First They Came For the Trees

There's a row of books stashed on a bottom shelf of one of my bookcases where I keep books I intend to read but haven't as yet. I don't even remember where I got some of them, only that when I see them I think, oh, yeah. Wanna read that one some day.

One such is , by Stephen Ambrose, originally published in 1975. Finished it last week. In his introduction, Ambrose wrote,

[Crazy Horse and Custer] met only twice, on the battlefield, the first time on the banks of the Yellowstone in 1873, the second time on the banks of the Little Bighorn in 1876. The trail each man followed to the Little Bighorn is the subject of the following story.

Those trails through landscapes and cultures almost 150 years gone are fascinating enough. We have learned to mourn the lost cultures of the tribes of forest and plain, and the passing of the great herds that sustained the Pawnee, the Crow, the Cheyenne, the Sioux. Some of us have mourned the loss of the great forests that stretched from Pennsylvania and Ohio through Indiana to Illinois. What I didn't realize was that the forests were systematically destroyed in ways prescient of the decimation of the buffalo.

Ambrose describes how the great trees were girdled, removing a strip of bark around the entire circumference. The tree would be dead within a year. He quotes a source who wrote, Huge trees dotted over the field, their bare bodies and naked limbs in the dusk of the evening or the pale light of the moon, having a most dismal and ghostlike appearance.

Ambrose continues, Beautiful black walnut, oak, maple, and other prime lumber stood dead and pathetic - and hated - wherever one traveled in the Ohio valley.

Removing the huge crop of dead trees was an arduous task. Workers cut the tree down, then chopped the top limbs into ten-foot lengths. These they piled on the main trunk and set afire. Once the great log had burned in half, a team of horses or oxen swung the sections around so that they were parallel to each other. Then came the hardest job of all, rolling the largest logs together. The aid of half a dozen or more neighbors was necessary because one or two men could not handle the big logs. When that task was accomplished, the men piled smaller logs crosswise on the trunks, with all the smaller timber and limbs thrown on top, and started the fire.

Then, writes Ambrose's source, To see ten or fifteen acres on the day or more particularly on the night of firing was to see a grand sight...

The adjoining woods are lighted up, fences stand out in bright relief, the sky is red with reflected forms and firelight, and saddest part of all, hundreds of cords of the finest firewood and thousands of feet of the most beautiful timber - all consumed and for no purpose but to get rid of it.

First the trees, then the buffalo - several years later, when the tribes of the Great Plains were sufficiently diminished and corralled, the miles and miles of buffalo grass that held the soil together was plowed under and also "got rid of."

I'm not generally one to bash my ancestors for what they wrought when they came. I often say, if they had done other than what they did, if they had acted always with integrity, honoring the land they found and the peoples already on it, that they - and by extension, we - would really be the superior peoples that we claimed (and some still claim) to be.

Nevertheless, for some reason the story of the trees touched me deeply. I had to wonder at the wisdom of releasing thousands of men starved for land of their own into a land of plenty with axes and rifles. I don't have to hate my people for not being able to see the forest for the trees - for being blind to so much else. But I can be sad about it.