I mean, we live in the Eastern Woodlands. That’s one of the main geographic areas of North America. It’s also the place the original English settlers described as endless forests, while the many different Native tribes called home for ages. It embraces the forests of Quebec and Ontario, New England, the Great Lakes, the Mid-Atlantic and the expanse of the South. Pretty much everything east of the Mississippi.
Yep, a geographic area with lots of trees, both back in the day and, for sure, even now.
And, as a point of interest—and, no, I’m not talking about all the viewing, hiking, camping, canoeing, cross country skiing, fishing and hunting you can do in them—though some of the Woodlands have been cut down, there are virgin tracts within it and, more importantly, many places replanted or reforested in the past century-and-a-half. Even more interesting, some of the original forests—virgin or primal forests, we call them—still exist. These are places with really tall trees, with leaf canopies that are unbelievably high, with forest floors made up of nature’s mulch, decaying leaves, bark, twigs, branches and annual plants that collapse by the end of autumn. If you’re not dealing with large jagged boulders in the mountains, it is some of the softest ground you can walk on while taking a brief half-day saunter or a long hike. If you’re really adventurous, you can backpack on some serious multi-day journey to experience the totality of the forest.
I mention all this because, when taken in their totality, and with a certain historical perspective on days of yore, the Eastern Woodlands are rather daunting. In older times, when you entered them, a human being became part of the food chain—and, as my ski buddy, who grew up in the Alaska, told me about these primal areas—not the top of the food chain. Yes, they can be, even on the sunniest of days, dark places full of the mystery of the unknown. I’m not just talking about bears or the wickedly evil tick that carries Lyme Disease. I’m talking about a place that accesses our primitive evolutionary imaginations, where spirits, ghosts, gnomes and malevolent deities wait for us with the baited trap of natural beauty as we isolate ourselves by wandering further and further into nature’s seductive seclusion.
Of course, not everyone is daunted by the specter of one of these woodland places. I know some hunters who go into them, some alone, some in pairs or in groups of hunting buddies They always have a rifle, powerful enough to take down a bear, even though they’ve gone in to hunt deer. Yet, to a person, they each have a very healthy respect for the part of the woodlands that gives them their name—that is to say, endless stands of trees that make the idea of “just around the corner” only a few steps away, but never ending. Indeed, curiosity may have killed the cat, but insisting on that next step, although part of human nature, has enmeshed more than an explorer or two in something more than a little perilous.
With all this said, then, it should come as no surprise that when I decided to take my grandson William to the primal woods of Gosnell Big Woods Preserve in the New York lakeside community of Webster, he was, as with all things that he does with granddad, excited.
I remember never actually having been to the Gosnell Woods before, so I missed the tiny parking area,. I drove past it a couple of times because it is small, unceremoniously marked, and really tells you nothing about what the place. Yes, great job there, Webster town council. Anyway, after a few times of turning around and driving by it, I finally figured out that that miniscule unpaved plop of gravel was the place. All the while, William kept asking me: 1) “What are you doing?” And, of course, the eternal question: 2) “Are we there, yet?”
The walk from the small, stony parking lot was, in comparison to what was to follow, small. William and I walked north following a dirt path on the edge of an uncultivated overgrown field. There was a section of the trail that hadn’t yet dried from an earlier rain—yes, it was muddy—that William wanted to jump in and run through over and over. I had vision of the back seat and floor of my Honda Civic caked in dried mud.
“No, sweetie, that’s not such a good idea,” I offered up and then finishing with, “Here, hold my hand and we can walk together.”
Civic back seat saved!
So, onward we went, William letting go of my hand and bouncing along the way, smiling, happy, playful. I thought to myself, this is going to be a great event: introduce William to a real forest and begin to plant in his mind that idea of caring for Mother Nature.
All was going well until we came upon the olden trees. In comparison to the trees we normally see in what is the very verdant, lush landscape of Rochester region, the Gosnell Woods tower. That’s right, they tower. Tall was not the word. Nor was “an unusually high canopy.” But, what was key here, especially in the mind of a young four year old, was the fact that the trees, with their sheer numbers, were dense. And that density, coupled with a thick canopy, made for the Sandburgian “dark and deep” that really frightened William. It was in no way “lovely” to him.
William refused to enter the woods.
“What’s wrong? There is nothing to be afraid of,” I tried to explain.
He looked down at the ground and murmured quietly, “No.”
I repeated myself as I walked about twenty-five feet into the woods. I smiled and said, “See, nothing to be afraid of. C’mon, take my hand.”
Well, that worked. William ran over to me, we held hands and walked about ten feet, when he let go of my hand, smiled and then wanted to run ahead, to the point that I had to say, “Hey, there, mister, let’s slow down a little.”
From that moment on, the woods were a wonderland. We spent a good hour-and-a-half walking, jogging, climbing some modest rises and then running down them. It was awesome. “Experts estimate that the oak, hickory and hemlock trees in these woods are as much as 350 years old, and many have grown to a girth of several feet around, their gnarled roots and well-textured trunks standing in stunning contrast to the younger trees that we see in our neighborhoods,” so says one of internet guides.
When we came upon a bridge over a rivulet, William pointed out a small marker to me, “We can’t cross here. See the sign?”
