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Longevity and the Cycle of Life

Published March 1st, 2018 in Community Perspectives

By Leslie Hawes

It can feel so overwhelming when one takes into account how much destruction of the environment happens in their lifetime, and the longer you’re alive, the more devastating environmental destruction can seem.  Fortunately, nature is cyclical and destruction is an essential component that must happen for life to occur. 

I’ve been on the earth just a little over 40 years now.  I hail from the east side of the Cascade Range, but am now sinking roots on the west side. I currently live, work and play at Breitenbush Hot Springs (BBHS).  Curiously, BBHS and I are the same age!  We’ve both spent our entire lifetime in Oregon.  In that time, we have witnessed the permanent removal of many trees, specifically in these two areas. Most of the those trees that have been removed are due to very real economic needs.  As I continue to develop my political identity, I realize I have a strong value to widen our perspective of how we collectively care for trees.  It is my hope we will be able to move from dollar-driven choices towards ecologically-guided perspectives.  I believe we can balance the need for work in human time with the resources offered up in nature’s time.  Observing the lifecycle and inter-dependance of an old-growth forest can be an excellent start to learning about the ecological limits and abundance nature has to offer.    

I became a part of the Breitenbush watershed cycle 4 years ago, so that means I’ve been here for 7 seasons now.  Throughout my time here, I’ve been working hard to learn the history of the land and of the people, and how to read the stories that only old growth can tell.  A consistent theme in the story of old growth appears to be that it is a master at using forces of destruction to its advantage.  Perhaps humans will figure out the best way to create destruction in a way that promotes the longevity of desirable ecological values for all beings.  Perhaps we can accomplish co-creating a rich ecology by observing and learning how old growth self-regulates its own survival.

Because of efforts that took place in the late 70’s and early 80’s, I got to personally enjoy what untouched old growth looks and feels like.  The ability to experience the gift of what old growth looks and feels like is a direct result of all those who came to this land before me.  In part, this gift was passed forward from the first people, to the loggers who experienced joy then job loss during the heyday of logging (in part due to a combination of Oregon running out of lumber, the advancement of machines and the out-sourcing of jobs), to the environmental movement that fought to preserve as much of the wild as possible.  Their collective choices allow me to experience and compare what machine-managed growth looks and feels like compared to what machine-untouched old growth looks and feels like.  If we believe all forests employ various techniques to manage its longevity, then let us also believe that all of man’s choices are guided by the will of the land.

Of course, I do experience extreme devastation when witnessing pristine or balanced ecosystems forever altered in the name of economic vs. ecological needs.  I do not exactly understand why the core of my being feels so sad when I witness ancient organisms forever altered in the name of man’s needs, but I suspect it is due to mourning an experience that won’t be available again in my lifetime.  So to help counteract that feeling of hopelessness that witnessing such destruction can create, I’ve come up with a strategy.  I tap into the truth of destruction- without destruction, there is no life.  Long before I ever entered this world, astroids were slamming into the earth, volcanoes were obliterating landscapes, monkeys were eating the brains of their cousins, people were testing nuclear bombs.  And yet, somehow, somehow…I have been able to experience pristine and balanced ecosystems more often then not in my lifetime.  There are still many areas in this world where the fingers of finances has not touched- we only have to look for them.  It is my hope we can then protect and learn from areas unaltered by man’s mechanized ideas.  Forever, somewhere in the universe, there will be trees growing and human children witnessing them.  I know this to be true, even if that is just a story I tell myself to get by in this world.  I am determined to learn how to celebrate man’s role in the cycle of creation and destruction.

It is easier for me to celebrate man’s role in the cycle of creation and destruction when I spend time enjoying what old growth has to offer my human experience.  When I hike through wilderness and lightly maintained trails, I experience joyful, peaceful feelings. Hiking through a community of old trees in various stages of life and death creates within me a sensation of safety.  Because of this phenomenon, I hope to help protect the experience only old-growth can offer my fellow humans for many generations to come.  There is something to hiking through trees that have been dead or dying for hundreds of years, atop an organism that has been at it for 7-million years, that is in turn feeding trees from seedlings to maturity, lifetime after lifetime, that seems to enhance the human experience. To be in a forest that still enjoys the process of elder trees feeding the future trees makes me feel so nurtured, so connected to all that came before me.  The volunteers who saved this area of forest, created and maintained these trails for the past 40 years, had my very experience in mind when they were doing this work. My great grandmothers and grandfathers had me in mind when they were doing their work.  Old-growth, with its cycle of dead, diseased, dying and living, is a prime example that longevity is peacefully and abundantly granted when these cycles of life are in balance.

