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Wallace Kaufman

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Romancing Nature: 3 Reviews
By Wallace Kaufman   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Tuesday, December 06, 2011
Posted: Tuesday, December 06, 2011

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A film and two books illustrate both the value of hands on experience in managing the natural environment and the damage done by well meaning but romantic prescriptions.

Richard St. Barbe Baker: •”Man of the Trees•, produced and directed by Leon Narbey Productions. The Video Project, 5332 College Ave,Suite 101, Oakland, CA 94618. 25 minute video, color. When a kindly ninety-two year old forester holding the hand of a cute five year old asks you to please plant trees it's not the time to start asking hard questions. Richard St. Barbe Baker of New Zealand, however, asks for more than planting trees. He demands an attitude about which hard questions must be asked,especially since this is a video aimed at the young and unsophisticated. At ninety-two St Barbe Baker is entitled to communicate with whatever spirits of nature he chooses, but I'm not sure he is serving the young or to suggest that by hugging a tree for two to four minutes a day one can draw an earth energy into the human body that will heal mortal illnesses. Fortunately this is not the main message of the film. That message is simple: plant trees because they prevent deserts, replenish oxygen, purify water and stabilize soils. Okay, but the return to primitive mysticism is a return to an era when people knew very little about the dynamics of biological systems. Believing in tree spirits was a myth system that served a world with a tiny population. It was the best explanation they had for the behavior of living things. We have an explanation that is better though more complex--science. And the complexities it reveals demand as much awe and reverence as any unverifiable tree spirit ever did. It is time that films like this and wise old foresters backed up their appeal to the young with the science the future needs and instead of nostalgia for a simpler life. Introduction to World Forestry: People and Their Trees•, by Jack Westoby. Basil Blackwell, 3 Cambridge Center © Third Floor, Cambridge, MA 12142 (1989). Black and white photos, 228 pp., paperback, $19.95. "If it's not pine, don't ask me about it," says one of the most successful foresters I know. He has managed the sale and replanting of hundreds of thousands of acres. He typifies what the late Jack Westoby believed to be the greatest challenge to modern forestry. At the end of this interesting survey of world forest problems the author concludes that foresters are neither ignorant nor unfaithful to science. "The real charge to be laid is that they [foresters] have served their masters too conscientiously." Foresters, he insists, must begin to think about the social and economic dimensions of their work. More than most recent books this one avoids hysterics and lop sided analysis of how we reached our present situation and where we are going. After more than twenty years with the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Westoby had a good sense of what works and why. In the chaos of flimsy opinions about what should be done to save the world's forests, it is difficult to find the voices of people who have devoted their lives to hands on forestry projects around the world, someone who knows the problems from peasant and riverbank to premier and World Bank. Westoby's experience may be particularly useful in stopping some misguided bandwagons. In New Zealand, for instance, he notes that environmentalists may have made a bad mistake in their successful campaign to lock up remaining beech forests. The result was that these small forests are like museums while the management of the larger pine and eucalyptus forests has been turned over to a state-owned corporation with an almost exclusively commercial mission, "tailor made for privatization as soon as the political wind changes." Rather than blaming deforestation on capitalism or colonialism, he recognizes that in most Third World countries the rural poor "are today the principal instrument of forest destruction." He would not deny that often they are the instruments of misguided government policy or commercial greed, but this does not lead him to fuzzy ideological solutions. Tropical forests are destroyed, he says, because few governments want to recognize the full range of social and political forces at work. He faults conservation organizations with the same unwillingness to recognize these forces. Conservationists too often settle for window dressing and jobs. Jacoby calls the history of their efforts to save tropical forests, "a series of loudly trumpeted non-events." His final chapter gives some clear directions for the future with brief illustrations of how they might work. Most important, he concludes that foresters can no longer practice their profession without a sense of its consequences. "All forestry should be social." ”Shattering: Food, Politics, and the Loss of Genetic Diversity•,by Carey Fowler and Pat Mooney. University of Arozona Press,1230 North Park Ave., Suite 102, Tucson, AZ 85719 (1990). 278pp., hardcover $24.95, paper $12.95. In botany "shattering" describes those plants whose seeds do not cling to their stalks in maturity. Agriculture may have begun when prehistoric people identified and planted non-shattering varieties. How we have come to rely on fewer and fewer kinds of trees and food crops and what that means should be the beginning of a useful debate about technology, commerce, and agriculture. Few people know the subject better than Fowler and Mooney. They begin with stories of how old varieties of wheat and corn have been "rediscovered" and used to solve such disasters as the U.S. corn leaf blight and the Russian winter wheat failure of the 1970s. They end with efforts of volunteer organizations to save thousands of seed varieties that are quickly being replaced in seed catalogs by new hybrids. The big problem in this book is what happens along the way. Between opening and conclusion the authors often employ dubious fact and illogical opinion to describe the social and political forces they see eroding the genetic foundation of world agriculture. Their history of agriculture begins with praise for a golden age of hunting and gatherers who, we're told, worked no more than today's average wage earner (not mentioning they lived half as long). Confusing culture with civilization, the authors elevate aboriginal people to civilized status by virtue of vocabulary and religion. While the workings of industrialized governments are scrutinized in fine detail, the authors have little but praise for the Sandinista government of Nicaragua whose corruption and bureaucracy Nicaraguans rejected by an overwhelming margin last year. This was the same government whose official gazette, in the name of environmental rotection, expropriated land near Managua and turned it into a military airfield. Disregarding the fact that land ownership has been very uneven from time immemorial and is most equitable in capitalist countries, the authors call landlessness in third world countries "a clear result of colonialism." Let them tell that to Chinese and Russian peasants. The authors' concern for genetic diversity survives these unfortunate crashes against history and logic, somewhat like a car still running after passing through a demolition derby. Their criticism of seed companies selling pesticides and fertilizers is well put. There is a dangerous temptation to sell seed that needs these chemicals. Their warning about how seed patenting eliminates traditional varieties is tough and timely. Their assessment of world seed banking efforts is well informed. They claim their final "Five Laws of Genetic Conservation" are good guide to predicting the future. They are probably right. This book is too often fueled by fear and polemic, but it is also well enough informed to survive and demand answers that have not been forthcoming from the big seed and pesticide companies.



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