Archive for September, 2009

As old as a tree

This afternoon, as I was reading the Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Forests, I came across the fact that the oldest eastern hemlock ever recorded was 988 years old. I have heard facts similar to this about trees over and over again, yet they never cease to astound me. Imagine. Something living almost a thousand years! Think of all the human history that tree has lived through: It was passed by many times by soft-footed Indians. It witnessed the colonization of America by Europeans, and the near extermination of these native peoples. It was covered in soot and ash from the sky during the Industrial Revolution and absorbed the carbon dioxide exhaled by human industry. It has stood up to invasive species; it has resisted logging and agriculture, urbanization and suburbanization.

What I find the most surprising, however, is how anyone could ever want to cut down a tree that is that old, or even a tree that is a hundred years old. As a naturalist (and mortal human being whose predicted lifespan is only seventy or eighty odd years), I can have nothing but tremendous respect for any organism that can live that long. Sea turtles, trees, some boreal and tundra wildflowers, the larvae or eggs of the occasional insect – these things often live far longer than we humans can even begin to contemplate. But something as visible and seemingly common place as a tree living longer than a single human, even longer than some human civilizations, makes even me speechless.

Book review: The Land Remembers, by Ben Logan

The Land Remembers I just finished reading Ben Logan’s The Land Remembers. If any book I have read captures the ideals of stewardship of the land and preservation of family and community, this book is it. Logan writes beautifully of his childhood in the so-called driftless area in southwestern Wisconsin. One reviewer of the book commented that the book brought him to a place he wishes he remembered. This is immensely true; Logan’s boyhood home is a place I wish were in my past. With their order dictated by the flow of the seasons, Logan’s vignettes of home, family, the natural world, community relationships and more explore the fabric and definition of a full life.

Part-memoir, part philosophy, Logan writes of a communion between humans and the earth. Many of the vignettes in The Land Remembers state outright that the relationship most farmers in the first half of the 20th century had with the land was much more sustainable than the current interaction between modern industrialized agriculture and the land it exploits. The old way of farming relied on an understanding of the land that goes beyond just what it can give to humans. Logan’s farm family had a deep respect for the land and what it needs to stay healthy. Logan also acknowledges, however, that European farmers were not always on the land; long before Europeans or even Native Americans came to the hilltops of the driftless area, the land was there, and long after humans leave the area, the land will be there. There is a recognition of something larger than ourselves in Logan’s writing, similar to that found in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

For me, the book embodies the strong sense of community that I hope I can someday cultivate in my own life and work. Logan’s story emphasizes elements of a strong community – I think intentionally so – and doesn’t hesitate to conclude that strong community and family ties are key to a healthy life and a healthy earth. Logan has strong ties with his parents and his three brothers growing up, and continued to maintain these ties throughout his life. There is also in the book a clear sense of connection between oneself and family and neighbors and other members of the community. Logan speaks often of the mailman, how this individual is more than just someone to deliver the bills but also a source of local news, gossip and entertainment. The mailman’s daily coming is a way to mark both the time of day and the passage of the seasons. Sociologists of education would call this extended role relations, or interacting on more than one plane with individuals in your community, a healthy way of learning new knowledge and about ones role in the community. In contrast, modern interactions between individuals within a community tend to be more limited (e.g. your see your teacher only within the classroom where she has the ultimate authority and encountering her outside the classroom is a rare and awkward experience; or, the mailman is just the mailman, without a name, personality or presence outside of his job). Logan’s experience is of a world that has a slower pace, more meaningful interactions between people, and greater ultimate purpose.

It is rare when one encounters a book so beautifully written and rich with narrative detail that you can actually see the place written of. But to have a book both beautiful and rich and that captures the ideals I wish to promote in my own life and career is a rare and wonderful thing indeed. I recommend Ben Logan’s The Land Remembers for both young and old, the modern and traditional, for those looking for something to entertain and those looking for something with deeper meaning.

(Photo credit: Barnes & Nobel.)