On the Bosom of this Grave and Wasted Land I Will Lay My Head

Four years ago I returned from Montana to my Georgia homeland. I wanted to live where I knew the people around me, where my son could run barefoot and pick blackberries and climb magnolias. I hungered to be part of a rural community defined by land and history and blood. I longed to be closer to the landscape that produced me, and wished that my own son could know it, be of it.

We moved into my grandmother’s heart-pine house, on land my great-grandfather had farmed, amid tobacco fields and cow pastures in Spring Branch, a farming community in Appling County. Silas would go to Altamaha Elementary, where my mother was schooled.

In my mind the return held two possibilities: either I would fail, and leave after a year or two, or I would revitalize my grandmother’s farm, buying it piece by piece from aunts and uncles, and I would die where seven generations of grandmothers had died before me.

THE LANDSCAPE I HAD WANTED TO REMEMBER from my childhood was one of vast and functional forests, such as I found in Montana, but childhood is a mythological place, with mythic forests. After seventeen years, I somehow expected that the ruin I had seen as a child had been arrested, and corrected. Instead, it had accelerated. What I found was a fragmented landscape, with only pieces of true forest left here and there.

I learned that, for the past decade, the South has been in the middle of a cutting cycle that equals the one at the turn of the nineteenth century, when most of our old-growth was cut. Trees grow fast in the South, and logging has been a way of life. While Southerners have been noted for a strong sense of place, an environmental ethic is new to us, so the timber industry goes mostly unregulated and unchecked, and the cutting is rampant.

To see the worst of it, I fly over Tennessee on the clearest day of the year with pilot Larry Peterson. We are thirty-five hundred feet above eastern Tennessee in a tiny Cessna that reminds me of a white dragonfly, bound for one of the biggest clearcuts in the Southern United States.

Larry is a pilot with Southwings, an environmental flying service whose mission is to protect critical habitat in the Southeast by piloting reporters, biologists, and activists so they can survey logging and mining practices from the air.

“Severe clear, we call this,” he says through headphones.

From Chattanooga we fly across the murky green body of the Tennessee River, toward the Cumberland Plateau, the tableland where the Earth stopped the accordion action that produced the Appalachian Mountains. Flying in a small plane is much like snorkeling. Temporarily creatures of blue sky, we peer out our bubble mask at a world beneath us. Way down below, like a dark leaf floating, there’s a vulture.

“This will give you an idea of what the land looked like, before we got so greedy,” Larry says. The trees are soft-looking, almost like giant moss, and so thick they completely hide the ground.

So far, the Earth has been green from near to far — chartreuse to emerald to aquamarine. We begin to see the logging. Where the green turns to gray and brown, that is clear-cutting, dirt showing through. The clearcuts are huge and odd-shaped; the world down there is a big green buffalo, and her hair has been worn off in painful, rawhide-colored patches.

Unpaved logging roads scribble through the cuts, which are divided by narrow bands of trees — these are streams. Along them loggers have left buffer zones of “forests,” usually thirty feet on either side of the channel. Tennessee has no statutes regulating the quality of a timber operation, nor its extent, and like most Southern states, its best management practices are voluntary. Streams, however, are regulated by the Clean Water Act. Nevertheless, when Larry circles one particularly scarred area, I can see the stream-buffer is missing in places. Water-filled ruts testify that equipment has been driven through the stream.

Visibility is perfect — we can see fifty to seventy miles in any direction. There are more clearcuts, and more. We come upon a crew of loggers at work, although we can’t see the people, only equipment. Far below, toy log trucks wait on a tan road, which is scuffed to white in places, and rutted. It runs alongside a pile of cut trees that looks like a faggot of twigs of perfect length. The drivers haul the make-believe trees away in small handfuls. We bank to watch a feller-buncher at the edge of a stand of trees. The machine looks gentle, the way it swings its wide arm toward a standing tree and hugs it close, and then the tree, as if in absolute trust and loyalty, topples slowly to the ground.

