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Arts & Letters

Big Books--Small Press

Looking at Wildwood, A Forest for the Future and The Left Hand Of Eden: Meditations On Nature And Human Nature

By Lois Barton, Reviewer

Posted on Oct 23, 2002

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There is a kind of courage practiced by small publishers and academic presses that is an act of faith in the future. These two books have deep substance and implications which influence our understanding of ourselves and our place in nature as we look beyond preservation. -Editor

The Left Hand Of Eden
Meditations on Nature and Human Nature
by William Ashworth
Oregon State University Press

There is a good reason William Ashworth's book is a "Literary Arts" Winner of the Oregon Book Award. His language is inspired. He organizes themes based on his meditations around some aspect of nature. Geographically they include Cape Cod, and island in Lake Michigan, the Pacific Coast, a Louisiana slough, the Siskiyou Mountains, Love Canal and many other places. Topically they go from Newton's formula for gravity to the Rosetta Stone, quartzite, centuries old Bristlecone pines, a butterfly's wing motion, Audobon and Pinchot, Arches National Monument, a brachiopod, Thoreau, spotted owls and a New Haven, Connecticut mall to name a few.

Ashworth uses forthright language with no hesitation about calling a spade a spade. His poetic descriptions of places, experiences, ideas are vital and colorful. The scenes, the atmosphere, the smells come across as if you were at his side. I was constantly impressed by the extent of his historical and technical knowledge about an endless variety of things.

The book is in three sections. First, The Undiscovered Journey, "deals with the changelessness of change." The second section, The Enemy of Progress, "describes some of the workings of natural law as they apply throughout both the 'world of born' and the 'world of made' as the Latin use of natura differentiated its meaning" The third section, The Left Hand of Eden, attempts a synthesis.

The author has been a long time activist in the environmental movement, but has come to see the "disharmony that exists between the laws of nature and the laws we use to protect it." Nature ignores human made boundaries. What we set aside as wilderness to preserve it becomes "taxidermy" Ashworth says. Preserve means to keep unchanged, but what we need is "not a specimen but a dwelling place."

The present process is flawed, encouraging greed toward harvest before more restrictions prevent it. So logging roads are built to the borders of a "preserve" before someone tries to include more territory within the roadless preserve, as an example of how it breaks down.

The author emphasizes throughout the book that humans are part of the natural world and need to accept and honor this connection. A life that is whole thrives on exposure to nature's awesome beauty spots and depends on harvests of her bounty.

I look forward to rereading these meditations, probably more than once, and encourage you to get to know them.


Welcome to Wildwood

Walt Taylor, in his recent book Waging Peace For A Living, listed seven reasons for cautious optimism about creating a better world. One of those reasons was a reference to a sustainable forest program that has been underway for 60 years in Canada. With this last summer's raging wildfires in many parts of the West, and with President Bush's proposals for dealing with this problem, it feels like a good time to examine Merv Wilkinson's experience with his woods for what it may offer in the way of wisdom for our future.

The whole story is available in a small book (Wildwood: A Forest for the Future by Ruth Loomis with Merv Wilkinson) for $10.00 from TLC Enterprises LTD, 1964 Fairfield Rd. Victoria, BC V8S 1H4 Canada.

The first paragraph of Merv's history reads as follows: "My 136 acre farm, Wildwood at Yellowpoint near Ladysmith on Vancouver Island, is a sustained yield, selectively logged tract of timber that has been producing forest products since 1945, and will continue to do so indefinitely." Merv grew up at the edge of this native forest. He tells of his affection for the area from early childhood. When he was seven he was playing peekaboo with a half grown cougar kitten around a big log in their back yard when his mother came out with a broom to break it up. Merv says his mother was a dead shot and could have stopped the game permanently, but the kitten was quite playful and really quite harmless.

In 1936 he bought a piece of land with old growth trees of mixed species on it. He knew nothing about forestry, and thought he'd learn how to make a living by taking some courses in poultry and livestock at the University of British Columbia. There he met a professor of agriculture who was a trained forester from Denmark. There was no faculty of forestry in Canada in 1938, but Dr. Paul Boving put him through a forestry course including both practical and theoretical forestry. And when he had completed the course, Dr. Boving told him he was not yet a forester, but had the potential if he kept learning.

This forest has provided about half his livelihood over the years. His kind of forestry requires less capital and less expense than commercial forestry. Students from as far away as Ontario and New Hampshire, and more recently foresters from all over the world, have come to visit this tree farm.

