Over the last week or so my son and I have been spending some time helping a friend get a house ready for sale- repairing deteriorated trim, power washing the exterior, repainting the interior, that kind of thing. We are both very meticulous and thorough and enjoy working together and it’s nice to be able to give some assistance to someone who hasn’t got the ability to do it themselves.
Yesterday afternoon they stopped by to check the progress- we’re almost done and about a week ahead of the schedule and after a walk through we wound up on the back side of the house looking out into the edge of the forest that stands a couple of hundred feet away. I’m not sure how we got onto the topic but I was describing the age of the forest and the progression it had made from it’s last clearing as a meadow around the time of my birth. The owner asked how I was able to know that since I had never been to the property before and I went over the growth pattern of North Eastern mixed forests- first the forbs come in along with the poplars and white pine. They would leech the soil of the nutrients that fed the forbs, which would die out as the first of the second order trees emerged; hemlocks, white oak, ash and rock maple. You could see by the diameter of the trees of various species, their orientation on the slope in regards to sun, the water course to the west in the form of a steady running stream, etc. I pointed out a large fifty year old poplar that had reached its maximum growth and due to the crowding of the pines had maintained an almost branch free butt end making it perfect for boards. I told him that the white pines were past prime and had begun to bull from a much earlier brush hogging likely in their first couple of years of growth and how dangerous that made them for cutting and almost worthless except as pulp for the local steam plant. I was trying to help him make a few bucks off the land before he sold and in turn improve the view and wood potential for the next owner in terms of 15-50 years down the pike.
He stood there looking out at the forest, then at me and asked how I could tell all that from just looking at a piece of land I had no previous knowledge of and I had to think about it for a second. I haven’t always had this kind of insight, in fact I had only recently “woken up” to the world around me in terms of my own lifetime. I’ve been other things at other times that had nothing to do with the land or growth, Nature or decay, but I knew exactly what I was looking at now because it seemed so obvious. I could envision a time lapse of the entire growth cycle in the same way I could look back on my own life and there was no secret to it, no magical sensory gift, no intuitive edge I had over anyone else, it was simply a matter of looking at things, as they are and being able to see not only where they had come from, but where they were going.
Our own society, culture, civilization, whatever you want to call it is no different from a forest or a coral reef. It is a result of time, life, the natural inclinations and limitations of a specific species in a specific location. It has a lifespan just like the individual members that make it up and it demonstrates it strengths and its weaknesses in the same way, through the observable features of its shared environment.
When I watched agents of my own government burn down a home filled with men, women and children who had never been convicted of any crime on live television with commentary explaining why what I was seeing was not what I thought I was seeing but something entirely different, I knew what was coming as clearly as looking at a stand of bull pine on a high southern flank at the tail end of a drought season when the thunderheads are building to the east. Maybe not today, but one day and soon, without question, as sure as the sun rises there will be a conflagration that will close the chapter on that particular forest until the shes neutralize the soil again and the first of the forbs creep back in and start the process over again.
Waking up is a good metaphor for being aware of our surroundings, It is sad that for most of us such an awakening never takes place until the flames are out of control and we are caught inside of them. For others we come to it sooner and it pains us to see what is clear to any thoughtful person with an eye for the nature of things. There is a conflagration of our own making in the future waiting for the lightning strike that sparks it all- or it might be something as small as a drifting ash or as careless as tossed butt from a car window by some careless individual who cannot see the forest through the trees, but who nonetheless lives right up against it.
Years ago as I was walking through our sugar bush with an extension agent from the State University he pointed out a huge mound that was tapered at both ends and casually told me it was the root ball of a huge tree dropped by the hurricane of ’38, and judging by the forest, likely a sugar maple that had predated the birth of the Republic. Every so often we’d come upon a massive red oak I had made note of with a trunk so big two men couldn’t wrap their arms around and he would show me the dark marks some twenty feet up where it had been scorched, but not burned by the wildfires that swept through 150 years ago cleaning off most everything else that had covered our slopes. I took all this in and made it part of my skill set when looking at the world in the same way I look at the vacant strip malls and faces of the people driving back and forth on the roads and note with some degree of certainty that nothing lasts.
Until something new comes along to replace it.