WILDERNESS IN THE DEEP SOUTH
By LAMAR MARSHALL
A HISTORICAL DOCUMENT: This op-ed was published in the winter 2002 issue of The Green Elephant.
We who are attempting to sell wilderness to the American public need to package it according to the locale where it will either be received or objected to.
The great revelation that I would preach far and wide in my part of the world is that the Original Forest Plan was wilderness.
Before I get started and offend somebody by being politically incorrect, just consider that I’m a southern boy raised in the Bible Belt of the Deep South, where everybody fished and hunted and gardened and lived according to the seasons. I realize there’s a big debate between the anthropocentrists and the biocentrists, evolutionists, proponents of Gaia and creationists, etc., but the fact is, the average citizen doesn’t get into this.
I grew up loving wild things and wilderness. I didn’t know about “designated wilderness.” I loved wilderness for wilderness’ sake, and I grieved that the North American continent was so changed from the days when the First Nations roamed free and the first Europeans experienced the original wilderness. To paraphrase Hank Williams Jr., I was raised on the shotgun, skinning bucks, running trotlines, trapping fur, breaking okra, pulling corn and shelling peas. The Deep South is much more into cultural things than the biological. I took great pride in my Native American, English, Welsh, and Scottish ancestry.
I learned to swim in the Black Warrior River. Alabama is an incredible assemblage of watersheds that made for a Native American paradise. Over 231 Native American nameplaces in Alabama remind us of those who lived there before us. The last timber wolves and black bear were extirpated almost a hundred years ago. Alabama holds the record for the largest single extinction event in US history. We sent twenty-seven species over the brink of eternity with one dam.
I was 18 before I learned that anyone was against protecting wilderness. That was 33 years ago. In the last decade, as an avid proponent of wilderness, I have come face to face with people who are totally opposed to the idea of wilderness; people who hate wilderness and will go to great extremes to rid the world of roadless areas.
I believe in God the Creator. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. He clothed the earth with wilderness. It was born in wilderness —a cauldron of swirling ecosystems, natural processes and life-forms that make up an intricate web of interdependent living critters and processes.
God rested on the seventh day and saw the wilderness—and it was good. He created the entire earth as a vast Roadless Area. I say without apology that people who have problems with wilderness have a problem with the Great Designer, inventor and implementer of Wilderness—the Creator of Heaven and Earth. Anybody who hates wilderness hates the handiwork of God Almighty.
I can almost see Him now, staring into that 7,000-mile wide monitor with a billion-megahertz processor and infinite hard-drive, poring over the Great Multiple Use Forest Plan of the Ages.
He drafts it and sends it out for comment. The angels respond. The Devil says: “The ASQ* is too small, the road density is too restrictive. Can’t we squeeze out a few more commodities? Money is the root of all good. We can get rich. We can strip the mountains and sell the trees for fiber. We can fill the forests with Industrial Tourism. We can build skyscrapers that will pierce heaven. We can build our Kingdom in the ashes of the Wild Earth.”
God issues His Decision Notice: “I have decided. We must have sustainability, stewardship, balance, seasons, cycles and connectedness. You must not destroy the web of life in your quest to build your Multinational Corporate World Kingdom and Great Society.”
Then God issues His Final Environmental Impact Statement and voilà! We have Wild Earth in all its glory. Energies, starlight, sunlight, water, life forces, chemicals, minerals, plants, heat and cold, all free from manipulation, alteration and re-creation by little human gods who vainly attempt to improve on the perfect.
Folks, our world today is killing us with kindness. It is liberating us into slavery; prospering us into poverty and freeing us into bondage. We are destroying the world for unneeded, frivolous gadgets to make life easier or more entertaining. Whatever happened to simple pleasures?
Preservation is sustainability. This is the law of the Eternal Forest Plan. If we violate this law, the self-sufficient natural world that would carry on perpetually will fall apart. The great web of life will be more shredded. Species will continue to become extinct. Human health will wane and fail.
The Bible of the Wild is not written down on paper, although the translators of deep ecology and conservation biology are making headway. It is written into the laws of the natural world and the universe. Its laws are unchangeable and its word is etched into the spirit of every human being. We can build walls around us to separate ourselves from the natural world, but it is still out there waiting to proclaim itself. We can immerse ourselves into a thousand man-made, virtual realities of cyberspace, but the universal processes still reign outside the walls of our ivory towers. The transgression of natural laws will catch up with the world, and the wild will win in the end. As one person said, “Nature bats last!”
A hundred years ago a poet named Robert W. Service was struck by the incredible beauty and fierce harshness of the Yukon Territory in the Gold Rush days. He wrote a series of poems that every wilderness lover should keep in their bedside library…
“There where the mighty mountains bare their fangs unto the moon, there where the sullen sun-dogs glare in the snow-bright bitter noon, and the glacier glutted streams sweep down at the clarion call of June.” —The Heart of the Sourdough
“For I think you are one with the stars and the sun, and the wind and the wave and the dew, and the peaks untrod, that yearn to God and the valleys undefiled. Men soar with wings and they bridle kings but what is it all to you? Wise in the ways of the wilderness and strong with the strength of the wild.” —The Atavist
Along comes an economic system that puts fourth-quarter profits over sustainability and stewardship. We clearcut the forests off the mountains and the soils wash into the rivers and estuaries. The product of thousands of years of natural processes is decimated in one day.
