“What would human life be without forests, those natural cities?”
By Maria Popova
More than two years after a fire started by a teenage boy destroyed 47,000 acres of old-growth forest in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge, having just resolved to face the new year like a tree, I found myself on the brink of tears before the blackened trunk of an ancient ponderosa pine as I walked the sylvan scar tissue of the tragedy. A conversation with my hiking companion — a dear friend currently working with the Navajo Nation on preserving and learning from their own ecological inheritance — led to the impossible question of how we can even begin to measure the loss: What is a tree worth? Not its timber, not its carbon offset value, but its treeness — the source of the existential wisdom Whitman celebrated, the mirror Blake believed it holds up to a person’s character, its silent teachings about how to love and how to live and what optimism really means.
The teenager who decimated this green tapestry of belonging was ordered to pay $36.6 million in restitution — a number that staggers at first, but only until one considers the nearly 4,000,000 leaved and rooted victims of the crime, and the many more millions of creatures for whom the forest was home, and even the occasional insignificant human animals who, like my friend and I, bathed in these ancient trees to wash away the sorrows of living.
Noting the disappearance of Maine’s white pines, Thoreau laments how these majestic trees, each endowed with a living spirit as immortal as his own, are vanishing because the men who cut them down for lumber have failed to see their true value. In a passage included in the altogether revitalizing Thoreau and the Language of Trees (public library), he writes:
Can he who has discovered only some of the values of whalebone and whale oil be said to have discovered the true use of the whale? Can he who slays the elephant for his ivory be said to have “seen the elephant”? These are petty and accidental uses; just as if a stronger race were to kill us in order to make buttons and flageolets of our bones; for everything may serve a lower as well as a higher use.
I have been into the lumber-yard, and the carpenter’s shop, and the tannery, and the lampblack factory, and the turpentine clearing; but when at length I saw the tops of the pines waving and reflecting the light at a distance high over all the rest of the forest, I realized that the former were not the highest use of the pine. It is not their bones or hide or tallow that I love most. It is the living spirit of the tree, not its spirit of turpentine, with which I sympathize, and which heals my cuts. It is as immortal as I am, and perchance will go to as high a heaven, there to tower above me still.
Little did the fathers of the town anticipate this brilliant success, when they caused to be imported from farther in the country some straight poles with their tops cut off, which they called Sugar-Maples; and, as I remember, after they were set out, a neighboring merchant’s clerk, by way of jest, planted beans about them. Those which were then jestingly called bean-poles are to-day far the most beautiful objects noticeable in our streets. They are worth all and more than they have cost, — though one of the selectmen, while setting them out, took the cold which occasioned his death, — if only because they have filled the open eyes of children with their rich color unstintedly so many Octobers. We will not ask them to yield us sugar in the spring, while they afford us so fair a prospect in the autumn. Wealth in-doors may be the inheritance of few, but it is equally distributed on the Common. All children alike can revel in this golden harvest.
“The longer the lever the less perceptible its motion… The hero then will know how to wait, as well as to make haste. All good abides with him who waiteth wisely.”
By Maria Popova
“We made the world we’re living in and we have to make it over,” James Baldwin insisted in examining the building blocks of a juster future. “The present is not a potential past; it is the moment of choice and action,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote across the Atlantic as she was advancing the era’s other great human rights cause.
A century before Baldwin and De Beauvoir, Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) explored this question of how the choices we make in the present liberate the future from the past and make the world over in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (public library) — his first book, published when he was only thirty-two, a disaffected public school teacher who had become one of the country’s most promising young writers with the stern yet generous guidance of his first and best editor, Margaret Fuller.
This was an era of immense cultural upheaval, in which the air of revolution was saturated with the urgencies of abolition and women’s emancipation. Ensconced in the woods of Concord, attuned to the elements that far predated and would far outlive the turmoils of the present — the trees, the rivers, the cycles of the seasons — Thoreau spent his days contemplating the most elemental questions of human existence and our civilizational conscience. It was with this widest possible perspective that he focused his precocious wisdom on the pressing issues of social change, using this long lever of insight to make the present a fulcrum for elevating the future.
