The People of the Forest Save the Forest

June09_2337forestlight240The comment was made, after the crowd of about 75 viewers had seen Fierce Green Fire at the Floyd Country Store Saturday night, that it seemed like so many of the obstacles to sound environmental policy and practice were the result of the power and influence of “old white men.”

Which is a corollary to a tried and true method of finding root causes for things that seem to be against the best interest of large crowds of people and just dandy for a few: Follow the money.

So many of the ecological ills the planet has suffered over the decades (and centuries) has been the result of powerful industries backed by government either cooperating or looking the other way. And the good ol’ boys at the top–and the stakeholders–come out fat and happy, while somebody else’s back yard gets mined, logged or otherwise used up and spit out as collateral damage, an “externalized cost” of white-guy economics.

The movie then, not surprisingly, spent no small amount of time describing the plight of marginalized non-white non-English-speaking people in their struggle against robber barons on the rubber plantations in Brazil. It particularly highlighted the grassroots rebellion lead by Chico Mendes, who was ultimately murdered by the loggers in 1988.

At the conclusion of this segment, the narrator made the comment that “It is the people who live in the forest that will save the forest.”

The phrase reverberated, and it got me thinking about both the particulars of that story and the wider metaphorical significance of belonging to the forest, as that belonging–or lack of it–impacts the future of the “environmental movement.”

For those Brazilians who resisted the despoliation of their forest surroundings, it was not just their houses they fought to save. Their lives were totally embedded in and dependent on the soil, air, water and vegetation around them. Their identity comes from that place. They are OF the forest and they BELONG to and in it.

Because of that, the bond to their “environment” is a good that they will sacrifice for, will even die to protect. Life worth living to them cannot go on without it. They know that because, in a sense, they ARE the forest. There is no divide between the land and those living there.

We will give and sacrifice and struggle and labor perhaps more for something to which we belong than for something that belongs to us. Those Brazilians did not own the forest, but they belonged there as a people. Their STORY was there.

Where is our story as typical Americans? Where does our identity come from? Think about this while you sip Starbucks at the mega-mall. Consider this from inside the gated community suburbs of a large American city or a pigeon-plagued downtown loft.

What gives you your character, orients your preferences, tells others who you are? The professional team sport that is your religion? The kind of car you drive or labels you wear? The “side of town” you live on? Your favorites on Dancing With the Stars?

If “who we are” comes from transient, superficial bought stuff and bling, that is where our hearts will be; that is what we will care about, talk about. That is the shopping life we will vote to protect. “The environment” becomes not much more than a scenic overlook we visit on vacation or the intersections between home and the stores where we get our stuff.

Americans have, by and large, become a displaced–or at least an unplaced–people. We belong to no forests.

Wendell Berry has said “What I stand ON is what I stand FOR.” He also said “If you don’t know WHERE you are, you can’t know WHO you are.” fernforest240

The people of the Brazilian forests know where they are. They know the ground they stand on, and they stand for the forest. Their sense of place embeds their story generation after generation in their environment. They know the value of nature. And their story is allegory.

Mendes said “At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realize I am fighting for humanity.”

The insulated, isolated, people of the American burbs will not save the forest. Today’s children then don’t know a monarch or a Christmas fern and never held a cricket won’t save the forest.

Repairing broken relationships to nature (the environment) and place are crucial if, in the short window ahead, we are to do right by the “environment.” We are, all of us, stakeholders in this investment.

This brings me back to early in the movie and the scenes from the late 60s and 70s. The young people of the era were ecstatic to “get back to the land.” Tree huggers. Flower power. Indeed. They got some things wrong. But re-engaging intimately with the natural world truly does give the energy and wisdom and power of conviction that Muir and Thoreau and others spoke of so eloquently.

I’ll end with a quote from a piece I thought was so important I put it in both books. The piece is called Calling Them by Name, and this is the last paragraph.

“Never before has the natural world needed each of us to know it, care for it and act on its behalf in such a way as it does in our times. We cannot be responsible stewards of a threatened planet if its creatures are distant, anonymous and irrelevant strangers. Be more aware than you’ve ever been in this cathedral made without hands, as John Muir called our world. Make friends of its inhabitants and know them by name.”

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Impassioned and beautiful and true. Gosh, I’m wondering if my children know a monarch or a Christmas fern. I’m pretty sure they do. Yet, yet… I’m troubled that I am even wondering. :/

  2. Great post. Yet I like most Americans have no discernible or realistic path to get back to the land and make a sustainable living even if we wanted to. If I had made the right choices many years ago, or if the economic collapse were not limiting choices now, it might have been a possibility. The majority of Americans are in prison with no skills to make it in the “outside” world, so we labor for the system and take our 3 meals per day at the chain gang restaurants in the strip malls. If there is an escape plan with the means to survive on the outside I’m all in, just take into account age, responsibility to other inmates, and of course the basic need for a Starbucks nearby 🙂

  3. With so many of us being urbanites, the reality you show us is very discouraging indeed. Most of us love and know mostly things in our man-made world, and have very little interest in the things to be found outside the city. Like that horrible ToysRUs ad illustrated. It looks pretty hopeless, but I know the good dreamers will keep on trying to reintroduce urbanites to nature, and maybe, just maybe they will succeed.