small brooks feed Poplar Lick - by Jack Greer
Small brooks feed Poplar Lick, a mountain stream in the Savage River watershed west of Frostburg, Maryland. Credit: Jack Greer.
Downstream from Deep Woods

Trees on trees, a stalwart legion,
Swiftly past us are retreating . . .
— Goethe's Faust

IT'S QUIET HERE. NO MOTOR SOUNDS. NO HIGHWAY NEARBY. No airplane overhead. Today a south wind blows through fall's final leaves, the season's last warmth before winter. This is the forest, home of a special kind of silence.

Forests are more than trees. Bear live here. And deer and bobcat and wild turkey. From canopy to roots, forests silently work with the planet's elements — carbon dioxide, nitrogen, phosphorus — to shape their own environment, and ours.

Beyond this, forests are places of solitude. Forests give us space to think.

Longtime New England forester Ross Morgan says he does his best thinking in the woods. Morgan is someone I met through a friend who spends summers in Vermont. For Morgan, a walk in the woods makes things clearer. In the woods, he says, "things make sense."

For 40 years Morgan has consulted with landowners from his home in Craftsbury, far north of Chesapeake country. He's spent a lot of time in the trees, and over the years his thinking has migrated from technical analysis to more philosophical consideration — a deeper appreciation for what forests do, what they mean. He worries that his fellow Americans don't seem to think about forests very much.

He tells this parable. When Americans began to fully settle this land, three boxes were sent from Europe with valuable information about forestry. The first box was marked "science." By the end of the 19th century, Morgan says, our knowledge was impressive. Though early forest researchers lacked today's tools, they gathered extensive empirical evidence, mapping, observing, collecting, experimenting. They learned a lot about how forests function, and that work continues today.

The other two boxes of information about forestry were marked "philosophy" and "art." Those two boxes, he says, never arrived.

Fairly late in his career, Morgan studied the foundations of forestry in places like Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, and he was amazed to find frequent references to Friedrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang Goethe. Schiller and Goethe wrote extensively about forests (Goethe included science among his many talents), but they were not foresters. Mostly they were poets. Thinkers.

In the beginning Americans feared the forest. Clearing trees became synonymous with conquering the wilderness and taming the land. In this country, says Morgan, few understood the full value of forests. Even in the 19th and early 20th century, our philosophy of forestry, still largely unformed, focused on maximizing short-term profits. This led to clear-cutting and to bare fields and eroding hillsides. To the destruction of forests.

To be fair, as the country grew it spawned some of its own natural philosophers. George Perkins Marsh, for example, often considered the first American environmentalist, and Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service. And later, conservationist and thinker Aldo Leopold, advocate for a new land ethic. At the base of this fledgling environmental perspective lay the Transcendentalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who went to the woods to learn to live.

But today, in Thoreau's New England, many of the landowners that Morgan advises — mostly owners of small woodlots — don't put much stock in forests. They manage their trees, with Morgan's help, but in the end most cut them down for short-term gain.

He's not against cutting trees — we need timber, he says, for paper and other products. For building our homes. But while his clients appreciate the value of trees, most of them don't understand the value of forests. They lack the ethic of sustaining forests as ecosystems.

For those of us who live in the Chesapeake watershed the question is whether economic need — or greed — will determine the future of forests on private land. Those forests are often in the hands of those who may not think of themselves as foresters or forest owners, or forest philosophers. And the economic pressure is not just for timber. It's for the land itself.

Morgan worries that our current efforts at managing forests may fail because we don't have a solid philosophy to guide us.

Perhaps. In this issue of Chesapeake Quarterly we take a walk in the woods with some who have done their thinking in the forest, who keep a close connection with rural lands and timberlands. Learning a little about their efforts may help us think more deeply about trees and forests. And about our chance for a new land ethic that values forests as ecosystems and as special places. How we treat these quiet refuges will also tell us a good deal about the future of the Chesapeake watershed.

— Jack Greer

December 2009
vol. 8, no. 4
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