Bedeviled by his disgust with slavery and the Mexican-American War, having just modeled for his country how to use civil disobedience to advance justice — a model that would come to influence Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. — he considers the tectonics of change on the scale of society and civilization:
As in geology, so in social institutions, we may discover the causes of all past change in the present invariable order of society. The greatest appreciable physical revolutions are the work of the light-footed air, the stealthy-paced water, and the subterranean fire… We are independent of the change we detect. The longer the lever the less perceptible its motion. It is the slowest pulsation which is the most vital. The hero then will know how to wait, as well as to make haste. All good abides with him who waiteth wisely.
If history teaches us one thing about the origins and originators of the greatest social change — an animating question in Figuring — it is that those who ignite the profoundest revolutions are themselves often blind to their own spark. Thoreau’s contemporary and kindred revolutionary spirit Elizabeth Barrett Browning would articulate this with stunning succinctness in her groundbreaking 1856 book-length poem Aurora Leigh:
The best men, doing their best,
Know peradventure least of what they do…
The young Thoreau channels this sentiment in his own lyrical prose, suspended as always between the buoyant and the melancholy:
A man is not his hope, nor his despair, nor yet his past deed. We know not yet what we have done, still less what we are doing. Wait till evening, and other parts of our day’s work will shine than we had thought at noon, and we shall discover the real purport of our toil. As when the farmer has reached the end of the furrow and looks back, he can tell best where the pressed earth shines most.
One of Thoreau’s most countercultural yet incisive points is that true social reform has little to do with politics, for genuine cultural change operates on cycles far longer and more invisible than the perpetual churning of immediacies with which the political state and the political conscience are occupied. Rather than dueling with petty surface facts, as politics is apt to, the true revolutionary and reformer dwells in humanity’s largest truths, aiming to transfigure the deepest strata of reality. In consonance with the need for a telescopic perspective, Thoreau writes:
To one who habitually endeavors to contemplate the true state of things, the political state can hardly be said to have any existence whatever. It is unreal, incredible, and insignificant to him, and for him to endeavor to extract the truth from such lean material is like making sugar from linen rags, when sugar-cane may be had. Generally speaking, the political news, whether domestic or foreign, might be written to-day for the next ten years, with sufficient accuracy. Most revolutions in society have not power to interest, still less alarm us; but tell me that our rivers are drying up, or the genus pine dying out in the country, and I might attend. Most events recorded in history are more remarkable than important, like eclipses of the sun and moon, by which all are attracted, but whose effects no one takes the trouble to calculate.
Change, Thoreau reminds us, begins when we finally choose to critically examine and then recalibrate the ill-serving codes and conventions handed down to us, often unquestioned, by the past and its power structures. It is essentially an act of the imagination first. Long before Ursula K. Le Guin asserted that “we will not be free if we do not imagine freedom,” Thoreau calls for imagining nobler alternatives to the dicta and mindsets we have inherited:
In my short experience of human life, the outward obstacles, if there were any such, have not been living men, but the institutions of the dead. It is grateful to make one’s way through this latest generation as through dewy grass. Men are as innocent as the morning to the unsuspicious… I love man-kind, but I hate the institutions of the dead un-kind. Men execute nothing so faithfully as the wills of the dead, to the last codicil and letter. They rule this world, and the living are but their executors.
A century before Hannah Arendt considered the most extreme and gruesome manifestation of this tendency in her classic treatise on the normalization of evil, informed by the Holocaust and its incomprehensible phenomenon of ordinary people “just following orders” to murder, Thoreau writes:
Herein is the tragedy; that men doing outrage to their proper natures, even those called wise and good, lend themselves to perform the office of inferior and brutal ones. Hence come war and slavery in; and what else may not come in by this opening? But certainly there are modes by which a man may put bread into his mouth which will not prejudice him as a companion and neighbor.
Most of our errors, Thoreau observes, stem not from being unwitting of the right choice but from being unwise in the willingness or unwillingness to choose it:
Men do not fail commonly for want of knowledge, but for want of prudence to give wisdom the preference. What we need to know in any case is very simple.
