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The Life of a Clear Cut
On forests and people and destruction and time
It’s hot and dry and the wooden beams of the deck flanking my childhood home are covered with crusty mildew. Of course, the beams were dead when the deck was built, but life has a momentum to it, and that was a few decades ago, and what little vitality was left in them then has almost completely vanished by now. It’s time to replace them with something a little closer to life than to its absence.
The deck is perched upon a little ridge in the heart of Pennsylvania. Standing on this ridge, one can spin in circles and all around — as far as the eye can see — are trees. It’s Appalachia but it barely makes sense to use the word “mountains” anymore. Time has worn away the rock and what’s left are hills rolling softly over the earth — almost every square inch of them covered with trees. Now it’s also Marcellus Shale territory, so sometimes the endless green is pierced by an orange flame, spewed into the sky by a fracking wellhead. But mostly you just see green.
Fifteen years ago, when my deck beams were slightly less dead than they are now, my cousin flew in from Colorado. He’d never been to this part of the country before. He said something like “wow, everything is green here.” Our relatives are always telling us how beautiful the view is from our ridge. They’re right, and it’s not just here. Take a drive from the heart of Pennsylvania to any one of its corners — Philadelphia, Scranton, Erie, Pittsburgh. Sometimes it’s hard to trace your path on Google Maps’ satellite view because the forests swallow up the asphalt.
All my life I assumed the forests around me were thriving. They sure looked the part from where I’d been standing. But then I drove through them to Pittsburgh and took some classes in ecology, and one of them was focused on Eastern Deciduous Forests. Turns out they aren’t doing so hot. They cover sixty percent of the state, which may seem like a lot, but it’s really very little compared to the ninety-nine percent that was the status quo before a roughly rectangular shape was drawn onto a map and given the name Pennsylvania. And our forefathers didn’t merely cut back the woods they encountered by thirty-nine percent.
Over 29 million acres lie within Pennsylvania’s borders. Of those, 16.8 million are forested. Of those — no one knows for sure — but probably only 10 to 20 thousand are old growth. Our forefathers clear cut ~29 million acres of forest in Pennsylvania alone — over 99 percent of what they found. The sprawling sea of green I grew up in was at most a century old. The maximum lifespan of a tree in this climate is six to seven times that. Even if our forests were on their way back to their former glory, I’d be dead and gone by the time they reached it. And maybe they are, but probably they’re not. Because death, like life, has a momentum to it.
Beneath the surface of the sea of green are waters teeming with life. Every tree is an ecosystem unto itself, every patch of forest a network of ecosystems — the forest a hierarchical system of relationships, one pattern emerging in response to another, the whole more than the sum of its interdependent parts. There are the bugs in the leaves and the birds that feed on them and the critters that steal eggs from the nests the birds constructed so carefully from materials on the forest floor. In an old growth forest, this floor is littered with herbs and wildflowers and fallen giants — alive for half a millennium, decaying for a century, now coated in moss and mushrooms and teeming with grubs. Possums feeding on grubs, ticks feeding on possum blood, all the above eventually turning to detritus. Worm food — hell, even worms become worm food — and into this muck shoot new roots that, centuries from now, will be the straws from which a new generation of giants sucks water from the earth. And even if a lightning bolt sends the forest up in flames, some of the trees have fire-proof bark, and in the soil is a seedbank, and in that bank are certain seeds that spring into life only when a fire rages through, and when the fire has died down, beetles with infrared vision come crawling to lay their eggs in the freshly burnt wood.
An old growth forest is also called “virgin,” being relatively unspoiled by man, but it’d be a mistake to call it fragile or delicate. Mature virgin forests are quite resilient. But resilience has its limits, and our forefathers, to put it lightly, have tested them. They took the unfathomably complex network of ecosystems that once sprawled across the entire state of Pennsylvania and they turned it into this:
Turns out, when you clear cut a forest, the forest has some trouble growing back. All this havoc was wreaked in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and by now, trees have come back in all the places we’ve let them. It’s just that trees don’t make a forest, and what we have today are many patchworks of trees that are stalling out on their way to becoming forest.
The last time this land was wiped clean was by a receding ice sheet over ten thousand years ago. The woods our forefathers encountered were the culmination of roughly ten millennia of growth and development impeded only by the occasional tempest or dry spell. It takes a long time for species to adjust to the land and to the climate and to one another, and to settle into niches within which they can flourish. For instance: suppose that, at first, ferns take over the understory. Well, deer don’t ear ferns. Nothing seems to. Ferns multiply rapidly and stick around for a long time and if nothing is around to check their growth, then it’s rather difficult for other plants to grow. What you end up with is ferns hugging the ankles of a bunch of 75 year old trees, and little else. This is one of countless problems that can hinder a young patch of trees from becoming a forest.
