Re Rustica

  (Squaw Valley, California)
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A Conversatin with John Muir

An old, beautiful tree is axed to make way for saplings.

An old, beautiful tree is axed to make way for saplings.

Click here to listen to the axing.

We were cutting down a beautiful tree at sunset when, out of the woods and out of time, John Muir approached our camp. We were glad to see him, and stopped our work and offered him some dinner - which was gladly accepted.

In the conversation that followed, he tried to tell us not to cut down any more trees.

The forests of America must have been a great delight to God, for they were the best he ever planted. The whole continent was a garden, and from teh beginning it seemed to be favored above all the other wild parks and gardens of the globe. To prepare the ground, it was rolled and sifted in seas with infinite loving deliberation and forethought, lifted into the light, submerged and warmed over and over again, pressed and crumpled into foldds and ridges, mountains and hills, subsoiled with heaving volcanic fires, ploughed and ground and sculptured into scneery and soil with glaciers and rivers - every rfeature growing and changing from beauty to beauty, higher and higher…Everywhere, everywhere over all the blessed continent, there were beauty and melody and kindly, wholesome foodful abundnace…

These forests were composed of about 500 species of trees, all of them in some way useful to man, ranging in size from 25 feet in height and less than one foot in diameter at the ground to 400 feet in height and more than 20 feet in diameter - lordly monarchs proclaiming the gospel of beauty like apostles…Widebranching oak and elm in endless variety, walnut and maple, chestnut and beech, ilex and locust, thouching limb to limb, spread a leafy translucent canopy alng the coast of the Atlantic over the wringkled folds and ridges of the Alleghenies…

To the southward stretched dark, level-opped cypresses in knobby, tangled swamps, grassy savannas in the midst of them like laks of light, groves of gay, sparkling spice-trees, magnolias and palms… To the northward over Maine and Ottawa rose hosts of spiry, rosiny evergreens - white pine and spruce, hemlock and cedar, shoulder to shoulder, laden with purple cones, their myriad needles sparkling and shimering….beaver meadows filled with lillies and grass…

Thence westward were oak and elm, hickory and tupelo, gum and liridendron, sassafras and ash, linden and laurel, spreading on ever wider in glorious exuberance over the great fvertile basin of the Mississippi, over damp level bottoms, low dimpling hollows, and round dotting hills, embosoming sunny prairies and cheery park openings, half sunshine, hafl shade, while a darkw ilderness of pines covered the region around the Great Lakes. Thence still westward swept the forests to right and left around grassy plains and deserts a thousand miles wide: irrepressible hosts of spruce and pine, aspen and willow, nut-pine and juniper, cactus and yucca, caring nothing for drought, extending undaunted from mountain to mountain, over mesa and desert, to join the darkening multitudes of pines that covered the high Rocky ranges and the glorious forests along the coast of the moist and balmy Pacific, where new species of pine, giant cedars and spruces, silver firs and Sequoias, kings of their race, growing close together like grass in a meadow, poised their brave domes and spires in the sky, 300 feet above the ferns and lilies that enameled the ground…

Hence they went wavering northward over icy Alaska, brave spruce and fir, poplar and birch, byt he coasts and the rivers, to within sight of the Arctic Ocean. American forests! Glory of the world!


…The Indians with stone axes could do them no more harm than could gnawing beavers and browsing moose. Even the fires of the Indians and the fierce shattering lightning seemed to work together only for good in clearing spots here and there for smooth garden prairies, and openings for sunflowers seeking the light. But when the steel axe of the white man rang out on the startled air their doom was sealed. Every tree heard the bodeful sound, and pillars of smoke gave the sign in the sky.

I suppose we need not go mourning the buffaloes. In the nature of things they had to give place to better cattle, though the change might have been made without barbarous wickedness. Likewise many of Nature’s 500 kinds of wild trees had to make way for orchards and cornfields. In the settlement and civilizaiton of the country, bread more than timber or beauty was wanted; and in the blindness of their hunger, the early settlers, claiming Heaven as their guide, regarded God’s trees as only a larger kind of pernicious weed, extremely hard to get rid of…these pious destroyers waged interminable forest wars; chips flew thick and fast, trees in their beauty fell crashing by millions, smashed to confusion, and the smoke of their burning has been rising to heaven more than 200 years. After the Atlantic coast from Maine to Georgia had been mostly cleared and scorched into melancholy ruins, the overflowing multutde of bread and money seekers poured over the Alleghenies into the middle west…over the rich valley of the Mississippi and the vast shadowy pine region about the Great Lakes. Thence still westward, the invading horde of destroyers called settlers made its firey way over the broad Rocky Mountains, felling and burning more fiercely than ever, until at last it had reached the wild side of the continent, and entered the last of the great aboriginal forests ont eh shores of the Pacific…

But the protection to be offered to the last remaining forests were circumvented by corrupt politicians, and by greedy citizens.


Uncle Sam is not often called a fool in business matters, yet he has sold millions of acres of timber land at $2.50 an acre on which a single tree was worth more than $100. But this priceless land has been patented, and nothing can be done now about the crazy bargain…The trees are felled, and about half of each giant is left on teh ground to be converted into smoke and ashes; the better half is sawed into choice lumber and sold to citizens of the US or to foreigners: thus robbing the country of its glory and impoverishing it without right benefit to anybody - a bad, black buisiness from beginning to end….

