Strangely like Suicide. Or, Sawing Logs? I hope not.

Mill Valley Public Library interviews author Derrick Jensen about redwoods.
Redwoods in Del Norte County

‘Instead of planting a tree, how about not cutting them down?’ – Derrick Jensen

A few weeks ago I saw an image of an egg shaped hill that had been clearcut and at first I thought that it was the patchy hair on someone’s head undergoing chemo treatment. I’ve always had poor vision, often misread words and apparently also sometimes misidentify what I’m looking at. In that moment of misidentification, the obvious analogy that the forests are also sick jumped out at me like a sore thumb, which is also an indicator of poor health. 

Forests currently cover approximately thirty percent of all land on Earth but about fifty percent of the world’s forests have already been cut down by humans. Trees absorb the carbon dioxide humans exhale and also trap carbon emissions from the industrial world paved over their roots. Despite the obvious benefits of trees to combat climate change, forests continue to be logged, cleared and burned for industry. Derrick Jensen has written two books on deforestation and the timber industry: Railroads and Clearcuts and Strangely Like War. I planned to frame most of my questions for our third interview around Strangely Like War and focus on redwoods but we managed to speak for an hour and barely discussed the book. 

With images of sickly stumps in mind, I anticipated discussing some of the economic motivators for deforestation addressed in Strangely Like War (co-written by George Draffan) and also the role of the US Forest Service, who recently published a report titled ‘Quantifying the Monetary Value of Alaska National Forests to Commercial Pacific Salmon Fisheries.’ I had planned to reference this report in our last interview about the perceived value of salmon but didn’t get to it and then thought I would reframe it in this interview from the forest perspective. The timing of the report coincides with a ruling pending from the Forest Service and Department of Agriculture on the Roadless rule in the Tongass Forest. The president, both Alaskan senators and the governor of Alaska all want to lift the restrictions of the Roadless Rule to allow for more logging in the national forest, even though local timber companies don’t want to log in the area. Not surprisingly, none of the local Alaskan Native tribes want this repeal nor do local fisherman that rely on salmon. Even the local tourism industry opposes the repeal because they are understandably concerned that people won’t visit the area for its beauty if it’s not beautiful. Despite the opposition to the repeal from local parties that would be affected, North America’s largest rainforest seems on track to be logged. We didn’t discuss the report in either interview but as the name implies, the federally funded research was to determine the economic value of forests to the economy of the salmon fishing industry. The findings are that from 2007-2016, the forests in Southeast Alaska spawned an average of 48 million salmon each year, averaging $88 million annually which accounts for 25% of all salmon caught in Alaska. One of the points Strangely Like War stresses is that American tax dollars pay for deforestation. 

Deforestation is not a thing of the past and although Strangely Like War was published seventeen years ago, lines such as ‘Our economic system rewards destructive behavior’ and ‘All losses permanent, all victories temporary’ still ring true. Although we didn’t get to talk about the perceived value of salmon or forest, I did attempt to ask about the perceived value of redwoods. Redwood trees can grow over 300 feet tall, live for over 2000 years years and provide the home to a species of salamander that never needs to touch the ground. In addition to being the tallest carbon consumers, healthy redwoods generate more rainfall, prevent erosion and flooding. The trees have evolved to defend themselves against insects, fire and fungal infection. What they can’t defend themselves against is people. 95% of old growth redwoods have been cut down. Some of the tallest trees still standing are in Jensen’s neck of the woods. One of my questions from the interview is regarding the plan to build a boardwalk to the Grove of Titans, whose location has previously been undisclosed in an effort to protect the trees, but the GPS coordinates and step-by-step directions have been shared online resulting in thousands of visitors unintentionally destroying the habitat. 

Jensen’s response to my question reminded me of a recent experience I had in a forest in Napa County that was only opened to the public a few months ago. Most redwoods grow within 30 miles of the Pacific Ocean and grow so tall to drink the coastal fog in the sky but with roots in a wet canyon, the redwoods near Angwin are able to thrive almost 60 miles from the ocean. It’s worth noting that there has been a 33% decrease of fog in the 20th century due to global warming (It’s being replaced by smog). I was very excited to see some of the most eastern growing redwoods in California but had a disappointing experience similar to the example that Jensen mentions in our interview. The following is a letter I wrote to the Forest Manager at Pacific Union College and the author of an article in Bay Nature Magazine following my visit. The Forest Manager wrote me a nice response. I wasn’t planning for anyone else to read the letter but because it aligns with the interview, I thought I may as well share it here. 

