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Paradise Lost

by Rick Bass

Web exclusive to the January/February 2005 issue of Orion magazine



photograph by Steve Gorman, used with permission

SUDDENLY WE’RE NOT the same nation. There is in almost all of us a place—even if some days only a small, postage stamp-sized place—that is off-balance, frightened, pensive, even confused. And only now are we beginning to accept some of the basic truths about this small world, truths that we have previously been denying or debating for decades: that species extinction is rampant, perhaps unstoppable; that clear-cuts are crazed expressions of raw madness; that global warming is a reality, and that the mass of our numbers, and our relentless routine of consumption, are accelerating it; and that the heart of man is unchanging, always capable of great evil as well as great love.

Against such hard and ancient truths, and the breathless force of their disclosure in this new century which, like all the ones before it, seems to be shaping itself into a century of war, I take increasing solace in the logic, grace and unimpeachable democracy of those wildernesses that remain intact; and particularly our last native wildernesses, as opposed to those of distant lands, or the now-mythical wildernesses of storybooks. I think we are all—even confined, lifelong urban dwellers—reconsidering, if only subconsciously, the beauty of the green force, the wilderness icon, as a core or essence of some deeper meaning and order, and a force more enduring than even our own most magnificent artifices of stone and metal and glass.

In the midst of such re-emerging understanding, the goals of those who are proposing to protect the East’s greatest treasure—the Northern Forest, and our other last remaining wildlands—seem to me to be long overdue—a punctuation mark on the dream of Henry Thoreau, 150 years earlier, and one of the most patriotic place-based solutions to the challenge of the times that I can imagine.

The Northern Forest consists of 26 million acres of wildland—some public, but much private, its fate hanging in the balance, poised before the jaws of the international timber companies who propose to liquidate it, then shred the already tattered and weedy remaining carcass into subdivisions and strip malls.

Much of the proposed preserve lies in New York’s Adirondack Park, with the rest reaching across into Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. It’s far and away the largest remaining wild forest in the East, though it’s being skinned alive and swallowed whole even as you read these words. In the last three years alone, more than 6 million acres of forest lands have been auctioned off by the timber companies-turned-real-estate-speculators, who perform this reverse alchemy, gold into mire, by buying the land, paying lower agricultural taxes (if any), liquidating it, pulping it, then selling the haggard residue as prime real estate, without having had to pay the higher taxes that would have been associated with “developable” land. Your government at work.

Corporations enter the wild forests, maneuvering through them as if they possess the rights of individuals, the rights of American citizens—but oblivious to any notion of responsibility, sustainability. A statistic that should make the blood run cold in the heart of anyone who loves Maine is the fact that such corporations own 85% of the entire state. A few mergers, and we could wake up tomorrow with only 49 states and a single corporate entity holding 4 electoral votes.

For all the drama of the goal of restoring and protecting the Northern Forest—the largest and most commonsense, forward-looking vision this country has had since the long-ago dream of creating the first National Park at Yellowstone—even this wild dream is modest. Such has been our appetite for consuming the world, however, that it’s simply one of the best dreams we have left to us: a grand opportunity to express reverence for, and to celebrate, one of our country’s last intact pieces of original landscape, original creation.

All over the Northeast, and all over the country, such dreams—some large, some small—are metamorphosing into action. Local land trusts are being established, and conservation easements drafted as we begin increasingly to consider what legacy we will leave to our children and their generation, wanting, in an imperfect world, to leave them some example of perfect beauty.

Incredible conservation initiatives, particularly in the Northeast, are being implemented: 500,000 acres here, 600,000 acres there. Conversely, I find myself too often devoting six months to fighting for a 10-acre logging unit; two or three years defending, and then trying to mitigate, a hundred-acre parcel. This is no way to live a life as either an activist or a “regular” person, (often I feel that we in the West are a hundred years behind the times), but I sometimes justify such wretched battles by taking solace in staring, late at night, at the last and largest blank spots on the map, in the last few such places where they can still be found. The solace of the larger dream is what provides support and fuel for such maddening little battles.

IN EVERY GENERATION of man, I suspect, there has been the fear, the lament, that time is accelerating, and that with each day, the freedoms of a life and a culture, freedoms that have gone relatively unquestioned for the last many generations, are vanishing faster now, along with so many other things: icebergs, grizzly bears, clean air and water, open space, wild forests—all once birthrights and yet all now under dire threat of disappearance within even our own short lives. “Of what avail are forty freedoms,” wrote Aldo Leopold, “without a blank spot on the map?”

