Murder in the Forest
January 7, 2013 § 11 Comments
As winter weekends go, this past one was about as quintessential as they come. It was cold, but not terribly so, and the snow rarely stopped falling. It didn’t accumulate much; these were the fat, lazy flakes of an unserious weather front, falling and floating so ponderously that one could only assume they didn’t really want to hit the ground. And really, who can blame them?
The weather was perfect for lots of things, and one of those was killing trees. After a few weeks of semi-hibernation and restorative activities including, but not limited to, skiing, sledding, and socializing, I was feeling the call of productive labor, with the freshly cleared barn site and idle sawmill standing as reminders that, in fact, barns don’t just happen. Trees don’t just throw themselves to the ground, tear their limbs from their trunks and drop them in a neat pile, drag themselves out of the woods, and heave themselves onto the rails of the mill to be shorn and sheared and ripped into lumber. And again, really, who can blame them?
So I fueled up the tractor and the saw and puttered down to a copse of balsam fir I’ve had my eye on. There are some fine specimens down there, some nearing two-feet at the base and 100 or more feet tall, straight and proud with minimal taper. Most of last summer, I milled sub-premium sawlogs, trying to utilize whatever materials were on hand, the byproducts of our pasture clearing efforts and the occasional blow-down salvage operation. I didn’t really mind; indeed, there’s a particular satisfaction to be gleaned by polishing a turd until it shines, but still and all, I was plenty eager to skid some real sawlogs.
It is amazing, really, the degree of havoc one man with one chainsaw can wreak in a few short hours. By the time I’d cooked a couple tanks of gas, and stopped to sharpen my chain and change into the pair of dry gloves I’d tucked into a jacket pocket, the landscape was transformed. It was shocking, really, and despite how much I love this work – the smell of fresh cut wood and saw exhaust, the physicality of rolling logs with the peavey and pulling winch cable, the ever-present danger and with it, the absolute necessity of staying unwaveringly in each and every moment – I felt a small sadness creeping in.
For a while, I just stood there, surveying the destruction and trying to justify it. I reminded myself that the trees I’d dropped all suffered, in varying degrees, from the heart rot that afflicts the majority of mature balsam firs in the region. I told myself that I was doing the right thing for our wood lot, the very thing our forester friend had recommended. I tried to convince myself that harvesting our own trees and milling our own lumber was the honorable thing to do, that purchasing lumber at the local mill is, in a sense, the same as purchasing neat, shrink-wrapped packages of meat at the grocery store. It externalizes all the difficult aspects inherent to the process.
There is a Native American proverb that says All plants are our brothers and sisters. They talk to us and if we listen, we can hear them. I do not doubt for even a second that this is true, and as I stood there in the midst of all those fallen giants, the saw ticking cool atop the fragrant, fresh-cut stump where I’d set it, I couldn’t help but wonder if there’s really any difference between taking the life of a plant and that of an animal. Is it possible that we only believe there is a difference because our beliefs are founded in the self-important frailty of our anthropocentric view, which can’t help but empathize with beings that most closely resemble ourselves? Just because a tree does not have a recognizable heart, lungs, and legs, does that mean it doesn’t have a soul?
This is the uncomfortable, deceptively simple truth as I see it: Other living beings must die so that we might live, and this is true whether those beings are pigs we have raised from birth, or the countless creatures and even entire species that fall victim to the industrialized economy upon which we all have come to depend, or the pests that must perish for our vegetable gardens to prosper, or the trees that are brought to the ground so that we can shelter our families. The fact that we might think differently, that we might somehow believe that our continued existence is not dependent on death, is the direct result of a commodified economy that conveniently shields us from this reality.
We can live with this truth by attempting to deny it, remaining blissful in the ignorance of our contemporized misunderstanding that life and death are finite conditions, somehow separable from one another. Or we can live with this truth by acknowledging and perhaps even embracing it. Of course, this is no excuse for wanton killing, or the mistreatment of the living creatures in our care. But the tragic irony is that the more we attempt to segregate ourselves from this reality, the more likely it is that these creatures – be they sentient animals or towering evergreens – will be treated with the contempt and unkindness driven by profit motives and hidden behind the opacity of the globalized economy.
By late Sunday afternoon, I’d accumulated a nice stack of sawlogs. As I steered the tractor out of the woods, fat snowflakes still drifting reluctantly toward the earth, I looked back. I no longer felt sad, perhaps in part because I was simply too damn wet and tired. But I think it was also because I knew that whatever killing I’d done had been acknowledged and carried out in gratitude for gift of the lumber and for the simple luxury of the labor, itself a satisfaction deeper than I can rightly explain.
I knew something else, too, because I’ve seen it time and again: In only a few months, when the snow has melted and the sun is bathing the forest floor from its perch high in the May sky, fragile seedlings, the offspring of the trees I’d taken, will emerge from the ground. Many will die, but some will not, and in time – perhaps not in my life, but certainly in my children’s – they will grow to heights that can hardly be imagined.