Loving the Land
[ by Scott Russell Sanders ]
The trees here in southern Indiana don't know about the September 11 massacre. They don't know about the American bombs and missiles hurtling down on a remote country in revenge for that massacre. They live as they've always lived, breathing in and breathing out, soaking up sunlight, holding soil, lifting water from underground, making shade for wildflowers and shelter for birds, dropping their leaves in season.
The fidelity of these trees to their ancient ways is heartening, and their patience is instructive, especially now, when many people clamor for quick relief from terrorism. As I write these lines, a month after hijacked planes hurled fire into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, bombers and warships are hurling fire into Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the scarlet maples have lit up the Indiana hills with their own cool blaze. The leaves on the walnuts and hickories have turned a rusty iron, the beeches have turned copper, the tulip trees have turned gold.
In grief over the devastation on both sides of this undeclared war, I seek out the company of trees. The older the trees, the better, and the oldest ones in my neighborhood are in the Hoosier National Forest, which extends from near my home in Bloomington southward to the Ohio River. Most of the land for the Hoosier had been cut over before it was purchased by the government during the Depression, but here and there a stand of old growth escaped the ax, either because the former owners fancied big trees or because the country was too rugged for hauling the logs to mill.
On a day in October when I cannot bear the news, I hike into one of these uncut groves, where the trunks stand far apart like great columns. The branches weave into a lattice high overhead. I follow a trail pockmarked by the hoofprints of deer, trying to shake off images of war. Wind rattles the crisp leaves, tearing holes in the canopy and letting in scraps of sunlight. The songs of crickets have dwindled from the cold. I surprise a yearling deer, which hobbles away, one hind leg dangling, ribs showing through its scruffy pelt. The last few spicebush butterflies, nosing among purple asters, are so tattered they can barely fly. At the base of a giant sycamore I find the scattered feathers of a blue jay, killed by an owl or hawk.
Everywhere I turn I'm reminded that the woods, too, are laced with death. Predators, parasites, accidents, and disease afflict everything that grows. But unlike the killing in the human world, the killing here is not driven by hatred, not justified by ideology, not amplified by technology, not passed on through generations in a fever of revenge.
Neither is the killing here tempered by the only sure antidote to hatred, which is compassion. Certainly animals can sometimes be seen caring for members of their own species, but humans alone, so far as we can tell, reach out to other species, acknowledge their beauty, seek to protect and restore endangered creatures and their habitats.
Walking among these great trees in time of war, I feel we need every bit of compassion we can muster. We need to defend from harm not only our fellow humans but also the soil and water and air, and the whole community of beings. Right now, in the name of reviving our stunned economy, the logging industry and its allies in Congress are saying we must open the last roadless areas in the national forests to logging, including the remnant groves of big trees here in the Hoosier. In the name of national security, the oil industry and its allies are saying we must drill in the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the last 5 percent of Alaska's North Slope that's not already open to derricks and bulldozers.
But I say we must protect every wild acre, from the Arctic Refuge and the Tongass National Forest in Alaska to the parcels of uncut woods in southern Indiana. They were precious before September 11, and they are precious now. We must not allow the blight of terrorism to spread into our public lands, nor into our hearts. Whatever else we may love about America, surely we must love the land itself, the mountains and rivers, the forests and fields, and the company of creatures unmatched anywhere else in the world.
Scott Russell Sanders is Distinguished Professor of English at Indiana University, in Bloomington. He has lived in Indiana for 30 years.
© 2002 NASI
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