You Can’t Plant a Forest

Merwin you can't plant a forest SustainFloyd Floyd Virginia

“You can’t plant a forest.”

This was one the things spoken by poet WS Merwin in last night’s final SustainFloyd Movie Night at the Floyd Country Store.

The poignancy of the short, simple statement might have escaped notice by some, even in the audience of Floyd’s more-than-average eco-aware.

Those words carried  a personal message for me,  hearing yesterday in the near distance the two-hundredth mature hardwood crack when the felling notch was complete.

They topple crackling through the broken branches of collateral-damage standers-by, falling, one and then another, followed by the echoing thud ungrounded, in a sickening final impact.

Unseen, a quarter mile away, the vertical lines of life lay horizontal, severed from the roots that anchored and nursed and sustained it since the year that I was born or before. There lay so many out-of-sight anonymous trunks with inconvenient branches, lifted, loaded and hauled to the mill.

It is called forest product extraction. But it is really just tree harvest. This has never been a forest around us here on the slopes of Southwest Virginia–not in the original nature of eastern new-world forests.

All our modern-day stands of trees are quasi-natural communities, only approximations of their ancient archetype that was a true fully-elaborated, mature, steady-state forest ecosystem, in all its relationships fully established.

That kind of forest began to disappear here when white men claimed timber rights to the king’s land, and began exporting ships’ masts back to the motherland or cleared enough land to build a fort in a clearing where enemies could not hide.

You can plant trees. And the shock to local residents of 400 acres of clear-cutting whose saws and thunder we will listen to all winter long is potentially mollified by the promise that the loggers will plant white pine seedlings in the empty spaces where mature white pines stood a month ago. They can and they might, but they will not plant a forest.

That empty mountainside behind us on Lick Ridge will not be a forest. Not really. It will stand in the place of one in the thinking and experience of my generation that has never seen an intact ecosystem of mature trees–a virgin forest–and its associated understory community and the animals who lived in that steady-state of forest ecology. We don’t know forests.

It is true that the strip-mining of “forest products” has become essential to the building and paper trades and the goods we consumer from them. It is true that our ubiquitous second and third and fourth-growth stands of trees can be managed, as we say, responsibly.

They can be harvested and replanted in such a way as to sustain more or less viable bird and mammal and amphibian populations and flowering plant diversity that is “normal” by today’s baseline-creep standards. This can perhaps happen best with a worst-first low-impact logging on small parcels.

But these ecological considerations on public and national forest lands can be a distant second to board feet of profit in the near-term and as often as possible. It’s managed chiefly as a business, after all, multiple-use notwithstanding.

I’m not advocating for a return to old-growth hands-off wilderness on private and public lands as a general rule across the nation. That’s not possible or practical at current population and per-capita demand. Someday maybe both will be less than they are in our times.

But I admit to woodlands nostalgia. I think often about forests through time. I long to have seen the tulip poplars and oaks around me here on Goose Creek in the times when the understory was so open that “a gentleman could ride horseback from Abingdon to Richmond  through the forest and never remove his hat.”

The canopy was so complete then–not so many generations ago– that “a squirrel could run a hundred miles, tree to tree and never touch the ground.” I will have to employ my time machine to see that primeval sylvan scene.

We can plant trees. But we can’t plant a forest. The disappearance of “what earth would do with trees if left alone” is an alteration of the Anthropocene–the high cost to forests of doing business as humans in the “age of man.”

Even so, we can be aware of that cost, and in time and over time, reduce humanity’s footprint on the soil and water and on the integrity of the landscape.

We can insist on wise and forward-looking stewardship of those trees we plant and enjoy and live among in the would-be not-quite “forests” of our times.

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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. If you want to see an intact ecosystem, ie a virgin forest the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest near Robbinsville North Carolina is one. It was preserved back in the 30s before it had ever been touched by loggers. There is a 2 mile loop that taked you past those giant poplars you mentioned.

  2. I’ve wrapped my arms (with the help of four other adults) around the big Tulip Poplar in Joyce Kilmer–a microscopic remnant of what was once the dominant state of the Smokies and of the southern Appalachian forest. It must have been amazing–except it would have only been ordinary to those who grew up in its shade.