Copyright by Ernest Partridge. Published here with permission of the author.
A few years ago, I taped a broadcast of National Public Radio’s "All Things Considered" for listening at a more convenient 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 first place?
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. Sixty 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 employers.
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’ cost-benefit spreadsheets.
"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 fish and Nerpa (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!