Small wonder, then, that Pennsylvania’s “forests” aren’t yet flourishing after our ancestors levelled them just a hundred years ago. Worse still — the Laurentide Ice Sheet levelled and went on its way; for us, it was only the opening act. We introduced species from abroad that, entering a new habitat and happening to have some sort of competitive advantage, become invasive and stifle the natives. We carved up the forests with railroads and highways and powerlines, such that when you enter it’s never too long before you exit, and this, we’re learning, alters everything from predator-prey dynamics to soil conditions. When we stifled forest fires in the name of protecting forests, we were being overprotective and thus counterproductive. There are no wild wolves in the state because we killed them all. Deer are about three times as abundant as they were before we wiped out the predators that used to keep their numbers in check. Suffice it to say that we’ve taken an already-uphill battle and made the incline steeper.
And yet, having learned all this, it’s easy to forget it while I’m sitting here on my little ridge in the heart of Pennsylvania. All around me are trees and from a distance it’s easy to confuse them for forest. Somewhat ironic, I suppose, that my deck is a stones throw from Williamsport, the former Lumber Capital of the World. Williamsport’s high school mascot is The Millionaires because, in the nineteenth century, while its residents were reaping the profits of virgin forest rape, the city had the densest concentration of millionaires on Planet Earth.
I’m a few generations removed from the clear cutting. I know of the violence but, looking out at the landscape around me — once the epicenter of that violence — I can barely perceive its legacy. The legacy is no less real for my inability to perceive it. Maybe one day my great grandchildren will wonder why the forests that look so healthy on the surface are putting up a poor fight against a rapidly changing climate. They’ll lash out in anger at my generation for doing so little to cut back on carbon emissions. But will they know that the forests might’ve stood a better chance had my great grandparents not levelled them? And will they know that they’re not so different from me, that I’m not so different from my great grandparents, that bad habits are hard to shake, and that sins echo through generations, getting quieter as they go but never quite giving way to silence?
Human beings and civilizations are a bit more complicated than trees and forests. And yet what’s true of clear cutting a forest is approximately true of destroying human communities. You’ve taken an unfathomably complicated system that took ages to emerge and you’ve levelled it. Perhaps we’re craftier than trees, but no amount of cunning can erase the past. What’s done is done and its legacy lives on.
American history is full of clear cutting. Forcing people off the shores of Africa, into ships, and onto plantations — clear cutting. Annihilating slave society and 620,000 human souls in the course of a four year war — clear cutting. Forcing freed slaves into second class status, redlining the neighborhoods in the northern cities to which their descendants fled from the Jim Crow South, and then razing those neighborhoods in the name of urban renewal — clear cutting. Decimating Native American populations, working Chinese railroad laborers to death, interning Japanese citizens at Manzanar…
American history is not only full of these things. There’s also much to celebrate. But in a land whose inhabitants have described themselves as “a city on a hill,” an “empire of liberty,” and “the last best hope of the earth,” the shortcomings sting, linger, and haunt with special intensity.
When a white supremacist shoots up a grocery store in a black neighborhood, or a teenager brings an AR15 to an elementary school, we’d do well to remember all this. We were born into a world we did not create. Present calamities have deep roots in past violence. This is not to rob anyone of autonomy or suggest direct links between urban renewal and deranged mass murder. But both anti-black racism and reverence for firearms have a rich history in our country. We laid waste to the confederacy and used the force of federal law to bring down Jim Crow, but hatred has a momentum to it. We can pass common sense gun laws or design safer schools, but we live in a country with more guns than people and a pervasive crisis of mental health — one with roots, we might speculate, in the destruction of community and decline of western civilization, these latter two phenomena themselves the product of clear cutting. We’ve abandoned our agrarian Christian origins for an industrial secular society.
Maybe it helps some of us sleep at night to pin the deaths in Buffalo and Uvalde on those who obstruct our desired gun legislation or mental health program. But the fact is that we don’t know if such laws or programs would have their intended effects — results abroad don’t necessarily translate to results at home — and in all likelihood, any positive difference made would be marginal. Don’t mistake this for an argument against taking action to prevent mass murder — only an acknowledgment of limited potential. We do need action. But we also need time.
Hatred has momentum. That of our forefathers is with us still today. Our own hatred — even that directed against whomever we deem most worthy — will haunt our children, and their children.
Time, and goodwill.