Fire in the Forest

- July 24, 2012

"...there is a cultural landscape that I envision; one that does not need many years to recover and be beautiful again"

Values can be relativistic, whereby it appears that they can change and shift depending on various situations; whereby no true values exist or the values of one thought or person might stand next to another value or thought and have equal status despite the screaming possibility that they do not  and are not.  This can lead to discussions and arguments that reach stalemate almost instantly because there appears to be no hierarchy of values to judge by. 

This confusion includes discussions whereby no matter what one person might say or how “important” their subject or point of view might seem, the other person only needs to invoke some other transgression perceived or point of fact and the whole discussion is slanted away from reason and led to a battle of unequal  values, thus being mostly rhetorical in nature but affecting the outcome of the argument as well as the course of actions or the outcome of the discussion. 

This seems to happen a lot these days as the hierarchy of values is supplanted by a vulgar heterarchy  that will not adjust to any hierarchy.  It seems that values and facts and thoughts can be bandied about and perhaps there are sort of parallel universes at work here whereby apposing points of view can be equally valid or unequal values rectified into an egalitarian format.  The concept of heterarchy is valid and worth taking a good look at and there is much more to inform this aspect. This, though,  appears to be the forces at work that we see every day in political “discourse” and discourse, if you want to call it that (I don’t really…preferring something like posturing as a description). 

It is truly amazing that these values can stand next to each other and claim a primal validity without realizing how bizarre the situation really looks.  So ideas about women’s right to manage their bodies, who can own guns and bullets of all sorts, whether forest fires are helpful or not, controlled or out of control in this day and age, what freedom means, what entitlements are reasonable in our world, how to solve the economic crises  and create jobs, how to manage a forest, where to get our energy from, how to raise children, etc. etc.  

The fact that we have developed the posture of posturing to get our way rather that evolving a system of thinking that might allow for compromise or adjusting or assessing based on scientific fact; the fact that we so often will go to our deaths or damage our lands and economy in order to support our posture ……well, it is appalling, to use a strong word.  How can the ordinary person sort this stuff out in their heads when the forces are so adamantly opposite and polarized?

I wonder if some other values might be introduced to mitigate the rough terrain.  I suggest that some attention to a value such as aesthetics might assist us in making decisions.  I am sure this has been thought about before and bandied about before, but it should not stop one from considering this value as well as a few others that could help out and maybe not be so explosive for a while. 

I was in a situation recently that struck me as powerful ; I was in the forest with a group of people, a fairly wide range of ages and including a comparatively large contingent of teenagers and young male adults from small towns in New Mexico.  The issue was: what is the nature and history of fires, wild fires and controlled fires in this area (Rowe Mesa).  The “expert”, academically, was a friendly man with a doctorate in forest fire knowledge.  The issue was: what should be done to make this forest “healthier” and the supposition was that controlled burning was a “reasonable” thing to do in this instance and there were demonstration projects that could be viewed in relation to this.

I have been involved with witnessing and doing various projects relating to the environment and so can bring some detail to this discussion.  I remember, for instance, when there was a project in our area, along the Galisteo Creek, where it was decided to do some work to do “induced meandering” here. 

The funds were found by organizations and volunteers and various other entities became involved to make this happen. The effort started out as a trickle and then became a fairly strong flow of activity and enthusiasm.  The actual infrastructure to do this was cut limbs and cedar posts “driven” into the streambed and then laced and woven with willows to create “weirs” which were designed to be a series of little dams that would slow the water down, raise the bed and combined with stone work at chosen spots, would induce meandering of the creek.  Being sensitive to the looks of things, I was torn between the charm of woven material in the natural surroundings and the oddness of the construct, despite its natural form.  The driven stakes and their amputated look becomes, eventually, a part of the information that affected my aesthetic reaction. 

The stones, not all local stone,  also affected my personal sensibilities.  What had been this congruent and aesthically pleasing river bed was now a different beast entirely.  Then, in time and after various and predictable floods, etc. it became clear that the weirs were causing big holes on the downside of them and they were deteriorating the river bed and themselves at the same time and the rocks, though stabilizing, were affecting the flow of the river, perhaps too much by changing the path of the creek.  In the end it was, to put it simply, kind of ugly, dysfunctional and caused disturbances and conflicts in the community and the level headed amongst us cast it as being a failed “demonstration project” and not a complete outrage. 

