Don’t get me wrong. I do believe in cutting and using trees for wood. I am writing this on a wooden desk in a woodframe house. I think wood is a wonderful renewable resource that we should utilize. My complaint is that our culture sees every tree as a source of wood. I think some trees should just be trees. I think some trees should be allowed to do whatever they want and should be able to die of old age right where they are standing. Whatever the fates hold in store is what we should allow for those trees— perhaps dying all at once from a lightning strike (a result of being the tallest tree in the forest), or perhaps dying one limb at a time as the fungi and insects slowly take over. We should not be afraid of dying trees. If we are, we will cut down all trees in their prime, before they get old. And that is exactly what is happening. One of my ecophilosopher friends puts it this way: we have no grandfather trees left.
Yes, grandfather trees are the closest to death, but they are also the ones with the most to teach us. They are the ones that inspire awe, and the ones we choose to pray under. They host the greatest variety of other living creatures. If you had the patience to count all the varieties of mosses, lichens, spiders, mites, aphids, snails, slugs, fungi, birds, squirrels, and other living things on one of those grandfather trees, you would find many more things than you would find on a young, healthy tree. I wouldn’t want to live in a society of only children and teenagers. And most of the socalled forests in my part of the country contain nothing but juveniles.
THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE has published a book of forest statistics for Maryland.1 The book is filled with tables and graphs, but the table that intrigues me is the one that estimates the number of live trees in Maryland forests by size class and species class. The table shows that Maryland has approximately eight billion trees. But the astonishing thing, something I realized only when I looked more closely at the numbers, is that 95 percent of the trees are less than five inches in diameter! Five inches is smaller than the spread of your hand. To be fair, the majority of the trees are in the seedling class, and that can skew the figures, but even when you don’t figure in the seedlings, when you just count trees one inch in diameter and upward, 72 percent of the trees in the state are between one and five inches in diameter. What do you consider an average-size tree? I would say at least the width of my shoulders. Only 2 percent of forest trees in Maryland are that wide or wider. And what about the big, old trees, the kind you can’t wrap your arms all the way around— the grandfather trees? The sad, sad truth is that less than 0.1 percent of the forest trees are that large. Those are the grandfather trees. They are the trees we should be protecting, but instead we keep right on cutting.
NOT SO LONG AGO the largest trees lived in the forests, and the trees in parks and yards were modest by comparison; today, in many parts of the world, the tables have turned. When I say we have no grandfather trees left, I am talking about trees living in a natural ecosystem. On a recent trip to Boston, a friend remarked that if I loved big trees I should visit their park. The park was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead, America’s most famous landscape designer, and it did indeed have big, beautiful trees that were obviously lovingly cared for. They were admirable, but they lacked the magic of forest trees that grow where they grow because of luck or fate or the forces of nature. A forest tree spends its entire life, from seed to maturity, in one spot. The park trees, however, had been dug up from their natal ground and planted where a human decided they should grow. These trees are like immigrants, forced from their land, who never quite learn the language and never quite feel at home. If you are quiet enough in their presence you can almost feel the sadness springing from their loss of community, their loss of place. A park is not a forest. And a forest is not made just of trees.
What does it say about our culture that we do not let the old forest trees live? Perhaps there is a parallel between the way we treat our elderly citizens and the way we treat our elderly trees. It is uncomfortable to say, but useless seems to be society’s adjective for both groups. Maybe we could begin to heal the wounds in our social fabric by working together to mend the ecological fabric.
I want to protect at least one forest in my community from being cut yet again. The trees will certainly not be elders in my lifetime, but I want to know that they are on their way. I want to know that someday in my community the children will be able to walk through a forest that has some big, old trees. I want to know that the woodpeckers and the bats will have a place to live. Mostly I want to know that we humans are capable of letting some trees live until they die of old age.
“The forest is that essential fact that confronts all human beings at the end of the twentieth century, an image of the promise we have betrayed and a chance to redeem ourselves from our folly,” Charles Bowden writes in The Secret Forest.2 I want redemption. But that desire makes me a radical; the county administrator who wants to cut down the particular forest I am trying to save told me to “quit stirring up trouble.”
The forest I want to protect is still young. Less than eighty years have passed since it was last cut. Another hundred years will have to elapse before it starts to get authentically “old.” But if we cut the forest now we will have to wait one hundred and eighty years for an old forest. I don’t want to have to start all over again.
As sad and frustrating as starting over is in the East, where we have to wait hundreds of years for an old forest, forest activists on the West Coast know that it may take a thousand years for grandfather trees to grow after one of their redwood forests is cut. Imagine their frustration. Is it even possible for humans to hold an intention for regrowth for a thousand years? I doubt it, even as I hope it.
I have some friends who live in California. More than a hundred years ago all of the giant old redwood trees on their ranch were cut. There are many young redwood trees left, but if my friends protect those young trees from being cut for their entire lives, and if their daughter protects the trees for her entire life, and if their daughter’s daughter protects the trees for her entire life, there will still be no “old” redwood trees on the ranch. Yet someone can decide in a minute to cut old trees, and a crew can complete the job in a few weeks. Sorry, but I’m not going to quit stirring up trouble.