Rethinking resources

In the middle of the 19th Century, oil refineries began pumping out kerosene, refined from crude oil, to light lamps along American streets. Kerosene had a useless byproduct which refiners, including Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller, needed to evacuate.

That useless byproduct, gasoline, poured from the refineries and into nearby streams. Water seemed in endless supply; gasoline was not the only waste carried by streams and rivers carried away. I once found the remains of a settler’s cabin, its stone foundation extended over a creek flowing under one room at the corner of the cabin.

Another natural product that once seemed endless was timber. Former Pennsylvania Gov. Gifford Pinchot’s father made much of his wealth harvesting forest resources. His crews would load logs on a train, and when the distance from the train to the trees became too far, they would extend the rail line.

Gifford’s dad figured out he was cutting trees faster than they could grow back and encouraged the young Gifford to study forestry to extend the life of the resource. But as the younger man was preparing for specialized studies, he was discouraged by business leaders who believed there could never be a shortage of trees.

More recently, I sat in a New England Town Meeting at which an attempt was being made to adopt an ordinance to slow logging efforts before the trees would be removed and allow summer rains to wash the mountains onto Main Street.

A small group of young men stood at the back of the room, arguing the ordinance was not necessary.

“My grandfather logged that mountain,” one of the men said. “My father logged the mountain and now I’m logging the mountain.

“There is plenty of wood growing up there.”

The ordinance was voted down and the young man climbed in the air-conditioned cab of his new tree harvester, popped a CD in the player, and went back to work. Unlike his grandfather’s ax or his father’s chainsaw, the youngest logger’s tree cutter featured a mechanical arm that could grab a tree, cut it off at the ground, strip all its limbs and stack the resulting log to await loading on a truck.

The modern machine could clear a hillside in days that would have taken its operator’s grandfather all season.

And then the rain came. Torrents of muddy water overflowed the stream running through the center of town and nearly washed away the town.

For the past two years, I have been a member of a group reading books about ecology. One of the points that has stood out to me is the number of authors who refer to what some call the “first nations” – those peoples who were here long before Christopher Columbus’ PR machine gave him credit for finding the place – that “learned” to balance their needs with those of the planet’s ecology.

I submit their balance grew from an interplay between their experience and their technological capabilities. They had not yet invented the hungry machines that would devour huge loads of raw material.

When I was a youngster, log trucks were commonly loaded with tree trunks 24 inches or more in diameter destined for the paper-making mill a few miles from my home. Now the same trucks are driving farther from their mills to find trees a few inches in diameter to feed paper and furniture mills, and logging crews are marching deeper into boreal forests to find wood to feed the mills.

Because we cannot see the origin of a creek, we think it is without beginning. Because we have the machines and chemicals to destroy the planet, we think destruction is not possible. Our home is encouraging us to rethink that.

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