Notes from Windward: #69


Discovering a Reverence for Wood

building a sustainable relationship to trees
and the world we share


     For most of human history wood has been the predominant resource for the growth of human civilization. Trees have played an essential role in the human story. The plethora of human products that can be made with wood inspires awe and reverence in me for these miraculous beings: houses, tables, chairs, cabinets, handles, soap, leather, ink, paper, pencils, baskets, barrels, boxes, bowls, carts, carriages, sleds, saddles, bows, arrows, the list of things that can be fashioned from wood goes on and on. This is not even mentioning the amount of fruits, nuts and forage that trees create out of air, soil, water, and sunshine.

     There are no better companions to man than trees. As we breathe out, the forest breathes in, and vice versa. As civilization evolved we began utilizing bronze, iron, steel and now plastics in place of wood, but even iron was once made from the heat of charcoal made from wood. Now it is made using heat from coal. But the coal, oil and plastics we use today are all made from petroleum which is solar energy stored by ancient forest and marine life.

     In early America it was the Tree that symbolized the wealth of this continent, as it was embossed on coins and stitched onto flags. Everything from kitchen utensils to farm tools to storage containers were all once made from wood.

     Trees provide shade from the summer sun, while evergreens remind us with their rugged needles of the inevitable return of life after the dead of winter. For millennia they were the primary source of heat for those living in temperate area, staving off the frigid weather until the return of the sun.

     Trees are a constant symbol of beautiful renewal as their leaves change colors and die in the fall, only to return with spring. They are resilient and malleable, providing us with so much, and asking so little, only that we manage the health of the ecosystem they inhabit. A healthy forest is more than trees. It is a cornucopia of different types and ages of trees, and other flora, bacteria, fungi, and animals of all sorts. With enough knowledge of trees (and the rest of the forest) humans need little else to sustain them.

     The relationship between Native Americans (North and South) to the forest is proof of this concept. According to some theories, upwards of 60% of the forest of America were deliberately planted by Natives as food crops. Agro-forestry is the term used to describe such "emerging" practices today, but it appears at one time food forests were the norm, unlike today where intensive monocultures have taken predominance over indigenous food forests.

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     The historic relationship between western civilization and trees (like the rest of the non-human world) has been one-sided. Humans have not kept up their end of the bargain, endangering the health of the interconnected web of biotopes that sustain all life. In the hierarchy of "conventional" (currently predominant) American and global values, production has taken the place of the health of the worlds ecosystems.

     However, this destructive shift in values has been long in the making. In the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh, what are now the deserts of Iraq and Iran were said to be vast cedar forests, whose trees were harvested to build ancient metropolises. In the place of the old growth cedar forests is an expanse desert. This is evident of how long civilized humans have been using trees without concern for the well being of forests. This tale has been played out countless times though out history and the globe. In early America, huge swaths of forests were clear cut to power railways and provide land for agricultural expansion. Once constituting at least ten percent of American tree population, chestnuts are now all but extinct due to over consumption and a debilitating blight that continues to kill young chestnuts today.

     A big part of sustainability is being able to utilize the resources around you without depleting them. In the best circumstances humans should leave the environment healthier than it was before in order to assure its continued health and prosperity. I have heard New Englanders say they are happy to see the forest growing back, after the colonist and Industrialists ate the forest alive through the 17-and-1800s. It has been one hundred years or more, but the forest is regaining some of its once prominent glory. It is not that New Englanders are any less abusive to and exploitative of forests than they were hundreds of years before. In fact, humans consume more trees than before. It is just that they have other forests across the globe to exploit and can let those in their own back yard regenerate.

     Another way to say this is that humans have not changed their relationship to the forest. It is still fundamentally unsustainable and destructive. Only now, the destruction occurs out of sight, in someone else's backyard. Americans may have successfully preserved patches of forested wilderness from development, but even that is just a toxic mimic of a healthy relationship.

     We shouldn't need to lock nature in a preserve. We should live amongst it, and share a common concern about it. To me, it is self-evident that the well being of all life is directly connected to the well being of my life. Instead of separating civilization from nature preserves, we should integrate the two together so as to remove the physical (and, not so obviously, mental) barriers that permit people to distinguish their good from that of nature.

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     Native Americans adapted the forest to their needs, without destroying its capacity to thrive; cultivating plants which bore them edible fruits, nuts and berries. They hunted animals in their direct vicinity, until the creatures were no longer in competition with them for the fruits of such forests. This may sound just as destructive as the present day relationship to nature, but they were able to survive along with these animals for thousands of years. Mutual survival was insured because Natives prescribed to a simple ideological and religious principle; if you take something from the world (such as a deer, a fruit, or nut) then you are obligated to ensure the survival of that species or ecosystem in the future.

     The animals in competition with their food were hunted to near extinction, but they made sure not to kill them all. They kept them at a day or so walk away from their villages. In this way both populations survived, and were kept in balance. Life, as they must have recognized, is a bargain; fostering recognition in their mythology and daily life that "we go down together." In other words, if the human enterprise is to succeed, it must ensure the continued survival and health of all life.

     What has always been obvious to those at Windward is that humans can no longer afford to maintain the abusive relationship between Humanity and the rest of life; a relationship that carries over into all of our relationships (personal, interpersonal, economic and otherwise). What the world needs now, is to heal the broken bonds that tie people to the rest of the web of life; to create a new mythos, morality, and standard of living which incorporates a recognition of the interdependence of all life; to leave a healthy and thriving forest for generations to come; a forest to shelter and nourish the body and spirit.

     I feel I am beginning to realize this relationship, as I develop a reverence and understanding for wood, the forest, and all the variegated processes that make life possible. At Windward I feel blessed with the opportunity to preserve and enrich even a small part of life.

     Some questions that are integral to developing a healthy relationship to the natural world include,
  • How much can we take from the forest without destroying its capacity to heal?
  • What do we need to give back?
  • How much land is required to sustainably feed, clothe, water and fuel a population of people and animals?

     At windward we are undertaking to explore and try to answer these riddles. It could take many generations of living on a specific piece of land to develop a well rounded and thorough understanding of the long and short cycling of nature. This also echoes a deep truth about sustainability; the relationship to the land must reflect the nature of the land. What works in the Pacific Northwest, will not work in a desert. Speaking only of Washington, what works west of the Cascades will not work east of them. So, sustainable systems must be site specific; connected to the nature and productivity of any specific ecosystem and the life cycles of the beings which inhabit it.

     To sum up my ongoing experience with wood: A tree does not stand on its own. It is a part of a larger web of life that composes the ecosystem it inhabits. And each ecosystem is connected to a wider web of ecosystems that stretch across continents and borders. A tree (and thus all of nature) is much more than something to be exploited for resources. In the plainest terms, it is the difference between life and death.

Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 69