Lessons of the rainforest
Alongside centuries-old trees, humans may grasp essential humility
There’s much to learn from the “monument trees” of the temperate Alaska rainforest. (Photo by REX SMITH)
If you look skyward from the soft earth at the base of a giant red cedar to its canopy of branches, perhaps 200 feet overhead, you are apt to be struck by your own insignificance. In the temperate rainforest of southeastern Alaska, the greatest of these trees — those known to the region’s indigenous tribes as “monument trees” — are centuries old. A scar on the trunk several stories up may mark a place where, before America was a nation, a member of the Tlingit tribe, or a Haida or a Tsimshian, harvested bark to be woven into a basket, or perhaps a hat.
A couple of weeks ago, standing alongside one of these living monuments after following a bear trail deep into the forest, I placed my hand inside a foot-deep blackened gap two feet over my head — likely caused by a lightning strike generations back. I wondered about the last person who might have touched this tree, maybe before my Puritan ancestors arrived on the other side of the continent. What worried those people, or comforted them? How did they measure progress, and cope with the uncertainty that marks human existence, then as now? Did they ever wonder who would follow them here?
Thinking all of that in the company of those trees, and in the context of our fleeting time on this earth, it’s hard not to be humbled. In fact, that’s got to be good for us. “Humility,” after all, like “human,” derives from the Latin humus, which comes from the ancient words for earth. We dare not be prideful; our DNA molecules are the same as you find in the soil that supports these great organisms. We’re quite literally one with the trees above us and the soil below.
Unlike the forest and its inhabitants, though, we’re blessed with the intelligence to sustain the life cycle of this planet. It ought to humble us, then, to consider our poor record in the face of that opportunity.
A visitor to such a wilderness — even one trying to leave little footprint, and in the company of trained naturalists — feels like an intruder, or a voyeur. Yet there’s a value to this kind of tourism: While we’re traipsing through deep forests that belong more to brown bears and eagles than to us, we’re gaining some understanding of the magnitude of the choices that are in our hands. If we think hard, we might figure out why we’re falling short.
We might start by recalling that old question that probably struck us as profound when we were kids: If a tree falls in a forest and nobody is around, does it make a sound? Of course it does, you say. Yet the egocentrism of that silly question reveals a deep human bias: We tend to value mostly what we personally see and hear. As a species, we’re pretty closed-minded, and today’s media ecosystem reinforces that ugly reality.
Truths revealed in the forest
The Tongass National Forest is a 16.7 million acre expanse protected by the United States government since 1907 — though that protection isn’t absolute, since it has allowed loggers to clearcut a million acres, including perhaps half of the forest’s old-growth trees.1 Builders have always prized cedar for its color, grain and resilience, and furniture makers value its aroma. There’s a cherished wide-board cedar chest in my home that my dad’s brother crafted as a wedding present for my parents 80 years ago.
Logging, even restricted, isn’t the only threat facing biodiverse forests of America’s Pacific Northwest, of course. For example, yellow cedar is dying off because climate change has reduced the early snowpack that it needs to insulate its shallow roots from hard winter freeze that follows. Federal authorities are weighing whether to declare yellow cedar an endangered species, but even that would be a stopgap: There’s little chance that we can affect the inexorable march of human-caused global warming enough to restore the seasonal snowpack that might save the yellow cedar.
There are countless examples of similar effects of climate change. But you don’t need to travel to a wilderness to develop some hearty anger about the political choices, both in this country and around the world, that have failed to protect our planet. More broadly, though, we know that it’s not only in relation to our changing climate that we’re victims of a devastating sort of cultural cockiness.
In fact, a lot of our contemporary problems arise from a narrow-mindedness that gives more weight to our presuppositions than to what science and experience may teach. The late Israeli social psychologist Ziva Kunda wrote about what she called “motivated reasoning,” concluding, “There is considerable evidence that people are more likely to arrive at conclusions that they want to arrive at.” 2
Unsurprisingly, after four decades in journalism, I’d say that an antidote to this mental myopia is honest storytelling, which may be found in great novels and in powerful journalism alike. Ancient humans had only personal experience and the myths and legends of their ancestors to draw from; we have the benefit of channels of communication unimaginable in prior generations, and science that explains much of the natural world, altogether offering a view far beyond our own experience. This provides us the ability not only to grasp the reality of how things work on earth, but also a chance to grow our range of empathy, which is a vital human trait. We become more fully human as we read about, say, the grief of a family torn apart by war or urban violence, or as we watch a video segment about the joy of athletic accomplishment, or listen to a family describing its frustration amid financial difficulties. That’s a key value of journalism.
Reinforcing our biases
But a lot of political discourse nowadays, and plenty of the propaganda that purports to be journalism, doesn’t expand our view, but rather plays to our preference for what’s known. The viability and authority of traditional journalism is being challenged worldwide by the market forces arising from the digital revolution. In its place is a lot of “content” posing as honest analysis but which is in fact perfidious proselytism by partisans. Lies, that is. They can be quite alluring.
One of the realities underlying those changes is revealed in research that neuroscientists have reported in recent years: the differences in brain activity between political conservatives and liberals.3 It’s no surprise to note that liberals are more comfortable with ambiguity and more welcoming of new ideas, while conservatives are hostile to uncertainty. Yet recently we have learned that even in the face of evidence that conflicts with reason, conservatives seem better able to remain happy. A team of six brain science experts at South Korea’s Seoul National University wrote in 2020 that their research showed that conservatives have neurobiological mechanisms that act as “buffers that enhance psychological well-being,” even if they’re facing challenges to their beliefs.4
That research may not be something that producers at Fox News have in mind as they shape their reality-resistant programming, but they do know that their viewers are eager to remain comfortable with the status quo. Even if the right-wing media were to suddenly change course and tell its audience some hard truths about the key choices of our time — on economic justice, climate change, the threat to our democracy and racial inequity — it might not matter, since so many of us are willing to believe that something is true only if we already believe it, or if we’ve seen or heard it. In a group that is dominant in any society, comfort with the status quo may be a reflection of simple cultural arrogance.
