O, teachers are my lessons done?
I cannot do another one.
They just smiled at me and said:
Well, child, are your lessons done?
Are your lessons done?
Once or twice a year my husband and I visit the only people we know who live on a farm. The farm lies in California’s North Coast region, 250 miles north of San Francisco, our home.
The area we visit is a hundred miles north of the last tentacles of Bay Area urban and suburban sprawl, which now grasp at the borderline of Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. Even woody Mendocino has a couple of towns that are bulging in the middle around the vertical axis of Highway 101, like municipal versions of middle-aged spread. But once you reach huge Humboldt, one of this mammoth state’s largest counties, you cross some border less artificial than the sign-posted county line. I think of it as the beginning of the Northwest. As the vistas expand, the population shrinks: California is now home to one out of eight people in the whole country, but almost all of them live south of here.
And you have entered an incomparably beautiful land: of precipitous forested slopes plunging down to stony river beds, sluicing shining green water towards the sea, shreds of mist clinging to dark ravines, gently winding valleys of pasture land spangled with poppies, lupine, and other vivid wildflowers. And of course, the Pacific Ocean: vast, moody, hidden behind the highest coastal mountains in the state—until you are actually upon it, and then it changes everything. This coast lies on the active rim of three tectonic plates; the land is thrusting up, the sea is trying to tear it down, storms, fires, earthquakes are frequent: this is young and wild earth.
And yet human settlement just since the 19th century has had the effect of many earthquakes on the whole area, reshaping the land and disturbing its “young” million year-old patterns. In his book Totem Salmon, author and local resident Freeman House described a community effort (which began in 1980 and continues to this day) to restore the Mattole River’s unique population of wild salmon from near-extinction because of rampant logging in the 1940s and ‘50s. Commercial salmon fishing is now defunct because of unsustainable practices, and logging and ranching are on the ropes, and yet these brief activities may have forever altered the character of hillsides, rivers and streams in the area so that, at best, even if there is no further reckless development, their once-stable ecosystems will be undergoing severe stress for the foreseeable future. They will likely never host the kind of natural abundance and variety they once did. House gives an admirable history of the interactions of people and place in this land, and shows how even apparently oppositional groups like conservative ranchers and hippie pot farmers can form alliances around their affinity for a sustaining home place. Along the way, you get a very clear picture of the exceptional Mattole River watershed itself, really the main character of the story.
Humboldt County is the land of the Redwood Empire, where the timber wars raged in the 1980s and ’90s, fought almost tree by tree in what seems to have been a mostly losing battle to save the last great stands of the world’s tallest living things. Talk about not being able to “see the forest for the…” not even all of its staunchest warriors may have realized that the only meaningful fight was to save the once-immense northern forests as living ecosystems—not sanitized, nature-free, tree museums—and to preserve the watersheds that the local trees, fish and people all depended on.
And of course, many paper- and wood-consuming people living far from large stands of trees of any kind had trouble understanding why they should care. Beyond the tunnel vision of business boosters who said “Try wiping your ass with a spotted owl,” some urban activists I knew dismissed it as a privileged struggle: trees were beautiful things, but shouldn’t we focus our attention on ensuring that people in our own neighborhoods weren’t dying in a hale of police gunfire, or from toxic pollution or preventable diseases? What is a forest to us, who have never been granted even a park or a playground? Now, however, as the effects of the Anthropocene start to gather all people and all ecosystems in their growing chaos, the battle for the trees seems less elitist, if it ever was.
But this is not the story of that debate.