I’ve seen it before, this assault on our public lands, all my life in fact, and certainly it was going on before I appeared on scene. The attacks might be more brutal—and the consequences more dire—but we have long faced threats from those who place money and political gain above everything and everyone else.
Their menacing behavior has, in fact, become so commonplace that I should be used to it. I should not be surprised or shaken or caught off-guard by any of their shenanigans, especially when it comes to practices they’ve carried out for generations. Yet to this day, when confronted with their handiwork, I still recoil at what they’ve done and what they continue to do and fear even more how far they’re willing to go.
Few situations leave me feeling more brutalized than when I gaze across a clearcut forest and see firsthand the sweeping attack on the natural world, where acre upon acre has been scraped clean, and left behind are the rotting carcasses of gray stumps and barren swaths of dirt and the haunting piles of slash, looming upon the hillsides like abandoned grave mounds.
Such sights are common in the Northwest, I’m sorry to say, where timber barons have had their way for many years. But I still react as though I am the one who has been assaulted, the one scraped raw and left to perish on these hideous slopes.
I feel it most when I catch the first glimpse, coming around a bend or cresting a hill, that sharp intake, the moment of shock, followed by an aversion that settles in my gut and leaves me dark and stricken. Sometimes they preserve a thin stand of trees along the roadside, perhaps an attempt to block the destruction from view, but greed prevents them from ceding too much territory, and what remains is nothing but a scraggly veil that taunts and threatens and sickens me all the more.
I’m not the only one to react this way. In their own words, many have described the visceral sense of loss and consternation they feel at such sights, deep wounds that never quite heal, scars that never quite go away.
Rick Bass must be one of them, judging by his essay “The Value of Place,” from his collection The Book of Yaak. In it he describes the destruction he has seen in northwest Montana, the area he calls home and has tried to protect for many years:
I can’t tell you when the blinders of art, only art, first lifted: at what precise point I looked beyond the immediate visual reaction of what was being done to the country—the surgical incisions of the clearcuts, the scalpings—and felt the unease, or dis-ease, deeply enough to begin acting, or trying to act, against it. The clearcuts were never attractive, but for at least a year or two they did not touch me or harm me, nor my belief in peace, the way they do now—as does the threat of those clearcuts yet to come: those in the planning stages, and those that will come still later.
According to the US Department of Agriculture, we have lost 256 million acres of forest since 1630, when Europeans first invaded this wild and lush continent. With their slow migration west, they slashed and burned whatever stood in the way, people and forests alike, but it wasn’t until the last half of the 19th century that we saw the greatest deforestation, when industrialization became the West’s de facto religion, sanctifying once and for all the belief that public lands should be viewed only in terms of opportunity and profit, a belief that for many continues to reign supreme.
Timber companies and the politicians they buy are quick to tell us that public lands are managed far better today than in the past, but here in the Northwest, particularly on the Olympic Peninsula, in the place that Hollywood made famous with its vampires and werewolves, what I see tells me otherwise. If not for the Pacific Ocean and the serrated peaks of the Olympic Mountains, if not for the thin laws that try to preserve something against the onslaught of special interests, the timber companies would have it all, every drop of blood they could squeeze from these tortured slopes, something Bass too has pondered upon:
I’m not sure when I began to realize that they—the timber industry—wanted it all: or if not all of it immediately, then access to all of it, forever. Or as the occasional bumper sticker declared, “Wilderness = Land of No Use.”
It’s not just timber company big wigs willing to sacrifice our futures. It’s anyone who puts profit before planet, politics before preservation—anyone willing to blacken skies or sicken oceans or spill oil across these vast and fragile lands. Yet it is through the lens of the mutilated forests that I see their destruction with the greatest clarity, a haunting vision reflected in Richard Nelson’s essay “A Mountain in My Hand,” from his book The Island Within:
One of these may be the most pathetic piece of earth I’ve ever seen—a nearly perfect cone about a thousand feet high, with scarcely a tree left standing. Its surface is a choked and gullied waste, scarred by landslides, mottled and sloughing like the skin of a corpse. A road spirals to the top, where a few remnant snags claw upward like bleached bones. The surrounding terrain is a scramble of clearcuts.
Many of us have experienced such sightings, felt the crushing blows time and again, when we pass through devastated forests, stand near water slick with oil, see a gaping mine that’s taken half a mountain. But being sickened is not enough, as Nelson goes on to remind us:
What obligation is more binding than to protect the cherished, to defend whoever or whatever cannot defend itself, and to nurture in turn that which has given nourishment? I’m reminded of words written by John Seed, an Australian environmentalist. When he began considering these questions, he believed, “I am protecting the rain forest.” But as his thoughts evolved, he realized, “I am part of the rain forest protecting myself.”
We have good reason for treasuring our natural spaces and wanting to protect them, despite what naysayers would have us believe. Public lands help to preserve wildlife habitat, protect fragile ecosystems, and mitigate the impacts of climate change, while providing millions of acres for hiking and camping and fishing and a variety of other outdoor activities.
Public lands also offer another benefit, one as equally important and more critical than ever, and often forgotten in our discussions about pipelines and drilling and fracking and treeless acres.
Public lands allow us to connect with the natural world at a level so profound that words can only hint at the impact these sacred spaces have on nourishing us and reconnecting us and offering us a haven for the deepest parts of our being. They provide us with a sense of the authentic in a way we can experience nowhere else, a profound encounter that cannot be measured, that seeks no justification, that requires no discussion or feedback from the world at large.
