The simple act of cutting down a single tree seems to be a harmless thing. There are so many trees. But the felling of one tree can trigger a series of events that reaches beyond the imagination of the tree-cutter, whose thoughts perhaps extend no further than firewood for the week's cooking. Where that tree's living roots and leaves once reached out to grasp the rainfall, the water now runs off in rivulets. The rivulets pick up soil as they swirl down a hillside. Enough rivulets quickly make a flood. Enough erosion can move entire mountainsides. Enough silt can render dams and reservoirs impotent and create new river deltas. The loss of the forest cover can alter entire ecologies, even the climate.
Naturalist John Muir had such concepts in mind when he wrote more than a century ago: "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." Now staff writer A. Kent MacDougall has dramatically demonstrated Muir's thesis in his four-part series, "The Vanishing Forests," which concluded in Monday's editions of The Times.
The concept of worldwide deforestation has always seemed to be one of those very remote problems that registered well down on the scale of immediate attention, behind such issues as whether to pursue that new job opening or when to pick up the dry cleaning. Deforestation was like the threat to the ozone layer. If the situation ever got that bad, it perhaps would affect some future generation or people in some far-off land. In any event, what can one individual do about such cosmic problems?
The crisis of forest devastation is most acute today in the developing countries, primarily in the tropics. Sometimes it is the result of the poorest of the poor attempting to scratch the most meager of livings from the land. Too often it is an old historic pattern: the result of powerful economic interests ravaging the land for private gain without regard for damage that may never be overcome.
The industrialized nations in temperate lands, like European countries and the United States, pursued such practices in the past and only now are beginning to realize the devastation to be caused and the ultimate price to be paid. As MacDougall wrote: "Humans owe a debt of thanks to forests." They clear the air, moderate the climate, protect soil from erosion and keep water clean. They provide lumber, fuel and food and raw material for thousands of products. In fact, the story of the forests is virtually a history of the world. Wars were won and empires lost because of the forests and lack of them. Civilizations rose and declined. Bountiful lands became deserts.
The road back begins with awareness and education about the importance of forests in the balance of nature, the need for rigorous forest management practices everywhere, and the realization that some remaining virgin tracts should be allowed to stand because, once cut, they can never be the same.
In art and literature, trees often are used as a metaphor for life itself. The allusion is appropriate. How well a civilized world respects and nurtures its forests says much about just how civilized the world is.