The advent of machines has posed a challenge to the balance of the current eco-system.  Suddenly, the ability to move information around is easier than ever before.  Even though the element of destruction has always brought balance to creation, our current information system has made it appear that we are out of balance.  Our societal tone is that humans are destroying the earth, but what if that was not true?  What if we are part of the cycle?  What if our real challenge is to explore how we can feel good and informed about our role in the cycle of creation and destruction?  I believe that we can change our tone of doom and gloom to one of inquiry and hope.  The invite to be a part of the BHS community has made it possible for me to explore answers to such questions.   With this opportunity granted to me, I hope to help the ancient story of this land move forward in a way that others will have time to explore similar questions.  By learning how to define and partake in the safeguarding of this land while temporarily calling it home, I’m doing my part to leave space for the next storyline to unfold.  

The recent fire-activity has certainly changed the story for many aspects of life in this area.  Based on observation, it appears that not every forest depends on fire to self-regulate.  Forests on the East-side of of the Cascades seem to employ fire as a tool to self-regulate frequently, while fire on the West-side of the Cascades appears to be rather rare.  I believe a part of the story of what old-growth has to say is all about the microbes.  As our understanding of microbial life and its role in earthy regulations increases, I believe it will come to light how different forests rely on cycles of self-regulation that are driven not by fire, but by microbes.  This will be a more challenging observation to make if man’s response to fire continues to unfold as it has in the recent past.  I believe that protecting the old growth that remains in the NW Santiam Watershed could teach humans about the various ways forests self-regulate, and may lead us to understand how by not managing, we are actually managing the forest.  I have a goal to protect the wild rights of all organisms, but especially the forests. 

Evidence suggests that around 9,000 years ago, humans began inserting themselves into the self-regulating process of this estimated 7 million year old pocket of cascade forest.  It is not yet clear to me what conditions led to the current rise of trees, but the oldest known tree discovered near Spotted Owl Knob is a fir boasting 760 growth rings.  Local tree guru, Michael Donnelly, believes there are pockets of trees in this area that could be over 1,000 years old.  It is a miracle to think that any trees survived the logging industry, which is said to have begun in this area when railroads made it possible around 1880!  Time will tell if our current ideas about what to do with trees will allow them to continue on with their own lifestyle and rhythms.

Though I do feel the doom and gloom that whomever coined the question, “Mommy, what were trees?,” I also feel immense hope that we can move in to a different direction as a society.  I fully believe we can curb the feeling of doom and gloom by focusing on our results, the quality of our actions, and the history we someday want to have.  Yes, there are many trees.  Yes, we feel, as humans, we have the knowledge and the rights to manage those trees and the landscapes they reside on.  Yes, we are working towards a way to manage our earth from a money perspective to an ecological perspective.  And yes, a lot of destruction is happening while we’re trying to define our role in the current cycle of life.  Continuous alteration of everything as we know it is inevitable.  For destruction is part of life.  My hope is that we can become ultra-aware of our role in the cycle of destruction and life, take faith that we’re making the best choices available to us at the time we choose, and use our ability to tell each other stories as a way that promotes the feeling that we all belong, we are all doing our best at all times, and that just observing ourselves in the outdoor cycle is an acceptable way to honor the dollar and the ecology.  

Tucked away in this watershed, I get to live in a community that supports exploring the current financial system as a means to support the experience of humans in the wild landscape.  All profits this community makes goes right back into the business of facilitating our human interaction with the nature that is both within and around us.  Here, all of my hopes, goals and dreams of how I want to contribute to society is explored.  Perhaps if you come and visit here, you will have a deeper understanding of how we, as a society, can use our quest for generating income as a means to experience life is possible.

See you soon! =)

Leslie Hawes
Breitenbush Yogini