The Bill McKibben Reader

Pieces from an Active Life

Bill McKibben

St. Martin's Griffin

The Bill McKibben Reader
* I *
* 1 *
A Carefully Controlled Experiment
--The Nature of Nature (Harcourt, Inc.), 1994
June 29--It is a warm, close afternoon, and I am stringing twine around a small patch of the forest behind my home.
Why am I stringing twine around a small patch of forest? Because, by God, I am through with being a dilettante. This morning I finished writing a magazine article on the oldest trees in the eastern United States--seventeen-hundred-year-old bald cypresses in North Carolina swamps, Massachusetts hemlocks nearly half a millennium old, the magnificent tulip poplars of the Smokies. I spent most of my time in these groves peering up slack-jawed and thinking my usual liberal-arts-type thoughts: "Cathedral grandeur," say, or "That's tall," or "Whoa!"
As I wrote the article, however, I noticed, and not for the first time, that the best interviews I conducted were with the field biologists, the people who were down on the ground carefully studying the life of these places, finding reasons to save them. A Mr. Duffy had demonstrated that even after a century clear-cut areas lacked the wildflowers of the ancient forest; a Mr. Petranka had patiently proved that large-scale logging could cut salamander populations 8o percent. And Stephen Selva, a biologist I met inMaine whose license plate read "LICHEN," had discovered a species that seemed to exist in only two places in the world: eastern old-growth forests and someplace in New Zealand. "It's sort of the spotted owl of the East," he explained. "Unfortunately, it's a lichen."
Thus the string. Because of my admiration for these people, I have pledged to be more systematic in my study of the natural world. No longer will I indulge in those daily hikes where I stride as quickly as possible to the top of something in order to gaze out enraptured on an Adirondack vista. Instead I will study my backyard plot. The time has come to develop the left--or is it the right?--side of my brain, whichever one it is that science lives in.
I intended to build a ten-foot-square research plot, but an old white pine has turned it into a slight rhomboid. First observation: my plot has a lot of mosquitoes today. I estimated density: thick. Question for further research: what brand of mosquito repellent do real biologists use? Tomorrow will be a good time to actually start an inventory of the flora and fauna of my stand.
July 5--The mosquitoes have been joined by the most intense heat wave since the 1940s. Day after day it tops ninety degrees, even here at fifteen hundred feet. My plot is within sight of my pond, a flawed research design.
July 9--There's a maple tree on one corner of this plot. It's fourteen and a half inches around at breast height. Its leaves appear healthy.
About six feet up the trunk, however, a piece of rusting fence wire sticks jaggedly out. The rest of the fence has disappeared. Here is a puzzle common in the eastern forest. What can be logically deduced from this rusting piece of wire?
What can be deduced is pasture. It is easy enough to imagine the man who strung the fence. He must have arrived here late in the nineteenth century and cut down the big hemlocks so their bark could be used by the local tannery. Perhaps he found enough spruce to justify borrowing a team of horses and hauling it out. And then he decided to farm, as his parents had farmed in Massachusetts or in Ireland, not completely aware of how thin the soil was, perhaps hoping that the first ninety-day growing season was a fluke. But the second? And the third? Day after day, pulling stones from the field--the biggest heap is ten yards east of my plot--all the time wondering if he was throwing good labor after bad.
I can see that farmer's son deciding to leave, to take his chances in the cities to the south or the fields to the west, and the farmer growing older, unable to maintain his spread. The forest sidling back in on his field--the pines daring to rise a few inches and then exulting in their sunny freedom and shooting up with the spreading shape of a field tree. Is this a hard thing or a sweet one?
A woman grew up in this tiny valley in those days. Jeanne Robert Foster was so beautiful that she managed to get to New York City, where she became a Gibson girl, and then a poet, a friend of Pound and Picasso and Joyce. She wrote about the mountain poverty of those farms where she had grown up, places redeemed only by hardscrabble religion and the beauty of the hills. One poem tells of walking such a field, three miles from my plot, with an old farmer who had grown desperate at the decay. "I must find a man who still loves the soil," he says,
Walk by his side unseen, put in his mind What I loved when I lived until he builds Sows, reaps, and covers these hill pastures here With sheep and cattle, mows the meadowland Grafts the old orchard again, makes it bear again Knowing that we are lost if the land does not yield.
There is true human sadness at the work of a generation dissolving. I know old men in my town who will not drive out this way; it pains them too much to see the fields they cleared grown back in. Yet there is, at my feet, the remains of a trillium that bloomed a month ago, nourished by the sun that filters into this woods before summer closes the canopy, an old occupant who has reclaimed her home.
The fence has rusted away, leaving this one small strand of wire as a memorial to the momentary and (in the larger scheme of things) gentle touch of a particular human being on this particular landscape. A testimony to the recuperative power of any spot where it rains. This quadrant of mine has sojourned briefly in civilization, but it has not been civilized.
July 14--I am tired, and in sitting down to rest against the maple tree on the southeast corner of my plot I fear I have crushed several maple saplings. There are twenty-three of them spread around me, and a couple of hemlocks that have been browsed so thoroughly by white-tailed deer that they have pretty much given up. Is the destruction caused by my rear end on the maple saplings philosophically comparable to the damage done by hungry deer?
