Seeing the Forests

Found in my collections of snippets, a quote from Wendell Berry, one of the few wise men of our era, in my opinion:

To destroy a forest or an ecology or a species is an act of greater seriousness than we have yet grasped, and it is perhaps of graver consequence. But these destructions will mend. The forest will grow back, the natural balances will be restored, the ecological gap left by the destroyed species will be filled by another species. But to destroy the earth itself is to destroy all the possibilities of the earth, among them the possibility of recovery.

And adjacent to that quote and I think from this article, comes this statement about land use changes (forest conversion) in the modern era:

Nearly two-thirds of the net conversion to other uses occurred in the second half of the 19th century, when an average of 13 square miles (mi2 ) of forest was cleared every day for 50 years. By 1910, the area of forest land had declined to an estimated 754 million acres, or 34 percent of the total land area. In 2012, forest land comprised 766 million acres, or 33 percent of the total land area of the United States. Forest area has been relatively stable since 1910, although the population has more than tripled since then.

This data supports ONLY the notion that from the air, more acres are in non-pasture non-asphalt than in 1910. This is deceptive.

Many of the trees that exist in today’s “forest” (in fact almost all) will live only about 15-20% of their life expectancy if undisturbed. They will not produce “old growth” or even middle-aged growth for that matter.

Consequently, what we see from the air is a stand of trees (vast numbers in this count are even-aged pulpwood pine trees in laser-straight rows.) It is only vaguely a forest compared to that landform as it existed four hundred years ago.

The biodiversity of Earth has drastically fallen largely because the global forests, north and south of the equator, in which species evolved no longer exist. The water holding capacity, the oxygen producing abilities, the soil building process and especially for our times, the CO2 holding capabilities of today’s small-tree-populated Eastern lands are all homeopathic dilutions of the services that true forests once achieved for the planet and its living communities.

Going forward and in my dreams, we rededicate our species to live in peaceful coexistance with those living systems that allowed  our species to prosper and learn, create culture and art and science and technology.

If we don’t, all those marvelous humanities our kind has created and enjoyed for a few brief eyeblinks on the timeline of Earth will become a faint and fading trace record of yet another vanished civilization that thought, somehow, it alone was exempt from its debt to cosmic biology (insert divine providence or sheer random good luck here as your understandings would have it.) We are beholding, no matter, and our arrogance to the contrary is not to our favor.


About fred

Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

3 comments:

  1. Wendell Berry is indeed a very wise man, and this is a great post, Fred. Now that I’m in the northeast, I’m developing a new interest in American chestnut and its story and prognosis. There seems to be disagreement about its restoration (transgenic or hybrid) and whether it even should be returned to an ecosystem that has adapted to its absence. I’d be interested in your take on that.

    A few years ago, I met a park naturalist who told me there are no longer any “forests” here, merely “woods,” a true “forest” being a place where you can walk for days without leaving tree cover. Intriguing to wonder whether or where we could have that experience.

    Am I guessing correctly that the stats above, especially in the second quote, are just for US or North America? Anyway, thanks– insightful as always!

  2. Chestnut reintroduction. Dunno. Not sure we can or should put the toothpaste back into the tube. No I do not believe American Chestnut will ever –no matter how long–reclaim its dominance in the eastern forest. Should it? Does the effort warrant the results to date? We have the engineer’s mentality to fix things and have the chops, but it is always the SHOULDS that are the hardest questions.

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