To unmoor ourselves from the burdens of the past, he reminds us, we must be engaged in an act of continual and conscious self-renewal:
All men are partially buried in the grave of custom, and of some we see only the crown of the head above ground. Better are the physically dead, for they more lively rot. Even virtue is no longer such if it be stagnant. A man’s life should be constantly as fresh as this river. It should be the same channel, but a new water every instant.
“There’s simply no imaginable tomorrow — no modeled future scenario, no amount or shade of red — that could ever possibly nullify the need for unwavering care and thoughtful action today.”
By Maria Popova
“I love the cedar,” Walt Whitman exulted in his sublime Specimen Days, “its naked ruggedness, its just palpable odor, (so different from the perfumer’s best,) its silence, its equable acceptance of winter’s cold and summer’s heat, of rain or drouth — its shelter to me from those, at times — its associations — (well, I never could explain why I love anybody, or anything.)”
Whitman, who celebrated the wisdom of trees, might have been both gladdened and saddened to know that one particular species of cedar — Callitropsis nootkatensis, or yellow cedar, which his contemporary and admirer John Muir considered “a truly noble tree… undoubtedly the best the country affords” — holds deep and previously unfathomed wisdom on the greatest ecological challenge our civilization is facing, wisdom both devastating and strangely optimistic.
Both witness and survivor of epochs of change, the yellow-cedar tree has stood sentinel across the Pacific Northwest, revered by native mystics and exploited by industrialists for its lush golden wood, its growth-rings encoding a record of good and bad fortune dealt indiscriminately by the long hand of geological time. Kindred to the giant sequoia, it is not a true cedar but rather a cypress, also known as yellow cypress or Nootka cypress, after the Nootka Sound of Vancouver Island, where it first entered the annals of botany.
Oakes — one of those science writers who can rise, in her finest passages, to the rare category of enchanter — made the yellow cedar the focal point of her research not long after earning her doctorate. It would soon become her lens on the largest ecological problems — and their most auspicious solutions — of our time. She writes:
I came to Alaska looking for hope in a graveyard. Ice melting, seas rising, longer droughts — in a world seemingly on fire, I chose to put myself in some of the worst of it. The Alexander Archipelago in Southeast Alaska is a collection of thousands of islands in one of the scarce pockets remaining on this planet where thick moss blankets the forest floor and trees range from tiny seedlings to ancient giants. But I wasn’t loading into that Cessna four-seater to look for fairy-tale forests of spruce, hemlock, and cedar. I was flying in search of the forests I’d study — the graveyards of standing dead trees and the plants I so wanted to believe could tell me, through science, that maybe the world is not coming to an end.
Oakes describes her first embodied encounter with the specter of the yellow cedar as she hovers over the Alaskan coastline in a small jet plane, about to land and commence her research:
To the left, the verdant coastline broke off into inlets and side channels. To my right, I could see the steep hillsides covered in white skeletons of dead trees — standing on end like telephone poles, leafless ghosts of the towering cypress. Boulder-sized rocks on the beaches looked like little specks in relation to the large tracks of terrain with dying trees, the canopies of foliage in faded sepia tone.
I had been so focused on building a sound scientific study that wouldn’t get me or my crew killed that I hadn’t given much thought to what I would feel when I first saw the dead. From the bird’s-eye view, the giant trunks looked like thousands of toothpicks stuck in the earth. If trees were people, anyone would have called it a tragedy — an epidemic running rampant throughout the community in the largest remaining coastal temperate rainforest on Earth. I felt the tiny hairs on my forearms rise.
“We call it ‘Nature’; only reluctantly admitting ourselves to be ‘Nature’ too,” Denise Levertov wrote in her superb poem “Sojourns in the Parallel World” in recognition that such a response to witnessing the tragedy of another species is, of course, the only truly natural response — the response we cannot help but have the moment we unlearn our civilization-conditioned delusion that we are somehow separate from the rest of nature. Rachel Carson knew this in contemplating science and our spiritual bond with nature: “Our origins are of the earth. And so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity.”
