For North American tree lovers, October is a special month: the time of year when the trees get dressed up in their fanciest finery and show off just how wildly beautiful they are.
I pay attention to trees in all seasons, and have ever since I was a girl who loved to climb them, as high as I could go, and drape myself over a branch to feel the wind swaying us both gently.
My very first short story, written in pencil in a nondescript notebook when I was about 8, was about a tree nymph named Estrella, who gathered the animals around her in an urgent council, and set off on a quest to try to save her forest from destruction by humans. I never finished that story, mostly because I could not imagine a solution—how could a tree nymph and some forest animals stop the men with their bulldozers and chain saws?
Estrella haunts me now, prodding me to return to her story and persevere to the ending. Since those long ago days of my childhood, the pace of forest destruction has only increased.
According to National Geographic, if the current pace of deforestation continues, the planet’s rainforests could “completely vanish in a hundred years” (italics mine).
The fate of the northern boreal forests is no less dire. The Canadian boreal forest, an area more than 14 times the size of California, is being scraped away relentlessly for tar sands oil production, as well as being steadily logged.
In the first 13 years of the 21st century, according to a report from the World Resources Institute and Global Forest Watch, “Canada lost more than 26 million hectares of forest, mainly in its boreal region. More than 20 percent of the boreal forest region (more than 150 million hectares) is now covered by industrial concessions for timber operations, hydrocarbon development, hydroelectric power reservoirs, and mineral extraction.”
A hectare is equal to about 2.5 acres. The scale of this deforestation boggles the mind. In fact, I think one of the reasons this vast destruction is continuing is because it’s so hard to wrap our minds around it. Outside of photos, very few of us tree lovers ever see a fresh clear-cut or a mine. We don’t see what passes for “reforestation,” the planting of millions of trees in straight lines, with herbicide sprayed below them to prevent “weeds” from growing, and not an animal or bird or butterfly in sight.
Yet so many of us love birds and butterflies and animals. We put out our bird feeders in the winter and ooh and ahh over a sighting of a deer or a bobcat.
How can we be so loving on the one hand, and so callous on the other? How can we allow the relentless logging and scraping and dozing and burning to go on???
We seem to live with constant cognitive dissonance, whereby we know what’s going on, but resolutely shut out the knowledge. At least, that’s what I do. I know that every time I get in my car I’m being part of the problem. But I continue driving, nevertheless. We all do.
Human beings are profoundly social animals. The more I think about our behavior, the more I see our resemblance to ants, bees and termites. Especially ants, who are also wizards at reshaping the environment to suit their own needs. But no other species on Earth destroys its own habitat—and knowingly, at that!
A long, long time ago, the Earth was an anaerobic environment; there was no oxygen in the atmosphere. Then the plants came along and started turning carbon dioxide into oxygen, paving the way for all of us oxygen breathers who followed them.
Without the plants—without the algae, grasses, trees and all the other carbon-dioxide breathers—the Earth would become uninhabitable for us, just as it became uninhabitable for the anaerobic creatures millions of years ago.
So when we’re thinking about the trees, we owe them some gratitude. Some reverence and respect.
I love trees because they seem majestic and wise to me. They live a long time, far longer than humans, and they exist both above and below ground in ways I can hardly begin to fathom. They are also patient and resilient. When you cut down a tree, its roots still feed the soil, and if left alone (ie, no herbicides), it will soon regenerate, calmly sending up hundreds of new saplings to take the place of the one who fell. It has time. There is no rush.
It’s human beings who are in a rush, all the time. In a rush to “harvest biomass,” policy code for cutting down forests. In a rush to figure out how to “manage ecosystem services,” ie, learning how to cut down, replant and cut down again at the fastest possible rate.
All this rush is sending us pell-mell off the cliff of climate change. We know this, but try not to think about it. It’s so much easier to go along with the flow of our dominant, fossil-fuel-based, wood-hungry culture than to try to resist. Especially when it seems like that’s what everyone else is doing too.
Charles Eisenstein says that “enlightenment is a group activity,” meaning that it’s almost impossible for us humans, social creatures that we are, to change our mind-sets alone.
What’s truly exciting about our time is that now, we are more networked and communicative than ever before, just like our cousins the ants and the bees. Our Internet has made group enlightenment (otherwise known as social change) possible at a speed and a scale never before possible for humans.
It’s no longer possible for us to simply not know when millions of acres of forest are being clear-cut. That kind of innocence is gone, and with knowledge comes the responsibility to act, to live up to our values. Happily, there are some potent actions going on right now on behalf of the forests and the waters—the lifeblood of our planet.
Not surprisingly, it’s indigenous peoples, the ones who have stayed closest to the land throughout the whole horrendous onslaught of “Western civilization,” who are leading the way.
If you haven’t been following the protests at Standing Rock, North Dakota, where a massive pipeline project is underway, please inform yourself. The powers that be are trying to muzzle the media there, but that always backfires in the age of social media, doesn’t it.
Amy Goodman’s video report of dogs attacking peaceful protesters (they prefer to call themselves as “water protectors”) has gone viral with more than 14 million views in just a couple of weeks. The more the oil moguls try to stamp out resistance, the brighter the glare of public awareness and outrage shines.
I’m also heartened by the response to the Million Trees Campaign started by Treesisters, an organization inspired by the Pachamama Alliance, which was itself sparked by visits with the Amazonian Shuar people who were reaching out to northern allies to try to save their forests.
Treesisters is funding local reforestation projects, focusing on the tropical rainforests that are so essential to the stability of the climate worldwide. Currently they are half-way to their goal of funding the planting of 1 million trees in the coming year—you can join in here.
Estrella the tree nymph is never far from my mind these days, her great love for the trees and forests fueling her implacable determination to change the hearts and minds of the human beings that would destroy them.
One day I will finish her story. And I hope I can find my way to a happy ending.