What the loggers see ahead of them, down there, is not what I see. They see a day’s work. I see the systematic removal of the Earth’s vegetation. Now, for the first time, I see that this land was meant to be covered by a thick, forest-green comforter, studded with lakes and stitched with rivers. Not this thin and threadbare quilt, with great patches missing.

We fly over miles of clearcut until we’re in what may be the center of destruction: everywhere I look, in every direction, the forests have been carved with logging roads and trees taken away. It seems endless– fifteen thousand acres laid to the ground in the past five years. Activists call this the Triangle of Destruction — from McMinnville to Spencer to Tracy City, the Cumberland Plateau is steadily being razed.

The loss of these hardwood forests is as painful to me (in this moment not mentioning the tragic loss of human life) as the loss of the World Trade Center towers for those who loved the New York City skyline. This is a different kind of terrorism — more mindless than premeditated — and suddenly I am weeping over this land, my home, the southern United States.

Larry banks the plane away. “You needed to see it,” he says. “You don’t need to be punished.”

THE SOUTH HAS BECOME THE WOODLOT for our nation. From 1977 to 1997, harvests in the thirteen Southern states increased by fifty percent. Today, two-thirds of all wood harvested in the United States comes from the South.

Were it sustainable, the logging would be acceptable — after all, people need both wood and jobs. But it’s far from sustainable. In 1991, for the first time since records have been kept, removal of softwoods outstripped net growth across the South. Environmentalists blame the loss largely on “chip mills,” factories that grind whole logs into small wafers for making paper and chipboard (90 percent of the logs go into paper, 10 percent into chipboard). Chip mills have tripled in number in the past fifteen years; since 1987 over 100 have been built in the Southeast. The more than 155 chip mills currently in operation log an estimated 4.6 million acres of forests each year. In a year one chip mill can obliterate seven to ten thousand acres of trees.

As the pine forests in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi run out, the timber industry pushes northward — into the sloping forests of the Smokies and the Blue Ridge. Nor has the cutting stopped at pines. The timber industry is going into shady bottomlands and along fragile mountain slopes for hardwoods, and into sloughs and creeks for the slow-growing and noble cypress. Removal rates of hardwoods, too, now approach unsustainable levels.

One day my young son and I drive past the huge sawmill on the outskirts of our town of Baxley. Silas and I count the logging trucks lined up, waiting to dump their loads of pine trees. Fifteen. The trees already cut and piled make a brown, barky mountain; the tractor-trailers look small beneath it.

“Mama,” my son suddenly asks. “Don’t they have enough yet?”

The problem with industrial forestry is that there is never enough. There are always stockholders wanting greater profits, meaning a more luxurious life for themselves and their families. The motto of industrial capitalism is more, more, more, and its profits always come at a heavy cost to the land and those who live there. It has been hard to witness forests close to home getting cut: the acres between our farm and Silas’s school, where some of the trees had cavity holes — signs of occupation by the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker in the not-too-distant past. Or a certain strip of trees just beyond the county’s landing strip; or the breathtaking Eason’s Forest, which had to be cut to pay estate taxes.

Since we heat with wood, I take advantage of the cutting. On a particular Saturday morning, I take the chainsaw and leather gloves out to Ten Mile Highway where a pine forest has been felled. The small hardwoods have been pushed up into windrows to burn. For hours I work my way around the big piles, cutting easy lengths of oak and gum. When my arms get tired from the buzzing of the saw, I shut it off and haul the firewood to the truck, length by rough length. This will keep us warm in the drafty old farmhouse. I cut more, until the truck’s axles sag, and then drive back to the farm and stack the wood in the log chicken coop, which is collapsing slowly but will last another winter. It’s time to go pick up my son from his grandmother’s house. I finish stacking as the sun sets in streaks of hot pink and luminous gold over the gray harrowed field. I stand a minute, watching it go extravagantly down.

