May 2, 2016
MONTPELIER – Neither Mother nor I will never forget the day, some years ago now, that our older grandson, clearly in distress, called us with a dire message: “They’re tearing the lungs out of our planet down in South America!” Which, of course, they were, and are. The rampant deforestation of the Amazon basin to create grazing land (for cattle, which are inefficient converters of vegetation to meat and produce themselves large quantities of methane) removes vast tracts of carbon-absorbing forests from the environment.
At the time of his message, our grandson was a student in grade school in Olympia, Washington, a town that makes Vermont, by comparison, seem nearly as retrograde as Mississippi; so we filed it in our memories under “Liberal Hyperbole.” But its dramatic imagery made it stick in our minds, just as it was supposed to make it stick in his and his classmates’.
We Yankees live in an arboreal paradise. Flying over New England – from, say, Boston to Lebanon, or Bangor to Burlington – you’re bound to be amazed how thickly wooded our neighborhood is. But only one hundred years ago, could you have made the same flights, you’d have looked down upon mostly open ground, separated into lots by stone walls and dotted with grazing sheep or cattle. That way of life, and the landscape that supported it, slowly died, and the forest has come back. People from away who get lost in our woods now and then think themselves in the forest primeval; but the fact is, if you’ve been eligible for Social Security for a decade or so, there are only a few trees around here older than you. You’d have to walk through an old sugar bush or on an inaccessible mountainside of old growth to find them.
When the first north country loggers and their axes and oxen appeared on the scene in the early 1800s, everyone who gazed at the cornucopia of timber agreed that there was so much of it that it would never be gone. Late in the same century, however, it nearly was. Then, around 1900, a conservation movement began stirring in the United States. Alarmed over the loss of natural habitat, the ravages of irresponsible logging, and tremendous forest fires, citizens began agitating for preservation or restoration of what was left – and increasingly threatened – of our wild or deforested lands.
Their concerns corresponded, serendipitously, with those espoused by their representatives in government. President Roosevelt, a thoroughgoing outdoorsman, expressed it best: We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation. During his administration he created six new national parks and set aside dozens of critical natural features. In 1911 Congress passed the Weeks Act, authorizing the use of federal funds to acquire wilderness lands. In 1916, just one hundred years ago, President Wilson signed legislation creating the National Park Service.
A few years earlier, New York State conservationists, allied with businessmen alarmed that deforestation was silting the Erie Canal during floods and starving it of water during summer dry periods, amended the state constitution to set aside the Adirondack Forest Preserve, with large areas designated “forever wild.” (Before that time, one old Adirondacker once told me, “If a crow was going to fly across these mountains, he’d’ve had to carry his lunch.”) The Preserve, under pressure from real estate developers, recreational vehicle users, float plane operators, and hydropower lobbyists, has been a bone of contention pretty much ever since, but strong citizen advocacy groups have lobbied successfully for its protection.
Our old hunting camp in the Adirondacks sat on an inholding surrounded by wilderness-designated lands. Half a mile above it, near the base of a vertical gray granite cliff, stood – still stands, I suppose – a massive white pine, at least six feet in diameter at its base and reaching inexpressibly high. Its trunk bore the marks of a long-ago anonymous logger who’d tackled it with an axe and carved a scar about three feet long before, perhaps considering how he might get the logs out of there, he gave it up and went away. I visited it often when I was supposed to be hunting, visits best expressed in a Winslow Homer print on my office wall: “Old Friends.”
In recent years, as the Internet has made public announcements inexpensive, we’ve seen a proliferation of “Days” that have added to the usual complement of Labor Day, Thanksgiving Day, MLK Day, Presidents’ Day, practically ad infinitum. But there’s one old-timer that’s been chugging along, informally and otherwise, since 1594 – Arbor Day. The Spanish village of Montoñedo held the first in the world, and the city of Nebraska City, Nebraska, the first in the United States on April 10, 1872, when about a million trees were planted in that state. It slipped by last week almost unnoticed, though the University of Vermont Extension celebrates it this week with a day-long conference and seminars and tree-planting by the Montpelier Tree Board.
The subject of the protection, maintenance, and propagation of trees may not seem as exciting as the Fourth of July. But if you consider the difference they make in our lives, and how they define our northern environment – white spruces forming a dark, pointy horizon; great, scraggly white pines lording over their lesser cousins on our hillsides; ancient maples with generations of tiny dark scars where they’ve shared what they uniquely have to make our lives sweeter – you appreciate that they’re far more than just the lungs of our planet.