Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

The Forest and the Trees
distributed 7/21/17 - ©2017

I've been out of town all week, so I am revising a very old copy of Eco-Justice Notes. This updates a commentary from very early in our history -- April 27, 2001.

One of the advantages of doing professional eco-justice work is that I can claim a hike in the mountains as "work time."

There was an occasion, in the spring of 2001, when a meeting brought me to the mountains near Denver. I took an hour after the meeting to wander through an open space area and soak up the spring sunshine, fresh air, and a beautiful setting.

As I walked along the trail, a common phrase kept coming to mind the one about "not seeing the forest for the trees." Now, this section of the foothills is not thickly forested. I didn't have the proverbial problem of being so hemmed in by the immediate trees that I couldn't sense the larger forest. My recurring thought took the saying in a different direction.

The hike reminded me that there is far more to a forest than trees. So, if all we see is the trees whether near by or in a sweeping expanse we're not really seeing the forest.

I did see trees: several species of evergreens, scrub oak, some willows. There was a complex mix of grasses and cactus and wildflowers (which are re-classified as "weeds" when they move slightly downhill into the lawns of the neighboring subdivision). I saw a pair of golden eagles soaring along the ridge, several rufous-sided towhees prowling in the undergrowth, and several more singing in the tops of trees. There were flies and grasshoppers, a couple of small streams, sandy soil with flecks of mica, a mix of rocks (including some splendid sandstone formations). Signs at the trailhead warned of mountain lions and black bears. I saw evidence of deer and coyotes. There was bright sun, scattered clouds, and a gentle breeze. And, of course there were people hiking and mountain biking.

The "forest" includes all of that, and far more that I didn't stop to see. A forest is an ecosystem, an interlocking, interwoven, interdependent web of life and processes. And it takes all of the many parts of that system working together to make a forest.

A forest is made up of trees in the same way that a city is made up of buildings. Trees and buildings may be the definitive marks of each locale, but there is so much more. Forests and cities are all about relationships and interactions.

If we don't see the relationships, if we are blind to the diversity and the interactions, we're missing out on the real wonder of nature. If we don't see the complexity, then we'll never be able to interact appropriately with the system whether forest or city or ocean.

As a prime example, the Pacific Northwest has a long history of being ravaged by "forestry" that saw only the trees. Watersheds and fisheries there were destroyed by rapidly-eroding soils in logged areas. Species have been decimated as their habitat was carved into ever-smaller slices. And human communities were frequently trashed by the boom-and-bust cycles of non-sustainable harvest. In recent year, I understand, more holistic forest management practices have done a better job of combining protection for the land, ecology and people into a sustainable arrangement.

The "eco" in "eco-justice" is for "ecological." An ecological world view sees the relationships. If we are going to learn to live gently on this good earth, that sort of ecological perspective must become innate and instinctive.

It should be easy for the church to communicate that ecological perspective. Because the church, after all, is all about relationships and the values that nurture them. If the church starts to refer to that web of relationships, to acknowledge the intermingling of humans and the rest of creation, we will be doing important work in shifting how our members think of the world.

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The notion of ecology and of environmental relationships has fairly recently been brought back into the thinking of the western world. It is only in the last 50 years or so that academia has recognized the legitimacy of environmental studies.

When I first published this column back in 2001 (in the opening months of the George W. Bush administration!), I wrote, "Government policies in the US are still struggling to come to that understanding" of ecological relationships. In 2017, it is tragic and infuriating to see the current administration reversing policies and shifting priorities toward a resource production model. The "energy dominance" emphasis on fossil fuels, in particular, is a parallel to the Pacific Northwest forestry that only saw the trees, and not the complex forest ecology. A narrow view of energy sources will be blind to countless other values and relationships.

The notion of the interrelationship of humanity with the rest of creation is not new. Alan Paton wrote, "Francis of Assisi taught me that there is a wound in the Creation, and that the greatest use we can make of our lives is to ask to be made a healer."

We can combine the insights of modern science with the wisdom of ancient spirituality and ethics. As the church deals with the eco-justice issues of today, we can draw on some of the deepest traditions of our faith.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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