It is from this deeply seated response that Oakes wrests her direction of research as a scientist and her direction of hope — that ultimate driver of transformation and survival — as a human being:
There was no driving on from the graveyards of standing dead, no going home, and no forgetting. I didn’t know it then, but those trees would change my life. In the moment, soaring above them, they made me feel vulnerable to our warming world in a way I had never felt before.
There’s a limit to the change we can tolerate, I thought. There’s a threshold and tipping point for every species — humans included.
What I didn’t know then was that these dead trees would eventually give me more than just hope. They’d give me a sense of conviction about our ability to cope with climate change. They’d motivate me to do my part. They’d move me from pessimism about the outlook of our world to optimism about all we still can do. As we made our way back down Slocum Arm, I stopped focusing on the dead trees and started looking around them. I could see green peeking up and around the barren trunks. I wondered if there was a new forest forming and what individuals could survive amidst the changes occurring. They were there. I could see them reaching toward the light through the broken canopies. I was committed to finding an answer — but for more than just the fate of the trees.
A century and a half after the great naturalist John Muir so memorably and poetically observed that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” Oakes set out to investigate the interleaved fates of trees and people, of the local and the global. On foot and kayak, she traveled across Alaska’s coastal forests to speak with hunters, Native weavers, naturalists, climate change deniers, and foresters, fusing ecology and social science in an effort to understand why a species that had survived the tumult of eons was dying so rapidly, what could be done about it, and how both the problem and its improbable solution might illuminate a new path forward for us as an ecologically responsible species. It is a matter of both science and storytelling, reason and reflection — “Attention without feeling,” Mary Oliver wrote, “is only a report.” Our search for truth, after all, is inseparable from our hunger for meaning — a hunger we feel at the core of our being, inside the rings of our varied experiences. Oakes writes:
We create and re-create narratives throughout our lives to make sense of what happened, to process experience, to interpret and reinterpret our view of the world as life unfolds. I believe that beautiful and difficult process is what it is to be human.
Scientific facts rely upon assumptions; they are blocks built upon one another. But what I learned in the archipelago came from a mix of science and the act of doing that work; of striving for another layer of understanding in lived experience. Our own truths, felt in the heart and known in the mind, are transient as we create the storied landscapes of our lives, again and again and again. So this is me, at this point in time, finding my way into tomorrow in a world destined, as some argue, to become uninhabitable. It is a story of refusing my own fear of what a warming world will mean for me in my lifetime; a story of becoming an unexpected optimist against a backdrop of dying forests and in a profession where pessimism is often the common response.
The kind of optimism Oakes cultivates in the course of her yellow-cedar research, both ecological and sociological, is not a blind and passive hope but the kind Walt Whitman saw as our mightiest force of resistance — a sane and sane-making optimism best articulated by a naturalist named Greg Steveler, whom Oakes interviews along the way. He tells her:
A forest is a concept. A forest is an actuating algorithm that we are catching at a moment. But the beauty, to me, one of the principal beauties is to try to imagine the stream of matter and energy through this moment from where it’s coming from to where it’s going. So that’s the forest.
I don’t do hope.. One of the reasons I think geology has become important to me is that it helps me pass the pain I just mentioned to you. I’m getting better at visualizing deep time in both directions. It makes me realize that the present moment of human depredation is definitely going to be fleeting. Other things will change in ways that I can’t imagine. But there will be ancient things again in the world at some point, and there have been. So it gives my spirit respite to live in remote times, either future or past… Here’s the substance of it: In the modern world, I think it’s intellectually dishonest to be hopeful, but it’s equally stupid to be hopeless. You can’t live out of a hopeless life.
What occurred to me a few years ago was that I don’t have to get caught in that trap. The best thing for me to do is to develop my inner voice and to steer as close to that as I can and to act as if what I do matters. And allow the future to decide what comes of who I am… There was a fairly brief period in my life when I was pretty well philosophically prostrated by this because I couldn’t bring myself to play these little hope games and say, ‘Oh, see that little thing over there, notice now that the car is using a few gallons per hour less,’ or, ‘Look, someone just put a solar panel on their roof. And so things are getting better!’ Well, they’re not getting better. I didn’t want to play that game with myself, and yet I didn’t want to be trapped in the abysm of being depressed over it. I want to live a more joyful life than that.