THE WORST CUT, FOR ME, WAS JOHN’S POND, a woods between Hoboken and Folkston, Georgia, which I passed on my way to Jacksonville. This forest was big, maybe two miles of glorious mature longleaf pine alongside a remote stretch of rural highway, a real forest in this land of fields and trailer parks and brush. Palmetto and wiregrass grew beneath the trees, and in passing, I spotted bluebirds and Sherman’s fox squirrels foraging. I am certain that Bachman’s sparrows and gopher tortoises and indigo snakes lived there; maybe flatwoods salamanders. The trees were getting mature enough to house even the red-cockaded woodpecker, a species tied to old-growth pines.

It was a one-of-a-kind forest, among the last of the great Southern uplands. It gave me great hope that we might be able to keep some of our forests intact, even with more than eighty percent of the land in private hands.

One day, speeding toward the airport, I saw that one section of John’s Pond was gone, turned into a muddy square of skidder marks and tree limbs. In the spread of wet dirt sat a loader, a bulldozer, and a tree-cutting machine. I was alone in the car and the road was empty, and for a solid mile I screamed.

The next time I passed John’s Pond, the foresters were replanting it. “You should be happy about the planting,” my friends tell me. And I am. John’s Pond won’t be a parking lot.

It won’t be a forest either.

It’ll be a tree farm, full of slash pine engineered to grow fast in habitats to which it is not native. The replanted trees will be all one age, one species, planted in rows: a pine plantation. It’s likely that herbicides will have been applied, and the tract will have been “bedded,” plowed in wide furrows, which effectively destroys the understory.

Across the entire South, the U.S. Forest Service estimates that 36 percent of natural pine forest has been converted to tree farms, and that 70 percent will be converted by the year 2020. Such plantations may briefly sustain deer, squirrel, and common birds until the thickly planted trees shade out all groundcover. After that, they become ecological dead zones.

I HAVE A DREAM IN WHICH I AM CANOEING with my husband. The stream enters a concrete road culvert, where it runs shallow through red clay. I am prying us along with a paddle when I see a cluster of violet-green swallows in the culvert. They fly toward us, trying to get out. One hits my hair and plunges into the neck of my sweater, then burrows down my back. I reach into my sweater, close my hand around the bird and draw it out.

The young swallow is desperate to escape, struggling frantically against my closed fingers. As I reach out my arm to let it go — at that very moment — it flings its head backward against my fist so hard that it breaks its neck.

Horrified, I wake and recount the dream to my beloved. He listens, and later turns to me with a question.

“What would you do today,” he asks, “if you knew beyond a doubt that you would not fail?” He would like to stand on the edge of the Grand Canyon, step off into it, and fly like a raven. I’ve never wanted to fly. I am Earth-bound, terrestrial. I think about his question.

“I would return the Earth to the way it was,” I say.

THE MORNING FOLLOWING THE FLIGHT, I meet Todd Gregory, a volunteer with Forest Watch, which monitors timber operations in the forests I flew over.

We stand in the dirt parking lot of a gas station while Todd tells me about his homeland. “This was a large area of hardwood forest not owned by the government. And it was wild.” The J.M. Huber Company, he says, owned thousands of acres, where it mined coal up until the 1930s. When the coal industry busted, the company leased the land to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency for the creation of a public hunting area.

“Where we chose to live was the edge of a wild plateau supporting all kinds of wildlife,” Todd continues. “We had a sense of wilderness.” Then Huber began selling to timber companies, who have been logging it ruthlessly.

“Now it’s had the heart cut out of it,” says Todd. “A couple of coves (small, sheltered valleys) are left. And it’s happening so quickly. The oldest clear-cut I can show you is five years old.” He shakes his head matter-of-factly. “The forests were just recovering from a hundred years of strip-mining. Now they’re clean-shaven. I can take you eight miles on one road and not get out of a clear-cut.”

We get into Todd’s big truck and drive out through the cutting, to ground-truth what I had seen from the air. Todd drives me through miles and miles of nothing, into the place I saw from the sky as endless clear-cut. In some places there is tangled regrowth, a few years old. Some sections where hardwoods have always grown have been replanted in knee-high loblolly pines. In the most recent cuts the ground is disfigured by heavy equipment; branches and scrub-trees have been dozed into piles for burning. “Only eight percent of the cutting is monitored by the state,” Todd says. “You need a license to cut hair. You need a license to inspect dates on fire extinguishers. And we don’t even know where they’re cutting.”