In such a time of perhaps unprecedented impermanence, it is these last blank spots on the map that the eye often turns toward, dreaming of integrity, wholeness, and restoration; of the absence of fragmentation. In wild places, wild forests, however—unlike the human heart, which is still so often confused or uncertain or hesitant—abstractions such as integrity are made startlingly, specifically, beautifully real.

The value of a larger dream, then, is that it encourages boldness, and possesses at its heart an irreducible element of security and sanctity and reverence: of order, amidst chaos.

And no dream is too large.

All of the elements, the fibers, of the dream are all still present in the Northern Forest, in full health, wild and hale and hearty: movement, time, growth and life weaving together to form a glorious narrative. Movement, most noticeably in the wild paths of clean flowing water, one of our increasingly rare treasures; time, in the form of geology’s great scrolls and tablets, revealed in valleys and ridges like one of the world’s finest libraries; growth, in the form of intact forests anchoring and helping heal and restore the incredibly damaged and disrespected cut-over forests; and life, in the wonderfully specific and crafted form of wolf, moose, bear, wolverine, maple, lichen, caribou all of it—and all of it supposedly under our care, our watch; and with our dreams, perhaps, but a manifestation, an echo, of all that life.

Although there is in all of wild nature a seed or essence of the eternal, so too is there in the heart of man the magnificent yet puzzling power—the ability, if you will—to take away this essence; to exterminate entire species, entire ecosystems. Our own force, our own consumptions, have become geological in their immensity. Quite simply put, we’re using up what little wilderness we have left.

Any knee-jerk government-loathing right-winger, drunk on the ambrosia of often-imaginary individual “rights,” while shunning almost completely the associated and more mature elixir of “responsibilities,” need only look at a single photo of the clearcuts overtaking the Northern Forest (as they continue to overtake the last of the West), to begin to consider, perhaps for the first time, the far more destructive, freedom-robbing foreclosure of opportunity left in the wake of such mindless industrial greed—the greed, the American plague, of never-coming-back. The plague of placelessness.

Unnatural alliances and collaborations are beginning to arise from such realizations and awakenings—hunters and anglers and hikers sitting down with independent lumbermen (those few who still remain), as well as the budget-harried local county commissioners and school clerks and chambers-of-commerce, as they begin to do the hard work of mapping out longer-term visions whose arc will, for once perhaps, extend further than the next quarterly earnings statement. Plans such as those for the Northern Forest, whose arc, hopefully, will cover the next 150 years with rest, healing, and preservation are as much a component of this forward-arc as voraciousness, short-sightedness and aggressive squandering has been a component of the back-arc.

In this, too, the East, and the progress of the Northern Forest, can be a model for the West, and the rest of the country, as we come up hard, finally, and for only the first time, against the limits of space and time—the end of the timber and mining frontier, and of subsidized corporate high-grading; the end, finally, of the Big Rock Candy Mountain.

Even the most elegant dream, however, is of little use, eventually, without action. Dreams not acted upon wither and die and drain back down into the soil they escaped from, sometimes for centuries at a time, other times never re-emerging. As the history of our country has shown, our blank spots do not tend to remain blank for very long. This domestic problem that has been languishing unresolved for decades, even centuries, almost always shoved to the back of the line behind other more urgent, pressing matters. Against the near-geologic scale of a wild forest, nearly every other concern of mankind will almost always seem to be more immediate and pressing.

In the meantime, our wilderness is slipping away, being clear-cut and bladed and mined and dammed, dissolving to dream, to memory, then to nothing.

All of a sudden, it’s past time to protect it. It’s not too late, but it’s past time.

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Rick Bass is the author of 18 books of fiction and nonfiction, including, a fiction collection, The Hermit's Story (Houghton Mifflin), and editor of The Roadless Yaak, published by the Lyons Press in August. He lives with his family in northwest Montana's Yaak Valley, where there is still not a single acre of designated wilderness.

Spanning 26 million acres across New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, the Northern Forest is the last remaining wild forest in the East. In Northeastern Wilds, author and photographer Stephen Gorman traverses raging rapids and snow-swept peaks, solitary trails and remote glassy lakes, as he takes readers on an unforgettable visual and literary journey through this little-known region's rich history, geography, and culture.

Gorman's stunning photography and evocative essays reveal the singular and irreplaceable character of the Northern Forest, a place where people work, play, and coexist with nature like nowhere else in this country.

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