Stick with Me: Phil Gulley on Deforestation

On the issue of deforestation, I stand with the trees.
Not long ago, my wife and I were hiking in northern Georgia and passed an unusual tree.
“That’s a strange one,” she said. “What do they call it?”

“It’s a loblolly pine,” I answered, plucking the answer from the ether. I had never studied loblolly pines, but I must have read about one in passing, remembered its salient features, and retrieved the memory from the vast store of useless information cluttering my brain.

My wife was impressed and asked how I knew that.

“I don’t know; I just did,” I said, casually dismissing my brilliance.

You’re probably more familiar with loblolly pines than you realize. If you’ve ever used oil-based paints, they were likely thinned by turpentine, a product of the loblolly. Or maybe you’ve lived in an old house with wood floors, most of which were made from loblolly back before builders switched to oak. It’s odd that we’re more acquainted with trees after we kill them than when they’re alive.

I was talking with a man last month about the environment, and he rightly deduced I was opposed to the wholesale annihilation of forests. He asked if I was a tree-hugger, with the same contempt he would ask if I was a wife-beater. I looked up the word “tree-hugger” in the dictionary: “Someone who is regarded as foolish or annoying because of being too concerned about protecting trees, animals, and other parts of the natural world from pollution and other threats.” Too concerned? Being too concerned about protecting the natural world from pollution and other threats is like being too concerned about babies. How is it possible to be too concerned?

The dictionary said the word was first used in 1965, but I suspect tree-hugging happened long before then. There have always been those who cared for the environment, who have fought its desecration. A little digging unearthed a story from 1730, when 363 Bishnoi villagers in India were slaughtered while clinging to trees, hoping to prevent foresters from felling them to build a palace. Ain’t that the way it always is—the king gets the palace, the villagers get the ax.

My freshman-biology teacher said that back in the old days, a squirrel could travel in the treetops from Cincinnati to Vincennes, 239 miles, without touching the ground. I stored that bit of news in a corner of my brain alongside the loblolly pine, and I retrieve it every time I cross the squirrel line. The squirrel wouldn’t stand a chance these days. He’d get clobbered on I-65, just south of Exit 50, near the Seymour Travelodge.

The History Channel hosts a show called Ax Men, for those who enjoy watching a Neanderthal with a chainsaw destroy in one minute what nature took 500 years to achieve. I refuse to watch it, which is easy since I don’t have a television. But if I did have one, I would no more watch Ax Men than I would a snuff film. To me, it’s all of the same cloth—the wanton destruction of life for a vicarious thrill.

Being too concerned about protecting the natural world from pollution and other threats is like being too concerned about babies. How is it possible?

Here’s how dumb we are about trees: On August 6, 1964, on the Utah-Nevada border, a graduate student named Donald Currey, with the permission of the U.S. Forest Service, cut down a 5,000-year-old bristlecone pine to study its rings. After counting the rings, he discovered he had killed the oldest single living organism in the United States, if not the world. The tree sprouted 200 years before the Pyramids were built, was already 3,000 years old when Jesus was wearing diapers, and then was cut down in an afternoon because Donald Currey didn’t want to have to return the next day with a tool that would have allowed him to extract a cross section of the tree without harming it. To his credit, Donald Currey left the stump.

The oldest living tree today is a 4,765-year-old bristlecone pine named Methuselah. Its exact location is a secret so some idiot won’t come along and cut it down to make birdhouses. Sadly, Indiana’s old-tree claim to fame is a sycamore stump in Kokomo’s Highland Park. When the tree was toppled by a storm in the early 1900s, it was 800 years old and had a circumference of 57 feet. If I, being a tree-hugger, wanted to hug that stump, I would need eight men to help me encircle it.

One would think that wanting to conserve trees would make me a conservative, but when I raise this subject with people of that political persuasion, most of them disagree. The words “conservative” and “conservation” are surely related, but relatively few Republicans I meet these days are interested in the latter. I know a man who wants to conserve ducks, but only so there will be ducks for his grandson to shoot. That would be like conserving forests so future generations will have something to chop down.

Last year, House Resolution 1526 (the pro-logging “Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act”) was voted for by almost every Republican U.S. representative. The cure for restoring our forests, it seems, is to double the reaping of them. Then again, the measure does make a certain kind of sense. If we cut down all the trees, we’ll no longer have to worry about forest fires. I’ll give you one guess which industry lobbied hard for that bill.

Lumber companies boast that for every tree they cut down, they plant five. But nice as a white pine tree is, rows of them standing like corn are no replacement for a grove of oaks that took hundreds of years to grow. I know a significant number of jobs depend upon trees being cut down, but can’t we find something else for people to do? I would happily pay a lumberjack to renovate our upstairs bathroom and fix our driveway. If he misses cutting down trees, he could clean the mulberry trees out of our fence-rows. It never bothers me to see a mulberry tree cut down. The Chinese grow mulberry trees to feed silkworms, but their government has been spying on us lately, so if you want to cut down a mulberry tree, that’s fine with me.

A friend visited our farm this past summer and suggested we go on a hike, so off we went. We ventured into the woods, to a cathedral of oak, walnut, and cherry trees. “Those are worth a fortune,” he said. “You ought to cut them down.” He’s a nice guy, and I’ve tried really hard, but ever since then I haven’t been able to like him as much as I used to.