Grace is what we decide to take with us and what we leave behind.
Half a century earlier, conservationist Mardie Murie had drawn on her enchantment with Alaska to help craft the language of the landmark 1964 Wilderness Act — possibly the most lyrical piece of legislature in human history: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man* and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” But in the course of her conversations with the various human stakeholders in the plight of the yellow cedar, Oakes is jolted into the realization that the wildness as such doesn’t exist and never existed — “instead of a physical reality, it’s a state of mind.” Or, rather, it is different states in different minds.
Two of the people she encounters — a Tlingit weaver named Kasyyahgei, who goes by the English name Ernestine, and her niece and apprentice, Cathy — would articulate this notion with staggering intensity. The forest, they felt, gave their people their identity. “Wilderness is a curse word,” Ernestine tells Oakes, then Cathy adds:
I would rather educate the people and see — have them learn the value of what they’re using, as opposed to set aside and make it all stop… Because once you’ve set that in motion, it becomes political football. Who wants to rape the land the most? We’re a minority here. We’re a small voice trying to say there’s true value in this land. This is one part of it that you’re checking, the cedar.
Echoing Rachel Carson’s courageous insistence that the designation and administration of nature “is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics,” Oakes reflects in a sentiment that highlights the complexities and inner contradictions of any ecosystem, including that of human society:
To sit there in Ernestine’s home by her loom and hear her call wilderness a curse word, to claim the designation itself is to blame for the imbalance we’ve created on our planet, that struck me.
Our separation from nature stems from our early efforts to protect it? And that separation is the cause of our problems today? There was an irony and unexpected twist — the once well-intentioned act of protecting wild places had broken the relationships needed to sustain the larger whole over a much longer time frame. It was the exact opposite of what Stegner and the National Park Service would have wanted. What I had once fought for, she was fighting against, but I didn’t feel defensive. I felt like I had something to learn.
Formally designating lands as “Wilderness” had severed the relationships she and her people had cultivated with the natural world. Ernestine said their relationship to the land and trees had always been one of balance and respect. Just as a curse word divides two people in conversation, setting aside nature tore it apart from humanity. For someone like Ernestine, drawing lines on a map and preserving places for people to connect with “nature” made no sense. This approach was only logical to people who had lost that connection and already severed relationships.
Teri Rofkar — another Tlingit Native, also a weaver — highlights this predicament with the insightful insistence that the term natural resource only furthers this artificial divide and the framing of nature as an exploitable commodity. Rather, replacing the term with the word relationship would begin the repairing of our bond with nature. (We know, after all, that relationship is the forest’s fabric of life.) “When we resource, we don’t make the ties of what was lost in order to gain something,” she tells Oakes, who echoes Carson’s insistence that “it is not half so important to know as to feel“ and writes:
There’s an objective world of the measurable — one where I can identify the species and count the saplings and run the statistics on a large dataset of forests affected by climate change. There’s an objective world where the patterns from interviews reveal that the people most connected to nature are also the ones most prepared to act and respond as it changes around them. Then there’s a whole realm of the immeasurable that’s deeply intertwined with the measurable. Where adapting requires collaboration and working across the boundaries that climate change ignores; where mitigating the damage requires both restraint and bold action. Where what I feel is just as important as what I know. It is what comes with intuition based on knowledge.
With an eye to the intricate interchange between relationship and responsibility, Oakes frames the central question animating her work:
At what point will adaptation become triage, caring for the people most affected? Like an epidemic, an extreme weather event can devastate whole communities of people, but when do we start investing in getting out in front of the next one? … Waiting for the top-down approach is an excuse for doing nothing from the bottom up. Adaptation requires me to stop thinking about climate change as someone else’s problem and accept it as my own. It requires me to stop thinking about the global risks and to start seeing what’s happening in my own community, and then to reach out to others. It requires me to consider the more vulnerable places and populations to ask, “What can I do to help?” These are the things this cypress, and all the people connected to it, have taught me. What happens at the local scale matters when it comes to climate change because that’s where people’s lives are carried out.