We were not astonished, and told him so. We told him we knew that the great open plains were not always so, and wondered if he saw it happen.

The redwood is one of the few conifers that sprout from the stump and roots, and it declares itself willing to begin immediately to repair the damage of lumberman and also that of the forest-burner. As soon as the redwood is cut down or burned it sends up a crowd of eager, hopeful shoots, which, if allowed to grow, would in a few decades attain a height of a hundred feet, and teh strongest of them would finally become giants as great as the original tree. Gigantic second and third growth trees are found in the redwoods, forming magnificent temple-like circles around charred ruins more than 1000 years old. But not one denuded acre in a hundred is allowed to raise a new forest growth. On the contrary, all the brains,r eligion and superstition of the neighborhood are brought into play to prevent new growth. The sprouts from the roots and stumpsare cut off again and again, with zealous concern as to the best time and method of making death sure…these vigorous, almonst immortal, trees are killed at last, and black stumps are now their only monuments over most of the chopped and burned areas.

But John, a hundred years later, and not even the stumps remain! John told us that lumberjacks were not the only ones to kill trees.

In most mills, only the best portions of the best trees are used, while the ruins are left on the ground to feed great fires, which kill much of what is left of the less desirable timber, together wtih the seedlings, on which the permanence of the forest depends…The same thing is true of the mines, which consume and destroy indirectly immense quantities of timber with their innumerable fires, accidental or set to make open ways, and often without regard to how far they run…Sheep-owners and their shepherds also set fires everywhere through the woods in teh fall to facilitate the march of their countless flocks next summer, and perhaps in some places to improve pasturage…the sheep consume every green leaf, not sparing even the young conifers, when they are in a starving condition…and rake and dibble the loose soil of the mountain sides for the spring floods to wash away, and thus leave the ground barren.

John told us how those who killed the trees then found work killing the wildlife as hunters, and then as farmers, about his hopes that the new tourists for the newly formed National Parks and Forests would save the wilderness.

By the moonlight, we showed him around our farm, and told him that the little acorns escaped the terror, but not much else did. Now the forest was wholly oak, and we needed to make room for the other 499 kinds of trees again. He smiled and told us we were doing a good thing.

Those trees you plant will be useful, providing good food to you and your customers. They will improve the mountainside and all the world. Trees make rain and rivers, and will do much for the drought.

In their natural condition or under wise management, keeping out destructive sheep, preventing fires, selecting the trees that should be cut for lumber, and preservign the young ones and teh shrubs and sod of herbaceous vegetation, these forests would be a never failing fountain fo wealth and beauty. The cool shades of the forest give rise to moist beds and currents of air, and the sod of grasses and the various flowering plants and shrubs thus forstered together with the network and sponge of tree roots, absorb and hold back the rain and the waters from melting snow, compelling them to ooze and percolate and flow gently through the soil in streams that enver dry. All the pine needles and rootless and blades of grass, and the fallen, decaying trunks of trees, are dams, storing the bounty of the clouds and dispensing it in perennial life-giving streams, instead of allowing it to gather in short-lived devestating floods. The outcries we hear against forest reservations come mostly from thieves who are wealthy and steal timber by wholesale. hey have so long been allowed to steal and destroy in peace that any impediment to forest robbery is denounced as a cruel and irreligious interference with vested rights, likely to endanger the repose of all ungodly welfare.

John shook his head, and sang an old tune,

Gold, gold, gold! How strong a voice that metal has!

We then shook our heads. We told John about the man we met who would have robbed us for $0.75, and asked him for guidance: when people are willing to do wrong for so little, what protection do we have when so much is at stake?

Even in Congress a sizable chunk of gold, carefully concealed, will outtalk and outfight all the nation ona subject like forestry, well smothered in ignorance, and in which the money interests of only a few are conspicuously involved. Under these circumstances, the bawling, blethering oratorical stuff drowns the voice of God himself. Yet the dawn of a new day in forestry is breaking. Honest citizens see that only the right sof the government are being trampled, not those of settlers…The people will not always be decieved by selfish opposition, whether from lumber and mining corporations or from sheepmen and prospectors, however cunningly brought forward underneath fables and gold.

But John, the lies of sheepmen and cattlemen, miners and loggers, and those of corrupted politicians have won! People no longer remember there were forests, and under the motivation of ecological protection, seek to keep the earth naked and in a state of shame.

Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed - chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides, branching horns or magnificent bole backbones. Few that fell trees plant them; nor would planting avail much towards getting back anything like the noble primeval forests. During a man’s life only saplings can be grown, in the place of old trees - tens of centuries old - that have been destroyed.

We walked for a while, under the oaks sickened by fungus and other disease. Their friends the pines were not there to defend them against bacteria, fungus or viruses! Young and old alike wept. Though they were not but acorns when their parents died, they remember. The trees remember.

last  light 

Through all the wonderful, eventful centuries since Christ’s time - and long before that - God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches and a thosuand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools…

That is why we cut down trees to make room to plant trees, John. That is why we encourage anyone who cares about trees to become involved in their local government. Together we can replant the forests, and as a nation of cities and Counties, enjoy all the benefits of that forest. Hunger and poverty need be no more if we reclaim this forest, and the planetary fever that now scorches the land and boils the seas can perhaps be cured.

We sat with John for a while, but soon it was time for bed. He would not spend the night at our camp. We watched him disappear into the trees, singing and laughing.

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