I did, though, decide not to have them mitigate my stretch of the creek based on these experiences.  I was called, though, and it was thought that an area of the creek on my land could be improved by stone work, etc..  I met with one of the people and I said that I was very concerned about, for instance, the aesthetic problem with introducing non local stones into the creek bed this way, as they offended my aesthetics  ( I feel the same way about that kind of detailing in many of the national, state and county, city and private parks.  It just sort of bugs).  The guy I was with said something quite telling to me.  He said, “I am not interested or thinking about the aesthetics in this work”.  This really grabbed my attention.  So an environmentalist is not concerning himself with the looks of the environment!

The same thing was happening in front of me up on the mesa; I spent the morning standing amidst huge pinon stumps left there by greedy firewood gatherers (they prefer to drive up to a huge tree, cut it down leaving a stump at easy to not bend over too much height and toss all branches to the side and take the wood and split it up to make good looking piles for the townsfolk to put in their fireplaces). 

There was the tossed aside debris everywhere when they could have easily cut up much of the branches and added it to their truck and put the branches in the nearby drainage areas to slow down erosion and create good soil for grasses, etc. (perhaps as the “fee” they pay to get the wood.   The trees that needed to be thinned were still standing; the young and just seemed too small to bother with cutting up for any reason (although they could be used for more erosion control and for latillas or for biomass material for various kinds of activities). 

The whole mesa itself had been “chained” some years ago and, before that, it seems that the probably predominantly ponderosa forest had been cut down at the turn of the last century relating to the railroad proximity and the easy pickings of the, probably, forest of large trees.  So the ecology had been severely affected already and the attempts to turn the area into rangeland had mostly resulted in a lot of shrubbery and few clear pastures.  The wind and the dust kicked up by the vehicles was impressive.

Then we viewed  a demonstration project that had included thinning and controlled burning.  The  scene was obviously ugly by any standards; there were stumps sticking up everywhere, some charred and others just part of an unburned thinning project.  The trees were all singed up their heights and yellow and a large juniper/cedar had been killed by the fire, unintentionally I am sure.  Shrubbery was starting to take a strong hold on the older thinned area and so it would probably need more treatment. 

The overall effect was nothing less than ugly; aesthetically not pleasing by anyone’s standards.  I mentioned this after the question was asked, laughably , “How does it look to you all?”.  I must admit that I got a little heated up by what I was seeing and experiencing.  I will also admit that I could see that many of the now singed and unsightly ponderosas would recover and be less susceptible to a ladder affect in case of fire.  I noted to myself that the branches could have been trimmed (or better yet, broken, to look more natural), also creating the same affect without burning the whole area the way it was.  It seems to me that burning like this just is bad poetry in this day and age; with the smoke just going into the atmosphere willy nilly; contributing to global warming without a particular use, such as heating in the winter or creating energy to supplant coal and oil and that taking a match to a forest takes the real involvement by humans out of the picture. 

I imagine, often, a scenario where a family might go into the woods and collect mushrooms and berries, have a lovely picnic, take photographs and do artwork, lie there and meditate and soak up the beauty, perhaps get some firewood and pick some pinons and look for medicinal plants and cool materials for landscaping and sculpture and, even perhaps, bag a deer for meat on the table and teach the children there how to work and be in the woods and identify all of the amazing plants, animals and flowers.  I do not, in my scenario, envision a charred landscape filled with ugly stumps to trip on or a roar of ATVs zooming by or creating more dust or scarring the delicate landscape.

So there is a cultural landscape that I envision; one that does not  need many years to recover and be beautiful again, one where the humans participate in it in a big way and one whereby energy and many other aspects of life are being attended to……all in an aesthetically pleasing way.  One can see how the aesthetics can influence the practice and drive the solutions.

This aesthetic sensibility could be applied in many other cases, despite the variations that we might have concerning aesthetics.  I suppose people could argue over that just as much as anything… it still could positively affect the outcome of the problems.  In each case, a judgment of sorts can be made.  I think of the aesthetics of poverty and hunger, or illness and desperation, on foreclosure and unemployment, of forest fires and public land, of violence and mass murder, of war and disease.  Each item could be affected based up some sense of the aesthetics involved and finding ways to make things, even road signs and landscaping……….look better.

Near the end of the gathering in the charred forest, a young man sidled up to me and said that he, at least, agreed with me about the stumps and agreed they should be made to look better and he had done that with his family on their lands in the past.  That felt better after the group had outvoted me earlier as they voted on “how it looked to them”.  So the drama continues along with the paradoxes and ironies and there are bright glistenings  in the forest  after all.