The original timber cruise in 1938, a method of counting trees, was 1,500,000 board feet (bf). Over the years Merv harvested nine cuttings totaling 1,672,000 bf by October 1993. He says a detailed tree count and partial analysis done during August 1994 indicated the original 1,500,000 bf would be present at the completion of the tenth cut that year.

A great deal of learning has gone into this process. He discovered that it was necessary to leave much of the residue from cutting on the land. Without that material the microorganisms that make growth possible had no place to exist. He has never had to plant trees. They have reseeded themselves satisfactorily over the years. He experimented with planting nursery grown seedlings, but found the deer preferred them to the natural seedlings and their survival was minimal. He speculates that the nursery grown stock had a different chemical make up which attracted the deer. His roads have been built according to the contour of the land to reduce erosion. He respects wet areas, knowing that cedars need a certain kind of environment, and that willows and other deciduous trees are necessary to help preserve the soil with their annual leaf drop.

Commercial foresters often begin harvesting trees at sixty years of age. Merv says a tree 240 years old has 26 times the volume of a 60-year-old tree. "In the 1992 value pricing of $0.20 per board foot, a 60-year-old tree was worth $7.20 while a 240-year-old tree brought $187.20" He has studied growth rings where information about growing conditions each year is available. He takes into account the condition of each tree as he chooses what to harvest. He makes the point that trees grow toward the light and when a canopy tree lets too much light into an area where seedlings are growing they tend to become bushy rather than reaching for the light.

There are ten chapters in the book dealing with such topics as sustainability, soil, seedlings, reading the rings, the volume and the harvest, disease management, etc. Each is filled with details of Merv's experience and growing understanding of the life of a forest. He said "Walking through Wildwood I have learned to observe the growth and well-being of the trees by the length and color of the leaves and the condition of the bark. ...When I started the study of forestry in the '30s, much was known about a 'tree' but little about a 'forest.' ...The burning of slash is the worst crime perpetuated against the forest soil. The average soil building rate in North America is one eighth of an inch every hundred years. If a man-set fire is burned over this, it destroys the accumulation of many centuries of topsoil."

The delightful reports on wildlife in this hospitable environment add to the reader's enjoyment of the picture. In an interview published in 1994 Merv explains that a forest is a garden which functions on the passage of time for harvest. His forest is alive with many kinds of birds, animals and beneficial microorganisms. He said "I have discovered that pileated woodpeckers actually farm the carpenter ants in a tree, always leaving a handful of healthy individuals to create a new generation." But in a dead or dying tree, they will clean out the colony of ants.

Supporters of Wildwood include Jane Goodall. Jane and Merv celebrating.

Wildwood has become a learning center for foresters from all over the world. Merv is now in his late eighties and is in the process of selling his forest to Ecoforestry Institute and the Land Conservancy of BC, both in Victoria. An educational center will be built at Wildwood, to act as an educational, resource and interpretive center. Plans include creating a series of wood shops where artisans can demonstrate their value-adding specialties. In addition to straight timber for sale, they may create items from gnarled wood, or other things from stuff that is not commercialy useful as lumber.

A post script to the chapter on Volume and the Harvest tells of Merv's visit to other sustainable selective forests. In Mendocino, California and Alturas, California are two such enterprises. The Alturas forest of 7000 acres has been in the family since 1888. There are another such forests in Lorane, Oregon and one in Medford, Oregon. Scott Ferguson, in Oregon, manages 154 properties with four crews. Scott thinks a 40 to 60 acre plot is the most economical as it requires only one road. Merv says "The similarity of volume produced and the similarity of systems were both interesting and gratifying - operations that have been maintaining themselves as forests for many years."

Wildwood offers the reader an opportunity to see how we can truly live in harmony with this part of nature, preserving in forest lands their value and beauty while earning livelihood from their bounty.

To learn more about Wildwood visit:
Ecoforestry Institute of Canada

The Land Conservancy of British Columbia is fundraising to help preserve Wildwood in perpetuity. Buy someone you love who loves the wildwoods a Green Gift.

The Wilderness Committee

A report from Vancouver Island Public Interest Research Group on the educational aspects of Wildwood shows over 3000-6000 visitors annually.

Also see Big Books Small Press in the Summer issue 2002

Visit Lois Barton's The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte and follow links to her works as poet, storyteller, historian and author.

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