Hi,

I was so excited to see the article in BAY NATURE announcing public access to the forest behind PUC. My partner and I love exploring new (to us) redwood groves. We’ve been to the most northern redwoods in Oregon so it was a treat to see some of the most inland redwoods too.

We went today thinking the Super Bowl would minimize the use and indeed we only saw five other groups of people. It was nice to have such a quiet time to ourselves exploring the trails. We also have a dog and because he is often not allowed on trails, we were happy to have the opportunity to take him with us. 

Of the five other groups of people that we encountered, four of them also had dogs, two of which had two dogs. If that sentence was hard to follow, my point is that there were a total of six other dogs. Of those six dogs, not a single one of them was on a leash. 

One of the dogs was jogging with its owner and they were coming in the opposite direction that we were walking. The dog, who was behind its owner, started to poop so I alerted the owner. My partner overheard me and then noticed the dog pooping so yelled a little louder (I’m soft-spoken – but I’m very certain the man heard me) and repeated, ‘Hey, your dog is pooping.’ He kept jogging and my partner then facetiously said, ‘Thanks!’ He overheard that too but did not speak a single word. 

My partner was annoyed that he pretended to not hear us. I had a very different perspective because I was making eye contact with him when I first alerted him that his dog was pooping. He wasn’t pretending not to hear – he simply didn’t care. I was tempted to say he didn’t give a shit, except that he did leave a big one right on the trail. 

The encounter left a very sour feeling for both of us. It was otherwise such a nice day and each of us tried to not let that moment ruin the day. It didn’t – but it also did. We didn’t speak about it much but when we did, it clearly bothered my partner as much as it bothered me. 

So why am I writing to you? I admit I’m not certain. Maybe I just need to vent – I certainly don’t expect you to somehow change the encounter. When I was walking on the trails following that moment, and after passing five other unleashed dogs and stepping over plenty of other dog shit, I considered writing to you to suggest maybe rethinking public access to the trails. I sensed that everyone else we encountered was local – there just seemed to be an air of familiarity with the space with everyone we encountered. We probably looked like tourists with our cameras out. 

I know that I am also writing because this experience was not an isolated incident, even though it was my first time to the forest. I consider the Bay Area my home but I moved away for seven years and only returned two years ago. In the two years that I’ve been back, I’ve just been shocked at how people interact with nature these days. My partner and I enjoy tide pooling and it seems like every single time we go tide pooling, we are disgusted by the actions of everyone around us. We have seen children throw bat stars against rocks and others impaling crabs with sticks. In each of those examples, we reacted with the same words: ‘What are you doing?’ and each time the parents emerged when they heard those words only to defend their children and tell us not to speak to them. I can bring this thought back to dog poop: when we were at Glass Beach in Fort Bragg, and because everyone present was collecting beach glass and ignoring everything else, my first thought was that they will have to change the name once all the beach glass has been collected (I wonder how many of them actually keep it) and then I saw some dog poop on the beach and thought they should change the name to Dog Shit Beach because then perhaps everyone would collect the shit off the beach with the same gusto as the beach glass. 

So back to the jogger: aside from his actual actions, behavior and entitlement, the thing that bothered my partner was that in her words, he was part of the ‘get away with it culture’ – he has access to the park to jog, he did not follow the rules, he left it in worse shape than when he arrived but there are no consequences and he might back again tomorrow leaving more shit on the trail from an unleashed dog. I’ve worked in an organization that would change policy because a single person ruined something for everyone and I don’t think that’s the right reaction. But there should be consequences for people like that. And if you don’t want your trails full of shit and dogs running unleashed, you do need to do something. Maybe a few weekends of citations would change the locals’ behavior? I don’t know if that’s the answer but if nothing can prevent that behavior, then perhaps your forest would be better off by denying access to humans. I care much more for those trees than my access to them. 

Sorry for the long message but I am sick of seeing people like this in beautiful places.

Andrew Murphy of Mill Valley Public Library