I can observe the changes occurring around me and embrace the struggle to accept them, to respond to them, to adapt to them. I can look ahead and live today holding space for tomorrow. I can fight for what we can still curtail. I can play a part, not live apart, and I can act with care for others when the floods hit, when the seas rise, when the snow melts, the rivers run dry, and the flames rage. Defeat may only be a failure to adapt.
If fear is the absence of breath, and faith is a positive force, I want to breathe into an uncertain future. If this tree species and all the people connected to it gave me one great gift, it is this: the realization that there’s simply no imaginable tomorrow — no modeled future scenario, no amount or shade of red—that could ever possibly nullify the need for unwavering care and thoughtful action today. To me, that is thriving. To me, in this rapidly changing world, that is grace. It is how I choose to live with what I know.
“Beauty is a resource in and of itself… I hope the United States of America is not so rich that she can afford to let these wildernesses pass by — or so poor she cannot afford to keep them.”
By Maria Popova
“After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains?” Walt Whitman asked in contemplating what makes life worth living, then answered: “Nature remains.” But what happens when nature is in peril, no longer the consolatory constant counted on to remain? A decade before Rachel Carson catalyzed the modern environmental movement, she addressed the urgency of this question in a prescient 1953 letter in response to the government’s merciless assault nature for commercial gain: “The real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife… Their administration is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics.”
Another quarter century later, as Carson’s legacy was beginning to blossom into policy change — including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency — the naturalist, conservationist, adventurer, and author Margaret “Mardy” Murie (August 18, 1902–October 19, 2003) echoed Carson in her 1977 congressional testimony for the Alaska Lands Bill:
Beauty is a resource in and of itself. Alaska must be allowed to be Alaska, that is her greatest economy. I hope the United States of America is not so rich that she can afford to let these wildernesses pass by — or so poor she cannot afford to keep them.
The seedbed of Murie’s reverence for the wilderness was her childhood in Alaska. There she encountered nature at her most beautiful, most ferocious, and most generous. The winters stretched from October to April and the temperature dropped to fifty below zero for weeks on end, but Murie remembers living “in an atmosphere of tolerance and love” — an orientation that stretched beyond the relationships between humans and into humanity’s relationship with nature. In the preface to her 1962 memoir, Two in the Far North (public library), she writes:
Here in Alaska people still count, as much today as in the twenties. I would love to think the world will survive its obsession with machines to see a day when people respect one another all over the world. It seems as clear as a shaft of the Aurora that this is our only hope. My prayer is that Alaska will not lose the heart-nourishing friendliness of her youth — that her people will always care for one another, her towns remain friendly and not completely ruled by the dollar — and that her great wild places will remain great, and wild, and free, where wolf and caribou, wolverine and grizzly bear, and all the arctic blossoms may live on in the delicate balance which supported them long before impetuous man appeared in the North.
This is the great gift Alaska can give to the harassed world.
In the foreword to the 1997 edition of Murie’s memoir, Terry Tempest Williams — a Murie of our own time — quotes from an unpublished manuscript Murie had shared with her in her ninety-fifth year:
There may be people who feel no need for nature. They are fortunate, perhaps. But for those of us who feel otherwise, who feel something is missing unless we can hike across land disturbed only by our footsteps or see creatures roaming freely as they have always done, we are sure there should be wilderness. Species other than man have rights, too. Having finished all the requisites of our proud, materialistic civilization, our neon-lit society, does nature, which is the basis for our existence, have the right to live on? Do we have enough reverence for life to concede to wilderness this right?
Two years after the publication of Two in the Far North, Murie would bring her devotion to conservation and her lyrical language to the 1964 Wilderness Act — a landmark legislative triumph of respect for nature, designating 9.1 million acres of federal land as protected from human exploitation. She helped compose its founding ethos — a precise yet immensely poetic definition of wilderness:
A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man* and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.
In 1998, midway through her ninety-sixth year, Murie’s conservation work earned her the nation’s highest civilian honor: the Presidential Medal of Freedom.