When it’s time to say goodbye, Todd stops me before I climb into the car. All day he has been rational and optimistic, yet I know that sometimes you spend all day with a person in order to hear the one sentence that comes from the bottom of his heart.

“You asked me how I feel about it,” he says, then pauses. “I’m pissed off.” A light flares in his eyes, and he turns and walks away.

ON THE WAY BACK TO SOUTH GEORGIA, traveling on a mountainous road between North and South Carolina, I see a sign announcing an overlook, next to a line of boulders that have been spray-painted with Jesus slogans. I pull over, because it is early, and the world, after all, is still gorgeous. I expect the typical outlook, a concrete slab bolted to a guard rail, not this granite outcropping as big as a church that rises out of the Great Smoky Mountains. I walk out across it. Partyers have left beer cans and food wrappers about, and broken their bottles against the rock. There is more spray-painting: Jody was here. Brent loves Kim. Repent. I move slowly to the uneven edge of the overlook.

Instead of a cliff, the rock rolls away and away, like a scroll, and beyond it, rising out of the mists, is a dream world, a land remembered. The mountains spin away, ridge upon tree-covered ridge in bands of color, deep blue-green fading toward gray, the undulating crust of the Earth softened by forests of hickory and beech. Then, as if in some heavenly alchemy, the ridges disappear into the smokelike mists of an impenetrable forever.

“My God,” I gasp. My one wish has been granted. I have stumbled upon the world as it was. My legs fold and I squat on the rock, mesmerized. For a few minutes I can see the Earth unchanged. Then I get back in the car and reenter the industrialized, road-netted, heavily-used land that makes up most of the eastern United States, full of clear-cuts, pine plantations, development, and signs that say, “LARGE LOG TRUCKS ENTERING AND EXITING HIGHWAY.”

My lovely heartland is being replaced by vainglorious nonessentials that lead us to forget what it means to be human in a trembling world.

IN TOWNS LITTLE AND BIG ACROSS THE SOUTH, at libraries and universities and bookstores, people listen wide-eyed and nod when I speak of these things — that a pine plantation is not a forest, that the number of products on the international market now exceeds the number of biological species in the world. Sometimes they raise a hand and express their own grief and dismay at the loss of our landscapes. Ten years ago, or five, they might not have done this. Now, they see with their own eyes what is happening. There aren’t enough forests left.

Still, not everyone agrees with me, and especially not my forestry friends. “The South has been timbered for years and years, and we still have timber,” says Phil Gornicki of the Florida Forestry Association. “The biggest threat to a forest is encroachment of urban land-uses, which is a permanent conversion. A pine plantation at least provides aquifer recharge and air filtering.”

I ask him about wildlife. “If you study it,” he replies, “every stage of a forest is attractive and useful to different sets of wildlife.” Deer and turkeys, for example, flourish in young pine plantations.

I press and ask, “But what about species like the red-cockaded woodpecker?”

“Granted,” he says, “in the South we have a lot of short-rotation forests. This is why we have national parks and state land-buying programs, to preserve mature forests.”

There’s another element in this equation, foresters point out, and that’s demand. “People in this country are still demanding forest products,” Phil observes. “We can produce trees in the South. It’s become the timber basket of the country.”

It’s a nice image: timber basket. I think of flying above these forests, and seeing the logs, far below, being piled into a lovely wicker basket. Gift baskets of trees, cut on demand.

WHEN I WANT TO SEE FORESTS FUNCTIONING at full capacity, when I get tired of the aesthetic poverty of pine plantations, I go find a real forest. We don’t have national forests, or state parks, or national parks close to us in south Georgia, but we have Okefenokee Swamp, located less than an hour south of the farm.

