Friday, November 2, 2012

A Few Thoughts on "The Golden Spruce," by John Vaillant

Lately, I have been struggling to make sense of this life on earth, what it all means, the irony, the madness, the dual natures, the glory, the wonder etc, etc., especially with our relation to the environment. I am so grateful for the times I have been able to spend in natural places, especially out here in California. Unlike the east coast where I grew up, the landscape can still be observed with the eye the way it was originally designed by the Creator. Perhaps my eye is just more aware. Back east, it definitely seems harder to recognize landscapes and envision what it originally looked like. Planted trees, roads, stores, carefully landscaped lawns and parks become the norm. It can feel like it's the way the landscapes have always looked.

Currently, I am reading a book called the "Golden Spruce," by John Vaillant. It's a fantastic book that goes into detail describing the development of the Pacific Northwest, encounters with natives and early Europeans, the early days of trade, westward expansion, the logging industry, and one logger's transformation from logger to environmental activist who eventually, in an act of protest, cuts down a sacred golden spruce tree in an attempt to focus awareness on the clearcutting of forests in the Pacific Northwest. Anyhow, there is one particular passage in the book I wanted to share that summed up the feelings I have experienced since moving to Northern California. Basically, over the last year or so, I have found myself asking, "how in the world did we manage to cut down so much forest?" My travels have led me to observe only a small patch of land in Northern California. This cutting has occurred across the entire country and Canada. Here in redwood country, the scars are still visible, where in the east, not so much. It creates a feeling of both awe and sadness, at least for me. Here is the passage in "The Golden Spruce" I want to share:

Al Wanderer could have been speaking for all woodsmen throughout history when he looked back over his own empty corner of British Colombia and said, "Good God, I didn't think it was possible to log this much." Anyone who has traveled in the woods of the Pacific Northwest would know exactly what he meant. Even now these forests have an infinite feel-until you see the clear cuts and realize how extraordinarily efficient humans can be at altering the landscape. Out here, the empty spaces still look like wounds, like violations of the natural order, but back east-that is, from Chicago to Babylon-we find this hard to visualize because the clear cutting happened generations before any of us were born. Treeless expanses look normal to us-"natural," even. We tend to look at time in a myopic, human centered way, but trees offer an alternative means of measuring our progress (as well as our regression). Growing at a rate somewhere between stalagmites and human beings, forests can serve as a kind of long term memory bank, revealing things about our environment, and even ourselves, that only our great-great-grandparents could have told us. The short version of the forest's message was well paraphrased by historian John Perlin: "Civilization has never recognized limits to its needs."

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