The Maine Woods

A Publication of the Forest Ecology Network

 Volume Five     Number One                           Late Winter 2001

 Your Inactions Are As Destructive As Your Actions

by Ethan Warren

"I take personal responsibility as an individual for leaving a legacy for future generations that is better than the one that was left for me."  - Julia Butterfly Hill, 8 November 1998.

My family owns a house in the Maine woods. It's a small cabin, sitting on the edge of a small, serene lake, across from which is a ridge of mountains, some of which are up to 3700 ft high. Recently, however, several paper companies have expressed interest in clearcutting that ridge of mountains. Now for those of you who don't know, clearcutting is exactly what it sounds like: a team of loggers goes into a patch of trees, and, with a mammoth machine, just wipes them out. In an instant these majestic trees are gone. Now, of course, this presents a problem. As we all know trees are anchored into the ground by roots, and deep under the ground these roots web together and lock, keeping the soil of the forests in place. But when these trees are removed, often by their roots, there's nothing to hold the soil in place. And with nothing holding it in that soil is gone. In my case it would slide down the mountain it was once a part of, directly into the river, which feeds into the lake in front of my house. You probably all know what this would do to the ecosystem of the lake. It would, for all intents and purposes, destroy it. The fish who make their home in that lake and river would die, the loons who feed on those fish would die, and so on, up and up the food chain. Now you might ask, as I did when I first heard of this, why would a company do such a thing? But I'm afraid most of you already know the answer. Money, greed, and a disregard for the reason I am writing this: the environment.

The view from Ethan's family's cabin in the Maine woods. Photo by Paul Donahue.

They say our generation doesn't care about the environment. I can understand why they say that; how many of you would volunteer to go stand outside a GAP store to protest the company's clearcutting of the California redwoods, and refuse to leave, even when the police use a Q-tip to rub pepper spray directly onto your eyeball? I doubt many of us would jump at the chance. That is why they say our generation doesn't care about the environment. Too many people in our age group have been brought up with luxuries like television, the Internet, even air conditioning simulating fresh air, that what actually goes on beyond their own four walls has become a tragically low priority. As an eleven-year-old classmate of my sister once said "I don't see the problem. We can always just build more trees." "No!" many of you might say, "I care about the environment! I'm just not going to chain myself to a tree to protect it." And I'm not suggesting that you do, but I think you might benefit from a story. Julia 'Butterfly' Hill was twenty-three years old when she climbed Luna a 1000-year-old redwood tree in Stafford, California. The tree sits on a hill overlooking the town, and if Luna and its neighbors were to be cut a mudslide possibly capable of destroying the entire community would be created. Julia Butterfly sat in Luna, 180 feet in the air for over two whole years, refusing to come down until it was promised that the tree, and all its neighbors, would be protected. Now, I'm not suggesting any of you go climb a tree for a couple of years, but what I want to present to you is a theory. Julia Butterfly says that your inactions are as destructive as your actions. So while none of you are out there tearing up trees by the acre, a dangerously small percentage of our age group is actively doing something to stop it. If Julia Butterfly had stood on the ground and said "There's nothing I can do" then those trees would have been cut and the town destroyed, but instead, because she chose productive actions over destructive inactions, because she believed the individual could make a difference, those trees may stand for another thousand years. She proved to us all that the individual does matter.

Julia Butterfly Hill atop Luna in June 1999, with target banner to protest the U.S. bombing of Kosovo.

I don't want to sound preachy here, up until a few months ago I could not have cared less. If you had shown me a copy of what I am writing right now I probably would have laughed at you; I described Julia Butterfly as the "tree sitting psycho." I believed all people who cared about the Earth to be granola eating, tye-dye wearing hippies left over from the sixties. However, when the safety of places I care very deeply about came under fire it became personal. Against my will I began to care about the same things as the people I had mocked and ridiculed. I realized my stereotypes of people who care about the environment were severely misguided. Just look at me; I hate granola and don't own one piece of tye-dyed clothing.

Up until now I've only been saying the bad news, there's an upside too. There are a good number of young people out there on the environment's side. In New York there's hardly enough room in the new High School for Environmental Studies to fit a tiny percentage of its applicants, and it's a pretty big school. Eleven years ago only one in ten high schools had an environmental program, now about nine in ten do. There are nineteen nation-wide youth environmental protection organizations and more are popping up all the time. As a college student said "I think the environment is important to, like, you know, everything else." While this may not be the most articulate response it represents the silver lining on the dark cloud I've just spent so long talking about. This is a problem, but it's not an unfixable one.

Ethan Warren and his sister Amanda in the Maine woods. Photo by Laura Warren.

In conclusion, I'm not trying to make it sound as though our days are numbered. However that could soon be the case. Too many people are simply closing their eyes as our planet is literally being destroyed in front of them. It's sad but we're getting down to the wire, the deadline is pretty close. It's getting to a point that our great-great grandchildren might not even have a planet capable of supporting life. They say our generation doesn't care about the environment. I want to prove them wrong, and I hope you do too. I urge you to get involved. That's really all I can say, get involved. This problem is only hopeless if we allow it to be hopeless. And if we don't do something about it soon, it may become hopeless. And then, in the words of Leo Tolstoy, what then shall we do?

Julia Butterfly Hill's story has profoundly affected many people, spurring them to actions of their own. Her impact has been especially strong on young people. The above essay was inspired by Julia's words and deeds. Ethan Warren, a 9th grader, is from Milton, Massachusetts. Ethan's sister Amanda, a 6th grader, wrote the article in this issue titled A Need to Act.

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