Those who have walked through the tall and gracious maze of a pristine forest, viewed the vast and distant horizons from the top of a soaring mountain, explored the ancient folds of a deep and winding canyon, know the wondrous grandeur that can inspire and humble and draw us closer to the living pulse of the world.
In her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard eloquently captures the sense of exhilaration and awe that awaits any of us willing to venture into these natural settings:
After the one extravagant gesture of creation in the first place, the universe has continued to deal exclusively in extravagances, flinging intricacies and colossi down aeons of emptiness, heaping profusions on profligacies with ever-fresh vigor. The whole show has been on fire from the word go. I come down to the water to cool my eyes. But everywhere I look I see fire; that which isn't flint is tinder, and the whole world sparks and flames.
Natural settings, as long as they still exist, can provide us with deep and life-changing experiences if we are open enough to accept them, but for many, such experiences are as remote as the moon’s dark shadows. They have either lacked the opportunity or the interest, their realities defined by a prejudiced and sanitized belief system that serves only to perpetuate a perspective of separation, from each other and the rest of the world.
Lack of opportunity is no surprise in a society that denies access and resources to those at economic and social disadvantages or at the mercy of a culture that values video games and mobile phones over forests and rivers.
A recent report published by Nature of Americans states that 79% of US adults spend less than 10 hours in nature during a typical week. Kids are even worse off, averaging under seven hours a week in outdoor activity, less than many prison inmates. Instead, they spend seven hours a day in front of their electronic media, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.
Yet evidence continues to mount on the importance of being out in a natural setting, how it revitalizes our spirits and restores our natural balance, reminding us that, without nature, we are living lives only half-lived. And many have taken notice. Recognizing the need to get outdoors, they’re coming together to help individuals and communities regain their awareness and appreciation of the natural world.
Take, for example, Wild Society, a nonprofit organization on the Kitsap Peninsula in Washington state. Made up of a small group of volunteers, Wild Society offers camping trips, classes, and community events that help “reconnect human hearts with the everyday wild through adventure, scientific inquiry, storytelling, and hands-on skills.” They believe that by “cultivating attitudes of wonder and belonging in the natural world,” they’re expanding the community of people who advocate the planet’s well-being.
And they’re not the only ones trying to help. In Washington state alone, we have organizations such as Wild Whatcom, North Cascades Institute, IslandWood, Outdoor Afro, Wilderness Awareness School, and Outdoors for All Foundation.
Through exposure to the world’s natural places, we are reminded of the roots of our existence and how we are connected to the earth and its spectacular array of life. For many of us, it is a spiritual adventure into the deepest reaches of our own souls, played out in a mystical web that surrounds and connects us to the natural world.
When touched by the magic of a wild river or giant redwood or rock wall taller than a skyscraper, we are reminded of the vastness and interconnectedness of everything around us—and how essential that connection is to our placement in that world. As Father Thomas Keating has stated, “There are two books of revelation: one is the Bible and one is nature.”
But we don’t have to be churchgoers to recognize the wonder and reverence that comes with venturing into the natural world. In fact, many who swear allegiance to the Bible willingly turn their backs on that world. Their idea of wilderness is an 18-hole golf course, free from the unpredictable and wild landscapes of nature. They see public lands in terms only of opportunity and profit, remaining untouched by the earth’s natural wonders, as though a genetic flaw prevents their hearts from being stirred by the sight of a serene mountain lake or the massive wings of an eagle soaring over a canyon on the warm upsweep of air.
Even if we are moved by the marvels that surround us, few of us can claim innocence from having contributed in some way to the ills that plague the natural world, swept along as we are by the cultural tides—and the biases accompanying them. Yet the forces that have brought us to this point are not always apparent or easily understood, as Rick Bass alludes to later in his essay:
We are all born with an appreciation of, a love and a need for beauty and grace…But as if frightened of it, we carve, prod and poke at it. We view mystery as the enemy of knowledge, and in trying to find knowledge we end up attempting to harm the sheath of mystery which encases that knowledge—cutting or attacking that mystery, in either fear or anger—and in so doing, harming or altering the knowledge that lies beneath the mystery.
When we perceive ourselves as separate from and superior to our natural surroundings, all we have left is the anger and fear, yet it can be difficult, if not impossible, to feel a part of those settings when they are so removed from our daily awareness.
This is why we need organizations like Wild Society and the people who support them. They recognize the importance of spending time in nature and experiencing those sacred spaces for ourselves. They understand the need to honor and protect these places, nurture and restore them—before we run out of time. We cannot have a relationship with the natural world, yet remain indifferent to its destruction. For every lake that is polluted, for every forest that is cut down, for every species that is lost, we too are polluted and destroyed and lost. We are born of this world and are made of its essence, no matter how much we might pretend otherwise.
In his blog post Gems on the Northern Shore, Forrest Nichols, the Wild Society Executive Director, writes about taking his children on a treasure hunt to look for natural riches, in this case, a giant boulder filled with hundreds of garnets on the northwest shores of the Kitsap Peninsula:
It is a blessing to be able to feel the story in a rock, to feel the pulse of time in a vision that you share with something truly ancient and then to come back to the moment where you have to go make dinner, get your kids in the bath and prepare for another day. In this dynamic lies the magnificence of human life, the in-between place that bridges the infinitely vast and complex universe and the simple humdrum details of daily life.
If we lose our connection to the natural world, we lose everything. But preserving it takes more than words. It takes heart and it takes commitment and it takes our own experiences of wonder and joy at the sight of a late evening alpenglow or sound of a crashing ocean wave or the smell of an unspoiled forest after a late summer rain.