Monday, January 30, 2006


Last spring, the Shuford Boys were coming to our place on Snake Ridge to cut hardwoods to further open southern exposure to the garden and winter greenhouse. I thought I'd get a headstart, and commenced chainsawing a big chestnut oak. As I struck heartwood, I was suddenly showered with a fine spray of brackish brown liquid. It was still March, maybe early April, shy of the seasonal sap run. But feeling that spray, which continued to gush after I pulled back the saw in horror, I thought it was sap, the lifeblood of that old oak. So I laid down my saw until all the fluid had stopped flowing, deep golden brown, like tannin. Feeling like an assassin, I took out a rag and wiped the brown stain off my forearm, then off the chainsaw blade.

Thinking it over, I realized that the vein I had struck was not sap - for one, it was not sticky or sweet, but watery. I went ahead the next day and finished felling the tree. After cutting it into sawlogs I looked more closely and found evidence of a small crack above the butt. The pressure of the bind produced by my cut had released the column of rainwater that had collected in that little tube, and what I had been sprayed with, the saw chain fanning it into a fine spray, was chestnut oak tea. If I'd been cool and collected, rather than sentimental and overemotional, I'd have sat down and tried to taste it, for surely that golden brown rainwater was a tisane of oak tannins.

How carelessly we cut these big trees, without prayer, without even a moment of silent respect. When I stood at the bottom of the flagged road into the forest with my brand new chainsaw almost thirty years ago, I hesitated, admiring the big oaks, hickories, poplar and maple that would have to be felled to make way for our quarter mile drive. But then I forged ahead, seldom looking back, though we have had to fell trees shading the house or garden three more times, since we tried to save too many.

The highland Indians of Chile taught some Catalan Buddhists I met in Barcelona at the Parliament of World Religions to pray throughout the morning for permission to enter the forest, praying again for each tree soul they release. This is the ritual they follow in clearing for teaching-demonstration facilities in the forest near their monastery in northern Spain. Now that's noticing human impact. That's respect. And it finds a practical focus for meditation other than the prized black curtain of no-mind. Whatever our religious practices, we are animals making our home in the biosphere where we share habitat with a rich network of other species. The anthropocentric logger forgets this all too easily.

My mentor Sunderlal Bahaguna, a Hindu from the Garhwal Himalayas who has devoted his life to helping empower the highland villagers, is loathe to cut any tree. Instead, this green Gandhian plants native oaks and cherries to grow up amongst the alien shir pine the British foresters imported from Australia in the nineteenth century. And he plants apples and guavas, trading the quavas for pulses that are hard to grow on the mountain slopes.

Walking along Sully Lane this summer I was almost overwhelmed by the scent of fresh pinesap, sweet and full on my nostrils. I quickly realized that the source was an adjacent field of carelessly planted pines, with thoughts of digging for resale, which had been bulldozed for a "starter castle" for folks from Florida. The scent of sweet pinesap was like smelling blood, also sweet and rich. This brought me back full circle to my chestnut oak, now at the mill. If only the trees did bathe us in blood, letting out a scream as we cut out their hearts. Maybe we could at least sit down and commune with out own native forbears before sawing. What would they do? Then we wouldn’t have to go to Chile or practice Buddhism to learn respect for the tree neighbors upon whom we Appalachian highland folk depend.

NEXT: Hungry Ghosts: the Future Human Planetary Presence?

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Montreal: the Kyoto Accords Limp Along

Well, it happened – sort of. The stodgy mechanism of plotting a future for the Kyoto Protocol in Montreal. And the parties agreed – barely, after Hiram Walker, the hired gun from Exxon who is our chief climate change negotiator, walked out in a huff late in the game, Saturday night December 10 – to meet again to plan the next set of mandatory caps after 2012, when the present accords run out. Of course the US has only agreed to meet and talk, which is all we did this time. The US, and Australia, and Bush is right on this one – China and India are not party to the current agreements. Since the US and and China are the biggest emitters of CO2, this is a serious omission. Bush says he won’t sign onto the accord without China and India doing so as well. But another piece of good news is that Bush signed an agreement to build a prototype coal plant with no emissions, using C02 sequestration techniques. He had agreed in principle, but only signed the commitment after pressure from other western governments in Montreal.

Meanwhile, the faith community convened a few events across town, and was invited to make a statement on Friday December 9 which addressed this blogmeister’s premise: that without the deep motivation of religious faith, the world is not likely to get a handle on this. As the World Council of Churches statement to the delegates put it, the damage is already unfurling, and it’s now a matter of acting as fast as possible to keep it from heading into a runaway condition caused by a positive warming feedback loop. The consensus of the world’s climate scientists is that we need an immediate 70% cutback of CO2 emissions to halt the cumulative heatwave. The irony is that in a few decades, burning up the most economically feasible oil available is going to achieve this goal, but only after we’ve pumped virtually all the stored hydrocarbons back into the atmosphere. What took tens of millions of years to store we release in the big bang industrial revolution in about 200 years, most of it since WWII.

The faith community, mostly folks from North America, convened a meeting on Climate Justice on December 3, after which they took to the streets with the kids for a civil demonstration. On December 4, there was a major inter-religious celebration, a Call (or Cry, from the French “cri”) of the Earth, at Montreal’s favorite shrine, St Joseph’s Oratory. This was a multi-media event, with commissioned music, dance, and theater. Kids from regions seriously affected by climate change paraded to elicit the sympathy of the converted. It might have helped build more than in–house solidarity had it been broadcast on one of the major networks. On December 6, the WCC sponsored a “side event” on Ethical Dimensions of Climate Change, featuring a dialogue among parliamentarians and religious leaders.

And then there were the kids, mostly twenty-somethings. Remember Earth Day, and all its giddy promise? Remember how we, the Sixties Generation were going to change the world? Well we have, by helping through our consumption habits to burn those hydrocarbons, global leaders, besmudged gold medalists in the Burn Baby Burn Games. In Montreal the youth were only 500 strong, but true to the new sophisticated tactics developed since the Seattle WTO demonstration, they were at all the right places, using street theater and articulate, passionate questions of delegates to advance their purpose: "Major social changes start with a shift in philosophy, and then a new generation is born with that at their core," said Josh Tulkin, 24, who works for a group focused on climate issues in the region outside Washington, D.C., and also for a network of youth organizations called SustainUs. "That generation is us." But the article (“Youths Make Spirited Case at Climate Meeting”, A. Revkin NYT, 12/9/05) goes on to say that Josh emerged in tears after the US delegation stonewalled him.

Over Christmas, I heard a Joseph Rutter choral piece with the haunting line, the humble creatures whom no man sees. These are the meek, the hope of a sustainable future, who will inherit the earth.

Next: Sapblood: the author-as-woodsman is challenged by a gushing oak. My apologies for my long absence. Holidays can be disruptive for a pro bono journalist with no boss.

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