I have pretty much given up on the word "wild." Here in this one small place, the quality of the sunlight is affected by the thinning ozone, the temperature reflects our industrial society's emissions of carbon dioxide, the rain falls with a noticeably acid taint. And the deer--they've been nurtured for years by a state conservation department eager to please hunters, their predators largely exterminated save for the rifle and the Ford. Are they wild anymore, or are they a human creation? We need a more honest word to describe places where people are not in total control yet have their thumb on the scale.
July 20--Still, the idea of "wild" haunts this place. Due east of my plot, clearly visible today through the leaves, is a small mountain--not one of the hundred highest even in New York State, but the dominant peak in this area, a mountain that I love. And I am not alone in that love. A man whose name should be more widely known, Howard Zahniser, had a summer cabin not far from here, with a view of the same angle of this mountain as my plot affords. From there, he wrote many of his telling speeches on behalf of wilderness, and planned the two decades of lobbying that culminated in the federal wilderness statute finally enacted in 1964. The law--the most progressive and the most philosophical that Congress has ever passed--sets aside "untrammeled" land where man is "only a visitor." His son, Ed, maintains that the choice of words was careful, and paid off in the 1970s, when eastern lands were added to the national wilderness system. "Most of those lands were not pristine, but had recovered from human use to the extent that Congress found them now untrammeled," he writes.
So it is with my study site. There is no denying that most of the Nikon-triggering grandeur in this country is west of the Mississippi, in tracts more nearly virgin than these Adirondacks. But there is something about this plot, standing for all the other recovering places, that speaks well for human humility. People have taken a step back here, and the land has responded.
August 8--Some unscientific animal has stolen the string demarcating my research area. By now, however, I know it well enough not to mind.
Any one piece of ground exists in many different dimensions. When my dog visits me here, she concentrates on the dimension of smell, and doubtless has made many valuable observations to which I am not privy. I am working today on sound, trying to separate the noises that filter back to this spot. There is the soundof Mill Creek falling over the lip of a beaver dam, a spectacular piece of engineering that has built for us a new wetland in recent years. An occasional fish jumps in that swampy pond, slipping back into the water with a gurgle. Once, in response to some alarm, a beaver slaps hard, and the sound echoes lazily; only once, on this humid afternoon, does some bird let go a snatch of song.
Most of the sound is constant, more flowing--a ceaseless pulse of insect warble that I normally tune out with ease, but now, listening hard, find deeply reassuring. Trills, occasional tiny buzz-saw riffs, oscillating chirps blended together into high-pitched waves. It is life, pure and simple--life without the stories that come attached to the beaver slap or the birdcall or the gears grinding every so often on the nearest road. It is life on automatic, the deep life that our lives emerge from and skate across and subside back into.
August 26--The moon is working back toward full tonight, bleaching my study site in its soft wash of light. There's an old birch tree here, and I like to rub its trunk--the smoothness of the paper, the random weave of bumps and gashes, the peelings that it sheds as it grows. It is like holding a cast-off snakeskin--like holding time.
September 5--Most of the leaves in my plot are still green, the deep leathery green of old age. A few have turned, scarlet premonitions of the approaching explosion. It's still summer, but it feels like 3:00 A.M. in the city, the last moment when it's still night, when it's maybe fifteen minutes from becoming morning, right at the point where "out late" turns into "up early." Everything inside this plot--and all that I can see outside it--has moved further along on its journey these past couple of months. The saplings area little taller, the birch somewhat shaggier, the dead maple a bit more rotted, the old rot a little more like dirt and nearly ready to nurse the next round of seeds.
This morning over breakfast, I read an article in the paper about an economist who figures that most Americans will change careers eight times in their lives to keep up with the rapid pace of technology. And they may move to new towns or new parts of the country that often, probably trading in a husband or wife along the way. The last century has been an experiment in how much we can speed up society before the strains prove unbearable. The next century, if the scientists are right about phenomena like climate change, will test whether nature can manage a similar acceleration, whether systems geared toward repetition can handle enormous variability. Will beech trees still survive on this spot if the temperature increases three or four degrees? Probably not. Autumn starts to take on a different meaning--not just one spot along the endless cycle of natural time; but perhaps a metaphor for the slow expiration of the natural when it is forced into linear, human time. Autumn, implying May, is bittersweet; this new fall would be simply bitter.
September 12--A chipmunk, working without visible grant support on a careful study of nut production, has taken over my quadrant and is angered when I come to visit. Time for me to leave, to take down my corner posts and resume my meandering--I'm not cut out for the cutthroat world of science.
Without the string, with the poles gone, my study site blends back into the anonymous woods. But the scientific method has appealed to me greatly. Look low, look carefully. And know globally--the small and the subtle refer constantly to the overarching, the huge issues of the moment are reflected in the duff and the mushroom and the sapling. The war (and the courtship) between humans and the land can be read on this ten-foot-by-ten-foot (giveor take) patch of grown-in pasture, and the chances for truce (or for marriage) assessed. I should close, I know, with questions for future research, suggestions for these scientists who will probe more deeply. How do we want to live? What matters to us? What does a tree say as it stands in the forest?
Copyright © 2008 by Bill McKibben