Indeed, there was a small warning sign posted just in front of the bridge. It showed a red circle with a line drawn through it from upper left to lower right, a standard “no” signal to people all over the world. However, I quickly noticed that it was not a person that had the red line drawn thought it, but rather, a horse.
“See the horse there, William?” I asked hm.
“That means you can’t ride a horse across the bridge. Probably, a horse weighs too much and would break the bridge,” I explained.
Anyway, we not only crossed the bridge several times in succession, but found a spot where we could jump across the rivulet, not because it signaled some sort of victory over natural barrier, albeit a tiny one, but rather because, and I cannot emphasize this enough, because it was fun.
We finished out late morning walk by going back on the same trail that got us to the woods. We had the same discussion about the mud along the way, with my No prevailing … thankfully.
Victory was ours, William and I concluded, so we made a joint command decision to find a nearby McDonald’s because, and from William’s point of view this may be the most important thing of the day, they make really good chocolate chip cookies.
Now, I know people who would enjoy this story up to this point, but might express some sort of disappointment because I ruined a sylvan morning by going to one of the archenemies of the environmental movement, McDonald’s. I know about their clear-cutting of the Amazonian rainforest, use of international shipping to send their meat here and there via fossil fuel, and their pushing an unhealthy but most convenient high calorie diet on people who should know better.
But, it is one of the main points of The Eastern Woodlands Fusion that objections such as these may be mere tokens in the sort of single interest politics that have arisen over the past four-and-a-half decades in the United States to address a sundry of issues: federal deficit, balanced budget, taxes, prayer in schools, abortion, animal rights, gun rights, gun control, family values, identity politics, KKK, Neoconfederacy and to some extent, environmentalism.
To reach the conclusion that “I want to save the environment, so I will restrict my shopping and food consumption to certain correct purveyors” is superficial and really ignores the enormity of the task at hand with the planet wide footprint—better might be footstomp—that modern human society brings to the table since the industrial revolution began in the later 18th century.
Buying or not buying chocolate chip cookies for your grandchild at McDonald’s does not really affect the major environmental issues we face: A planetary population explosion driven by the availability of food through industrial agriculture that relies on fossil fuels for farming, harvesting, transportation and distribution. This is the basis of the desirable modern lifestyle that lifts people out of poverty. It also drives urbanization, provides workers for the modern corporate economy, but also depletes non-renewable resources and creates various forms of pollution that cannot be absorbed and transformed by the earth’s natural ecological processes.
Look at this illustration of the proportion of land use in the United States and check out the accompanying articles from Bloomberg:
Next, here we have pie chart of energy use in the United States by the Energy Information Administration, again, with an accompanying article:
If you study these two charts, you can see that the problems we face are directly structured into our lifestyle and are the major drivers of our economy.
This is not to say that some progress has not been made in addressing environmental issues. As the National Geographic notes, there have been forty-nine major environmental victories since the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. (Fifty if you count the Wilderness Act of 1964.) Among these have been: National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (in effect in 1970), Federal Environmental Pesticide Control Act (1972), Clean Water Act (1972), Endangered Species Act (1973), Get the Lead Out of Gas (beginning in 1974 to completion in 1995), Rio Earth Summit (1992) and many others.
Moreover, there has been somewhat of a global effort to transition energy from fossil fuels to renewables.
Yet, progress has been in small steps. Since Earth Day in 1970, the global population of 3.75 billion has doubled to 7.7. Global greenhouse gas emissions have more than doubled, according the EPA:
What puts us in the middle of an environmental dilemma—the wonderful modern lifestyle with its food, shelter, medicine, travel and education—is that this lifestyle comes at a heavy, destructive environmental cost with pollution, climate change, rising sea levels and an increase in droughts that affect both populations and agriculture.
So, although there have been a large number of environmental victories over the past five decades, major ecological factors have continued to worsen. And, the lobbying efforts of the corporate status quo vastly outspend their environmental counterparts by upwards of ten to one, as we can see in this pie chart:
The anti-environmental trend has reached a fever pitch with the current Trump Administration where we have seen over 80 environmental rules rolled back. As the New York Times reports:
President Trump has made eliminating federal regulations a priority. His administration, with help from Republicans in Congress, has often targeted environmental rules it sees as burdensome to the fossil fuel industry and other big businesses.
What increases the effect of such anti-environmental lobbying and direct anti-environmental policy making on a global scale is the fact that, as Global Witness has exposed, environmental activists are killed overseas at the rate of three per week.
This stifling of discussion on environmental policies is an unfolding human tragedy.
The shift from fossil fuels is beyond monumental in scope. None of us can conceive of what a gargantuan project this is. The shift from producing waste and pollution as we live our modern, comfortable lifestyle is equally difficult. The task of reining in population growth is of the same magnitude. Accomplishing these changes as we provide a modern lifestyle to people through a sound economy may be impossible.
The goal of The Eastern Woodlands Fusion is to advocate for environmental change through informing our readers, asking them to support political candidates who themselves advocate sound environmental policies that will result in tangible changes and engage fellow citizens in conversations about our environmental problems.
When my grandson is old enough to realize what is going on, he, along with my other grandchildren and their friends, will thank you. Maybe with a cookie.