A man says fire is bad. Lightning strikes in the forest and the man stomps it out. For the next 75 years fires are put out while natural fuels and logging slash build up. Fire is eliminated from the ecosystem and the balance is broken. But Judgment Day always comes. If we transgress the laws of nature and the forest prescriptions of Almighty God, we will pay one way or another. The natural cycle of drought comes, fire breaks out and millions of acres of the West burn up. The areas least impacted are wilderness.
In the Deep South, the great diverse forest is clearcut and converted from native hardwoods to loblolly pine monocultures. Seedlings to harvest—13 to15 years for pulpwood. Timber corporations now own about 6 million acres in Alabama, 25% of the timberland in the state. The forest managers sit back and look at the green waves of pine needles swaying in the breeze for miles and miles. Sweet financial success. Hats off to Pinus Clonus, the superior race of trees.
And then the pines begin to die. Southern Pine Beetles eat these unnatural, unhealthy tree farms up like boll weevils eat cotton. God created these little machines to thin out pines and speed up succession. They just love our genetically-superior pine-clone test-tube babies. The forest managers are crying today. The Bankhead has 15,000 dead and dying acres and 1,000 beetle spots.
I cringe when I hear the word management. Management is the antithesis of wilderness. In Alabama, industry, forestry schools, and forestry commissions believe that every square inch of earth must be managed. They are like little gods recreating the creation.
The term management is too broad. There are a thousand degrees of management. It is our duty to define what kind of and to what degree we manage all of our wild natural areas, not just our designated wilderness. Management can mean regulating development, the over-impacts of visitors, or simply helping natural fire regimes to reinstate the balance of nature.
For two decades, we have seen a concerted attempt to cut down many southeastern National Forests and change them into managed tree farms that would serve timber corporations.
As the cities sprawl across the countryside, the wild places continue to shrink. Private forests have continually become younger, more fragmented and, more often than not, converted from old, native hardwood forests to pine monocultures that sustain very little natural diversity. The native coastal longleaf pine forests have been converted to slash and other species of pine. The native forests are disappearing.
Wilderness is a tangible entity, like a continent or the moon. It is a living being with a direction of its own. As opposed to a forced condition, it is the ultimate expression of freedom. It is the only places left on earth where all the natural forces can “do their thing” without manipulation and alternation (and more often, altercation) by man.
Wilderness is not radical. It is the fabric from which and within which the human environment exists. It is our natural capital. It can’t be improved on.
The critics say, “Wilderness is elitist. The elderly can’t get into the back country. Small children can’t go there.” Baloney! Everyone can’t walk or swim in the depths of the sea, but we don’t drain them. Everyone can’t climb Mt. Everest, but we don’t build elevators so everyone can get to the top. The reality is that life is not always fair. It never has been and never will be. Wilderness challenges the mind and the body, and it has the ability to settle the spirit.
Today, there is no higher calling nor nobler profession than that of working to promote wilderness. Our work is to restore it, to designate it and to re-establish connections between it. Naturalness is the last great commodity of the earth. It is worth fighting for, and I believe it is worth dying for.
I once naively believed that my European immigrant ancestors were idealists who came seeking a paradise where they would live in harmony with the land. Now I’m convinced that they came desperate and destitute with little appreciation for anything other than a chance to be free and own land in order to live as comfortably as possible.
In a book called Mountains of the Great Blue Dream, Robert Leonard Reid wrote:
“Consider the people who loved the land, these pioneers rapturous before the majestic plains and mountains, these ranchers and farmers in the red sunset kneeling reverently to the ground and sifting the sweet smelling earth between their fingers. I do not know how to see it except as myth. The belief that we loved the land is central to our vision of ourselves as a people. Yet that treasured belief, so necessary if we were to transform the land into the subservient habitation we know today, fails entirely to square with the evidence. Certainly we loved something—the idea, the land, the promise of the land. But the land was forests, which we leveled, and topsoil, which we destroyed, and rivers, which we dammed, and streams, which we polluted, and grasses, which we burned, and swamps, which we drained… and wildlife, which we massacred. That is the record, and it does not sound like love. A poison was on the land. And the poison was this: The land will make you rich.”
- corporate CEOs recognize that wilderness experiences make better employees;
- counselors and psychiatrists prescribe wilderness for wellness of the mind;
- our elected officials stop representing multinational corporations and recognize that the highest value of our public lands is for a refuge for all of life’s processes and species and a place of human interface with our wild ancestral landscape, our cultural roots; that we have a spiritual umbilical cord to wilderness that must never be severed;
- the word wilderness becomes so sacred that thoughts of peace and tranquility flood every mind…
the world will truly have become enlightened.
May your lives be measured by the number of campfires that you will sit around.
* ASQ means “allowable sale quantity,” an acronym the Forest Service uses in national forest plans to describe the amount of timber that can be cut.
ORIGINAL 2002 CREDIT: Lamar Marshall , Executive Director of Wild Alabama (www.wildalabama.org), delivered the keynote speech from which this article was taken at The Wilderness Society’s conference in Denver in September, 2000.
Lamar also spoke at REP’s annual meeting in October 2001. We are proud to count this respected forest activist as a REP member and grateful for his participation in our meeting and for the opportunity to adapt his speech for The Green Elephant.
Read more of Lamar’s wit and wisdom on our site at…
* How Lamar Marshall became an activist… in his own words
* By Their Words Shall Ye Know Them