If a tree falls

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By Robert Bateman

If a tree falls in the forest, who will hear it fall? More creatures than you can possibly imagine. In the forest itself—the tree’s immediate neighborhood—millions of individual living things will hear, or at least feel, the crash, and each tree that falls changes their world forever. Beyond the forest, the sound will be noticed by many others—the thousands of people who are paying attention to our forests and worrying about their fate. Some live so far away that you might wonder why they care, but they know there is reason for concern.

Most logging companies hope no one will hear about the trees they are felling until it’s too late for people to interfere. But more and more often, the word is getting out.

One day in the late 1980s, a naturalist hiking on public land in a rugged part of western Vancouver Island came upon a magnificent temperate rain forest. He measured some of the trees and was amazed by their girth. (They also turned out to be the largest Sitka spruce in the world.) While the naturalist was taking the measurements, he heard the whine of chainsaws in the distance and the sound of crashing trunks and branches—and that’s how the world began to hear about the threat to the South Carmanah Forest.

The British Columbia environmental community sprang into action, spreading the word across the country and around the globe. The activists built a trail to the grove of giants along the Carmanah River, and they invited artists to come and paint the glory of the forest. Then the journalists started flocking to the Carmanah Valley. The logging company was horrified and accelerated the cutting schedule.

I was one of nearly a hundred invited to come and paint the trees. With a group of other artists, I approached the valley on foot along the logging road. As we came near the place, I was stopped short by the sight of a log lying beside the road. It was the biggest one I’d ever seen—at least 12 feet through. As I stood there, my hand resting on its bark, I thought of its past: It had been an old tree when Christopher Columbus came to America. Then I thought about its future. The best I could see for this particular Sitka spruce was an afterlife as a bunch of two-by-fours, or perhaps a stack of junk mail.

Don’t mistake my message here. I’m not opposed to forestry. I believe the harvesting of wood is an important activity—one that can provide many people with meaningful work without destroying our forests. I am in favor of logging and loggers and especially of logging communities. But sustainable forestry means treating each tree wisely and with respect. Unfortunately, this is not the way we in North America take care of most of our trees—and it’s not the way we and others treat the fast-disappearing forests of the tropical world.

On this continent, and certainly in my home province of British Columbia, we will have to change our ways drastically if there is to be a future for woodlands and for logging jobs. Some say that supporters of sustainable forestry are committing “job blackmail,” but the opposite is closer to the truth.

During the 1980s, while the volume of cut went up in North America, the number of logging jobs went down. The giant forest product companies borrowed money and received generous government grants so they could make huge capital investments in new machinery, sawmills, roads and other infrastructure—the “boys with toys” phenomenon. It’s always fun to spend other people’s money, especially when you use it to buy machines like the huge tree-harvesting contraptions that have increased the rate of cut so dramatically in recent years. So governments, businesses and local communities went at the spending spree with considerable enthusiasm.

Such an industrial approach to logging reduces the forest to conventional ideas of dollars and cents, to return-on-investment calculations that ignore the environmental costs. But this is not nature’s way of accounting—it never has been. And sooner or later, nature’s bottom line catches up with the corporate number crunchers. Ever since the overcutting and overproduction of the 1980s, there has been serious trouble in North America’s forests: trouble with wood supply, trouble paying the bills, trouble in the minds of the countless people who care about the diminishing supply of trees and, most telling of all, trouble among forest workers, who keep losing jobs.

Canada now holds the world record for sustaining the least number of jobs per cubic meter, and in Switzerland, there are 10 jobs for every one in Canada. Would a higher job-per-log ratio raise the price of wood? In the short run, yes. But the alternative is to deplete the forests beyond sustainable levels and thus put jobs in long-term jeopardy. That is more than we can afford.

My fellow artists and I continued past the fallen Sitka giant until we entered a natural cathedral like none I’ve ever encountered before—a forest so old that the trunks of its trees rose like colossal pillars separated by wide spaces. I set up my easel within earshot of the clear, rushing Carmanah River, then tried to capture in paint the mossy trunks and the spirit-filled emptiness between them.

While I painted, I began to be aware of a noise competing with the sound of the river. It might have been the faint irritating whine of mosquitoes, except that there were no biting insects in this blissful place. I tried to ignore the buzzing, but I knew what it was and what it represented: chainsaws at work a kilometer away. Every so often, the drone would stop, but that was only a prelude to the sound of a great tree crashing to the forest floor.

For some reason, these Carmanah silences reminded me of listening to the radio when I was a teenager during World War II. In broadcasts about the London blitz, you would hear the German buzz bombs flying overhead, followed by an ominous silence as their motors cut off just before the explosion.

Who hears the sound of a tree falling in the forest? In this case, enough people to make a difference. The art we made that day became part of a best-selling book, the proceeds from which were used to fight the chainsaws. The publication and the publicity put an end to the logging and led to the protection of the trees of South Carmanah.

 

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