Like the notion of a falling tree making noise only if humans hear it, then, we’re often can't imagine the reality of anything that conflicts with our own way, or what we’ve always known. That reaction applies beyond issues in the political realm; recognizing it and contending with it, in fact, it is a key teaching of the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, who wrote, “The truth you believe in and cling to makes you unavailable to hear anything new.”5
Which is why we may take heart in the quiet of a deep rainforest, with the damp earth underfoot, the redolent scent of plant life inspiring our imagination and strong cedars reaching far into the sky. In such an ancient place, there is a great deal to learn. If we pay attention — if we look and listen and breathe deeply — we may be rewarded with wonder, humility and gratitude.
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NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
York, Pa. (York Daily Record, ydr.com)
Wilmington, N.C. (Wilmington Star-News, starnewsonline.com)
Fort Collins, Colo. (Fort Collins Coloradoan, coloradan.com)
Palm Springs, Cal. (Palm Springs Desert Sun, desertsun.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section is available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Franklin Graham tour called “unholy”
As the son of the famed late evangelist Billy Graham and the head of the ministry that his father spawned, Franklin Graham draws attention wherever he goes — and in Pennsylvania, where he is launching a “God Loves You” tour to promote his political goals, thousands have signed a petition asking event organizers to back away, according to reporting in the York Daily Record by Kim Strong. Graham has been a loud proponent of Donald Trump — for example, likening House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s support for impeachment to Judas’ betrayal of Jesus — which led a clergyman who heads a group called Faithful America to label him “one of the most insidious political operators in the country.” In a hot partisan season with a key U.S Senate race underway, there’s no indication that sponsors are responding to the opposition.
Brewery profiled in The New Yorker closes
Five years ago, a white entrepreneur opened a microbrewery in Wilmington, N.C., with the intent of offering jobs to members of rival black gangs. It was a welcome idea to many in the community, but in July of last year, two people were shot dead in the home of the brewery’s founder. Two weeks ago, the brewery was profiled in The New Yorker — and this week, the brewery unexpectedly announced that it was closing, leaving 70 active gang members out of work, according to reporting in the Star-News by Jamey Cross. The local community college has stepped in to try to find jobs for the abruptly unemployed. According to the newspaper, the owner “cited media attention and a lack of funds” for the brewery’s demise.
Feds downgrade air quality rating on Rockies’ Front Range
For those who assume the mountain air on the Front Range north of Denver is clean, this must come as a shock: the Environmental Protection Agency has reclassified the area as a “severe” violator of federal air quality standards, according to reporting in The Coloradoan by Bethany Osborn, which could force gas stations in the area to pump cleaner, reformulated gasoline by 2024 — potentially costing consumers an extra half dollar a gallon. It’s one of seven areas in the country to get such a designation. To combat the penalty — and clean the air — the state would implement stricter emissions requirements for new cars that use gas and would increase infrastructure and incentives for hybrid and electric vehicles.
Mountain lions (one famous!) move to a zoo
In June, a custodian at a high school in Northern California has a startling discovery: a young male mountain lion in an empty classroom. Now that cat, along with a female mountain lion who frightened some hikers in the spring, will come to an outdoor mountain lion habitat in The Living Desert in Palm Springs, where they will live as a pair, according to reporting in the Desert Sun by Tom Coulter.
What I did on my (late) summer vacation
As readers of today’s essay may note, Marion and I have just returned from Alaska — which alert readers may infer is the reason you haven’t seen an edition of The UPSTATE AMERICAN over the past couple of weeks. It was a long-delayed vacation, and one that excited the imagination: two weeks on a small ship, with plenty of trips ashore by Zodiac, accompanied by naturalists. There were lots of whale sightings, along with brown bears, dolphins, seals, eagles — and trips to the face of glaciers calving into the icy sea. We visited fishing villages and learned a lot about the indigenous communities that have inhabited the area for ten millennia.
This interaction with communities unknown to us was mind-expanding, as well as cleansing in the way that a great vacation can be. We’re grateful for the privilege. By the time we returned to the Great Northeast, the season had changed. The day before we left on the trip, I sweated through a bike ride in shorts and a t-shirt; this morning I pulled on a warm sweater.
One of the facts that we note in each place — in southeast Alaska and Upstate New York — is that we’re lucky to have not been terribly affected, yet, by climate change. There’s some impact, to be sure: receding glaciers in Alaska, dying species of plants in both venues, boggy places where once the earth was hard and dry spots where lakes once glistened. But as we spend time in the north, we know that we’re mostly less affected by the inexorable push of global warming than our friends in the American West, where drought has become the norm. Note this, however: All Americans will soon be asked to foot the bill to bail out the areas that have been growing for years without addressing the water shortage that soon will cripple growth in the area. It should be a concern for all of us. Time is short; solutions ought to be in place before catastrophe comes. And it is certainly coming.
We can talk about that another time. For now, I thank you for being a reader of The UPSTATE AMERICAN — special thanks to you paying subscribers! — and I am grateful that you’ve joined me in looking at life from the perspective of “The Upstates” of our common ground*, this America.