Derrick Jensen and George Draffan (Strangely Like War: The Global Assault on Forests), Bill Willers (editor of and contributor to Unmanaged Landscapes: Voices for Untamed Nature), and Wendell Berry (too many books, articles, and interviews to mention).
I have also spent endless hours at the computer, and found wonderful resources at numerous sites, including the Science Daily forest webpage, with its summaries and links to a host of forest and climate studies; the Virginia Tech Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation website; Nearctica; eFloras.org; the Tree of Life web project; the USDA Forest Service Silvics of North America online; Wikipedia; various university sites; and over a hundred others that I have used and bookmarked for everything from details on diseases to species range maps to the impact of climate change on forests. I am grateful to all of them. I have tried to use the most reliable sources available, and through notes, summary, paraphrase, and quotation, to be as faithful to their thoughts as possible. They are not, of course, responsible in any way for inferences I might draw from their work, or for my choice of a context in which to place it.
The threats forests face
The task is worth doing because giving people a grasp on the enormous range of threats to forests can be critical in salvaging our future. In our pretense to manage nature, the easiest thing to ignore is our ignorance. Danger comes not just from global warming and climate change, but from destruction of habitat--homes--, from parcelization, from insects and diseases, from invasive species, from genetically engineered trees, from salinization and acidification, from ozone, from fires and drought, from pollution, from tree plantations and mountaintop removal mining, from an explosion of the human population, from accelerated rates of consumption--a Hydra-headed monster whose breath is so poisonous it now threatens every portion of the planet. The bulk of this book will examine these threats, in some detail, and attempt to assess the threat posed by each.
As the Hydra metaphor suggests, these separate topics only look as if they are distinct. In reality, one area overlaps with another, or is caused by the same thing as another, or heightens the impact of another. The threats form a web of connections that resembles the life of forests themselves. Looking at them in isolation would be a grievous error. Their interaction multiplies their power. The whole of the damage they do is greater than the sum of their parts. Each threat in itself is a crisis in motion; in combination they are a looming catastrophe.
The more one learns about what is happening to our forests, the harder it becomes not to tip into pessimism or misery. The picture that follows can be a voyage through depression. But we need to look our situation honestly and look at it whole. That’s the only way we will be equipped to make the changes needed to save Earth’s forests, and ourselves. In the chapters that follow, I’ll survey the wide range of threats forests face. I’ll try to provide a sense of how history feels, as our life stories entwine with the movements and events of the world swirling around us. Ideas, inventions, discoveries, ideologies, and accidents all alter the course of our lives. I’ll try to awaken a sense of what we will miss as we lose our wild forests, species by species, acre by acre, hour by hour. And at the end, I’ll plant some seeds of hope.
A few warnings.
First off, definitions of what constitutes a forest vary considerably, and different sources are often working from different definitions. Why does that matter? Because, as Richard Fortey has pointed out, “Nomenclature is a preface to understanding.” And understanding the state of our forests--what we have lost and what still remains--is dependent on what one is calling a “forest.” Chapter 2 will examine the implications--and some of the consequences--of the definition used by the US Forest Service and most states.
The second caveat is much simpler. All sorts of creatures live in forest ecosystems, from birds to bacteria, from fungi to fish to ferns to flowers, from mammals to mushrooms to mycorrhizae. I’m left with the same question Mary Oliver asks in her poem “Black Snake”: “But tell me, if your would praise the world,/What is it you would leave out?” I’ve had to leave much out. I’ll touch on some of the living things I’ve just listed, but my major focus will stay on the most visible component of forests: trees.
And the third caveat is this: when I say “our forests,” often I’m talking about the forests in Virginia, where I now live, or the Appalachian forests a little to the west which were my home for most of my life. Most frequently I’m talking about U.S. forests; and sometimes I’m talking about global forests. We are citizens at many levels, part of many communities. Hopefully, the context at any given point will make clear what level I’m talking about.
All that said, I feel apologetic about spending so much time on U.S. forests and the U.S. impact on global forests. The U.S. has only 7.6% of the world’s forests, and the two greatest remaining forests on the planet--the vast boreal belt that extends from Scandinavia across Siberia and northern China to Alaska and across northern Canada; and the rainforests of the Amazon basin--both lie outside the borders of the contiguous U.S.
This country is notoriously self-absorbed and correspondingly ignorant about the rest of the world--a kind of large-scale version of Saul Steinberg’s famous 1976 New Yorker cover depicting a few streets in New York City as half the world, and the remainder of the world as the shriveled other half-- and I don’t enjoy feeling as if I might be contributing to those perceptions. I can only plead that U.S. forests are those I know best, although I have travelled and hiked some in African and European forests. The U.S. generates and publishes a significant amount of forest research that was readily accessible; U.S. economic and political clout have a major (and unfortunate) impact on global forests; and the U.S. life-style carries a siren’s allure for citizens in developing and would-be-developing nations on every continent that has devastating consequences for indigenous forests.
This book begins with my experience of the world as a wonderful place, in the original, vivid sense of the word: teeming with wonders. Time and overuse have stolen much of the ability of words like “wonderful,“ “awesome,” or “marvelous,” to capture for an instant the surprise, the delight, the astonishment which they try to portray. But perhaps, for a moment, we can recapture those things. “Wonderful” is the right word. I believe that nature is inherently wonderful--and that we are inherently wondering beings. The ability to glimpse and delight in Earth’s marvels is likely to have been as basic as the use of language, or an opposable thumb, or tools, or fire in the long, dizzying rise of humankind.
Wonder is always fresh, while the glow of our experience with things will inevitably fade with familiarity. But just as surely as the kind of burning, bursting love we felt for our wives or husbands when we were courting will fade--or, more exactly, will metamorphose into something less excited, but deep and abiding--so wonder will be transformed into something precious and enduring. Some of what I write about comes from that latter state: the kind of knowing forged over years by small and large intimacies, by shared troubles and triumphs, by joy and sorrow, ease and effort, thought and accident, plan and serendipity. Yet wonder never quite disappears. It can be renewed. We can see new things; we can see things anew.
I’ve tried to share from both of those states--the world as teeming with wonders, as well as that post-wonder later condition. Whatever I have kept from them has come to me in a variety of ways, as I suppose it does for everyone. Through solitary jaunts, work, friendships, reading, conversations, online odysseys, photographs, poems, even statistics. This book is a composite of all those things, moving back and forth between the scientific and the personal.
Because we are losing those wonders, and because all our descendants will see fewer and fewer of those we have been allowed to witness and love, the book is also one of anger and of mourning. How could it be otherwise?
© Tony Russell, 2013