Writing the Backwash with R. H. Sheldon
If a Tree Falls in the Forest…
A couple weeks ago, I was up at my house in the Cascades, working on an article with an approaching deadline, the type of article that required a great deal of attention and no small measure of quiet.
Sure, birds chattered and trees swayed and water rushed along its rocky riverbed. But such sounds rarely disrupt my concentration, not like the sudden roar of a high-powered chainsaw or diesel-powered bulldozer or the crashing of a giant cedar that such machinery portends.
And that’s what I heard when I was working—the din of those fierce engines, so close, it had to be nearby neighbors, probably selling off trees to pay their mortgage. Or perhaps their satellite TV. They would not be the first and most likely not be the last. Such are the times in which we live.
Regardless of the reasons, there’s something about a tree falling—especially the magnificent cedars and Douglas firs that populate these mountains—that makes me shudder and mourn at the loss of their protection. If you’ve ever seen the splintered remains of one of these fallen giants, you may understand the sadness I feel at hearing them fall. No matter how much the world might want to convince me that trees are inanimate objects—resources to be butchered and bartered and sold to the highest bidder—I cannot bring myself to act with such indifference and practiced equanimity. To me, these massive monoliths will always remain creatures as wondrous as any that roam the forests.
So when I hear the timber crack and moan, when I hear the limbs snap and the boughs break, when I hear the sudden whoosh of deadened air and the explosive crash of a tree slamming against the earth, I feel it in every part of me and in everything that surrounds me. I feel it in the way my house rocks, in the shudder that runs through its walls and floors, that runs through my flesh, my bones, deep into my bowels, into my blood. Into the heart of my soul.
Yet my neighbors’ assault represents only a drop in the rain barrel compared to what’s happening to forests worldwide—mostly in the name of making money. According to the Nature Conservancy, nearly half of the planet’s original forests are gone, and those that are left are in serious trouble. Each year, we lose another 32 million acres to deforestation, an area almost as large as Florida. Logging accounts for much of that loss, not only in the name of paper and wood products, but also as a consequence of our recent drive for biofuels and the energy-yielding crops to support them.
In fact, the National Geographic folks say that agriculture is the biggest driver of deforestation. We chop down trees to grow all sorts of crops, as well as raise and graze livestock. Add to that the paper-and-wood loggers and the sprawling urban centers, and you do indeed arrive at a grim summation.
But direct human intervention isn’t the only influence killing our trees. Climate change—whose consequences can be felt in forest fires, widespread drought, and disease and insect infestations—is also taking a bite out of our ever-shrinking canopies. What makes matters worse, the more trees we lose, the faster the climate changes.
The world’s trees, it turns out, play a critical role in absorbing the greenhouse gases that are heating up the planet. Without our forests, we’d have fried long ago. And the process of deforestation, particularly that of the slash-and-burn variety, releases even more of those gases into the atmosphere. To make matters worse, removing the trees causes the earth to dry out faster and disrupts the natural water and temperature-regulating cycles that keep the environment in check, all of which leads to further droughts and greater extremes in temperature.
The only solution is to stop mowing down our forests. But where money’s concerned, ambitious politicians and complacent populations follow. Yet once those forests are gone, they’re gone for good. And it’s no small task to bring them back to life.
A few days after my neighbors took down the final tree, I walked down the road along their property. Devastation was complete. The massive corpses had been removed, but the stumps and slash remained. Along with the tractor-muddied ground, the cracked and splintered limbs spread across the earth like the aftermath of a volcano.
There’s something unreal about the remains of a clearcut forest, as though the earth no longer rotates quite right on its axis. Sure, ground cover will mitigate some of the impact before long, and in a few years, we might see young saplings poke through the rubble. But never again in my lifetime will that patch of forest look as it did before the bulldozer and chainsaw waged their holy war. Never again will the sun fall in splotches on the moist and shaded underbrush once protected by those great trees. Never again will the birds and animals that sought sustenance beneath the towering canopy return to the place they once called their home.
They will go elsewhere, no doubt, until there is no more elsewhere for them to go.