Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The light of a burning forest

Driving through Wairarapa I see with fresh force what we
have done to the land. The early European colonists
called the stretch from Masterton to Pahiatua the Forty
Mile Bush. Little trace of that remains: just the odd stand
of native trees and manuka scrub. All now on either side
of the highway is pasture for cows and sheep. Here is your
open-cast mine, your quarry: the trees were extracted
from the land, leaving a scarred surface fit only for grass.
From 1840 on, New Zealand has been mined for milk,
butter, beef, mutton and wool. I wish I could remember
who wrote the following, but I copied it out of a magazine
once and it goes like this:

The Wairarapa had once been a great lowland forest
and now it’s gone. And gone with it is the humus in
the soil. Once we had a 30m canopy going down
through a succession of canopies to a 30cm depth
of humus. Now there’s nothing but 12mm of grass
and the climate of the Wairarapa has gone up by 12
degrees at ground level.

Your question is, of course: so? Humans were supposed
to arrive here in their hundreds of thousands, looking to
make a new life, and not disturb a branch or a leaf? No.
But we need continually to acknowledge that the impulse
that brought them from (mainly) the British Isles was
both a destructive and constructive one, and that their
legacy is our life here today—just as we bequeath to
future generations the consequences of every major
ecological decision we make. We may not know better
than they did but we know different; possibly, we have a
more developed view of consequences, if only thanks to
the fires they lit. Strange how one sees better by the light
of a burning forest. W P Reeves did:

The axe bites deep. The rushing fire streams bright;
Swift, beautiful and fierce it speeds for Man,
Nature's rough-handed foeman, keen to smite
And mar the loveliness of ages. Scan
The blackened forest ruined in a night,
A sylvan Parthenon that God will plan
But build not twice. Ah, bitter price to pay
For Man's dominion—beauty swept away!

That's from his poem 'The Passing of the Forest,' written
in the 1890s and subtitled 'A Lament for the Children of
Tane.' It took fewer than 50 years for a threnody like
that to be quarried from the guts of a poet aghast at what
he saw—'the fire's black smirch, the landslip's gaping
wound.' How much have we learnt since then? Your
mission now, should you choose to accept it, is to think
of New Zealand as the Thousand Mile Ecosystem and
work with that.

1 comment:

Truth Seeker said...

We are stupid, short-sighted monkeys at the end of the day. Concerned with and consumed by our tiny egos and very much exaggerated ideas of our own importance.

I used to own pigs and during those years cam e to understand my fellow man very much better.

Like pigs, ready to consume all and everything immediately without a thought for tomorrow...and aggressive in the face of any attempt to kerb such behaviour.

I watched them eat all I provided, dig up every grub...and turn the grassy paddock into a moonscape......then beg me for more food.

We humans may be a more polite than pigs....but the results - so far - are every bit as certain.