“’Sé do bheatha, a bhean ba léanmhar
do bé ár gcreach tú bheith i ngéibhinn
do dhúiche bhreá i seilbh meirleach”
– Padraig Pearse
The forests of home are burning, and I am a continent and an ocean away. Fire burns on both sides of the river the colonial maps call the Columbia.
My heart recites a litany: Cedar and Douglas Fir. Mountain Lion and Deer. Black Bear and Salmon. Devil’s Club and Wild Ginger.
In another time, fire was part of the land’s cycle of life and death and rebirth. But the 1940’s brought the cutting of the old growth forests to make ships for the U.S. Navy. Then came the housing booms of the 50’s and the 90’s. And climate change. The forest is no longer resilient as it once was and nobody knows what’s to come. And I, its priest, am so far away, walking in the footsteps of my ancestors, trying to remember how to sing the wild back into the world.
When I first came to the rainforests of the Pacific, my ancestors told me “This is what our land was like before they took our forests.”
Ireland, too was once a place where great trees grew from soil fed by the bodies of Salmon dragged from the waters by Eagles. Though early agriculture did take its toll on the wilderness, the Brehon laws protected sacred trees and insisted on both reparations and physical restoration for even the stripping of too much bark from one.
The erosion of that protection began with the Norman invasion in the Twelfth Century – an incursion sanctioned by the Pope in the name of wiping out “barbarism” in a country where women headed many households and churches, the clergy wasn’t celibate, and wild places had legal standing. In a move that would be echoed by British colonizers in North America, Norman invaders exploited cultural differences in understandings of land ownership. Irish historian Eoin Neeson writes:
“In England, the Normans had introduced the notion of ‘forests’ (a term that simply meant a large area of land, not necessarily all wooded) as areas where a special law applied. The Irish idea of land title was very different from the Norman one of absolute ownership, and this much facilitated the Normans. When an Irish lord or king donated land to one of his subjects, he gave not ownership, but dominion subject to recall. Therefore, the Irish nobleman who ‘gave’ land to a Norman was allowing a rescindable dominion in trust. When he learned that the Norman thought otherwise and was prepared to fight for it, the Irish lord fought back, or agreed to the Norman authority under what he saw as duress.”
For a few more centuries the British would lack the power and the will to impose their models of religion and land ownership on Ireland in earnest. That all changed in the seventeenth century, as British coffers swelled with gold looted by the Spanish from the Americas and grew hungry for expansion.
As capitalism emerged, Ireland represented both a source of untapped resources, a place where land and title could be given to an emerging moneyed class, and a dangerous example of another way of life to the British aristocracy and the nascent bourgeoisie. Elizabeth I ordered the wholesale destruction of Ireland’s forests to deny cover to Irish rebels – a foreshadowing of the U.S. use of Agent Orange in Viet Nam – and to provide timber for naval ships and slave ships. Later that century, Cromwell escalated the brutality of the occupation bringing near-genocidal levels of violence, pioneering many of the counter-insurgency techniques that the U.S. would use when it inherited Britain’s imperial mantle.
I spent three days in edge of Drummin Wood at the edge of the Burren, one of the last remnants of the wild Irish forest.
Fern and Moss, Deer and Owl, ancient well and wild spring, Hawthorn and Blackthorn.
The wheel has turned from Lughnasadh toward Samhain.
The whisper of the wind in the trees, the scent of rich dark soil and rotting leaves, the call of the Owl at dusk stir memories I never knew my body held of the Salmon run, the Deer hunt, the gathering of the Hazelnuts.
But these are only memories for the land here, too.
The Oak and Birch forest gives way to a wild Heather meadow . . . but at its edge is a tree plantation, Sitka Spruce grown for timber and kept alive with pesticides and fertilizers that filter into the waters that once teamed with Salmon and Trout.
What dies when a forest dies?
Trees are memory keepers. Their bodies hold the trace of everything that has happened on the land throughout their lives. Even the degraded form of science emerging from a capitalist culture that denies the life of the world knows how to read the rings on the stump of a felled tree or a core sample drilled from a living one to divine the history of drought and flood and fire. Older sciences and emergent ones understand how to learn deeper, richer stories from living trees.
But rows of trees are not forests.
A forest is a living system of plants and animals and fungi woven together by mychorhizal and pheromonal and phytochemical exchanges, wild currents of sex and death.
When the Oak forests of western Ireland fell to the axes of the Queen of England’s men, the soil too was lost, and the Burren became a landscape of thin soil covering the limestone of an ancient seabed. When farms failed in the Great Hunger that resulted from the British-imposed practice of potato monoculture that turned Ireland into a plantation that fed its colonizers’ hunger, seeds of Arctic plants left by the glaciers of the last Ice Age began to sprout. Yet, even in this transformed landscape, the wild world left to its own devices would have sprouted Willow and Birch whose leaves and branches would feed the soil, preparing for the Oaks’ return. But the expulsion of British troops from most of Ireland didn’t give way to the conditions for the forests’ return – instead it brought in a different kind of exploitation of the land.
The Easter uprising of 1916 that initiated the war that would result in independence for 26 of Ireland’s 32 counties was largely socialist in its inception, but the state that arose following the struggle and the civil war that followed was decidedly capitalist.
As the Fir and Spruce and Cedar of North America’s Pacific Coast were being clear-cut to fuel the expansion of a new empire, the Irish state began promoting the importation of fast-growing Douglas Fir and Sitka Spruce to provide timber and fuel for the project of reconstructing a nation.
As a temporary measure, this would have been understandable for a nation emerging from centuries of occupation and trying to meet its people’s needs, but there was nothing temporary about it. Forestry became an industry, and in the second half of the twentieth century, in both Ireland and North America, it became an industry dependent on heavy petrochemical inputs – all the while representing itself as a way of regenerating the land.
The tech boom of the 90’s brought a housing boom in both Ireland and the U.S. that increased the demand for lumber. The 1990’s also brought an Orwellian scheme in the U.S. – “salvage logging.”
Set in motion by a rider added to legislation by Washington Senator Slade Gorton that was signed into law by President Bill Clinton, “salvage logging” involved setting private corporations loose on public forest land in the wake of wild (and not-so-wild) fires to “salvage” trees for profit that would then be replaced with fast-growing commercially valuable species that could soon be logged again under new leases made legally easier to obtain because they no longer represented part of an old growth forest.
To a culture that does not know forests, clearing out what is left in the wake of devastation and planting the young trees that will grow fastest seems like regeneration. Already, with the fires still burning, well-meaning people throughout Washington and Oregon are volunteering to do industry work for it, planting bought or donated saplings amid the ashes, turning a forest’s charred remnants into another plantation.
Cultures that measure forests in board feet, that define them as concentrations of trees, that value quick fixes and rapid growth cannot restore living ecosystems, because they are not part of them. Bringing back a forest requires listening to land and water in ways that are only possible when they are experienced as alive – the ultimate heresy under capitalism, which depends on our viewing the world as a lifeless hoard of resources for our plunder.
We will only bring back the forests of my home and the forests of my ancestors’ homeland if we bring fire and axe to the culture that feeds off their destruction. In the wake, communities human and wild can emerge on their own organic terms.