Although most of the old-growth cypress in Okefenokee Swamp was logged in the 1910s and 1920s, in 1937 President Franklin Roosevelt protected this largest freshwater swamp in the country by making it a National Wildlife Refuge. He did so at the urging of a woman who had tutored his children, Jean Harper, whose biologist husband, Francis Harper, was an early explorer of the swamp. Lucky for us that Roosevelt protected it, and that in the 1970s it became a legally designated wilderness area, because now when forests across the South are falling it’s one of the few places we can go to understand wildness.

One spring, Silas and I canoe across it with friends, including three other twelve-year-olds. The journey is thirty-one miles by canoe, requiring three hard days of paddling. Sometimes, all day, there isn’t enough dry land to stand upon, and at night we sleep on platforms erected over the water. We pass through the wet prairies of the eastern side, where flag iris, pitcher plants, water lilies and spatterdocks are blooming, where sandhill cranes are bugling through the shrub thickets into the cypress swamp. We hear male alligators bellowing, defending mating territory.

As we paddle, I wonder what Okefenokee would have looked like before the logging, almost a century ago. Then I abandon that train of thought. It’s beautiful here, the trees older and bigger every year. Aren’t we lucky, I think.

SAVING OUR FORESTS, I’VE COME TO BELIEVE, doesn’t have much to do with the will of the people like myself who love wild places. Our forests are increasingly under the power of the corporate lobbying dollar. People who benefit collectively from the ravaging of our natural resources collude to continue the conversion of greenspace to greenbacks. This can happen because as a nation we are true believers in the capitalist economic system. Even as climate changes globally and polar ice caps melt and seas inch higher along coastlines worldwide, we cling to the belief that capitalism will bring prosperity to all the world, starting with ourselves. Lost in this prosperity, wooed by its trinkets, we fail to see that industrial capitalism, which we have now managed to spread globally, does not mean prosperity for all, but for the few. That it cannot go on forever producing more and more. That global industrialism succeeds at the expense of local communities, local economies, and local ecosystems. That it causes problems– like cancer or ozone thinning–that technology has not been able to fix.

More and more of our timberland is owned by corporations, We are no longer taking the trees we need for firewood and construction, but are sending our precious, limited forest resources worldwide. To think that John’s Pond became cardboard for an anonymous corporation halfway across the globe, for people who didn’t love those trees or care what animals loved them, is heartbreaking to me.

THE KNOWLEDGE THAT CAPITALISM, BY ITS NATURE, insures the destruction of forests does not keep me from hoping that we can stop the hemorrhaging of wild things — by protecting wild places, by changing public policy, and by recognizing decent and smart alternatives to clear-cutting.

A month or two after flying over the clear-cuts in Tennessee, I find myself at Ichauway, the plantation near Albany, Georgia, that belonged to Robert Woodruff, who earned a fortune through Coca-Cola. Woodruff loved these longleaf pine forests, where he hunted quail from horseback; now Ichauway is run by land managers at the Jones Ecological Research Station, on site.

Today is Field Day, when the foresters and ecologists offer advice to the area’s timber landowners. All morning we have been riding around Ichauway in open buggies, learning about restoration, the role of fire in the landscape, and native species. I am listening closely, because my family has decided to turn some of the fields at the farm back into longleaf.

Finally it is Leon Neel’s turn to talk. Leon is in his mid-seventies. All his life he has been an ecological forester, perfecting a method of harvesting timber that will produce an income for the landowner while maintaining an intact forest. Single-tree selection, or sustained yield, he calls it. “We never cut the entire forest,” he says. “We cut individual trees.” These trees he chooses carefully, based on disease, age, proximity to others, wildlife in the area.
He tells us about a forest he has managed for fifty years. On this property, a timber cruise in 1941 counted 25 million board feet of timber. Over the years, with an annual cut, 46 million board feet of timber have been harvested. Even so, when the property was last cruised in 1995, it still contained 63 million board feet of timber, and it supports the highest population of red-cockaded woodpeckers on private land anywhere.

“It takes fifty years to grow a fifty-year-old tree,” Leon says. “It takes one hundred years to grow a hundred-year-old tree. Some people forget that. It would take several generations to restore a forest.”

As he talks, the hot fall sun beats down from high in the sky. A crow calls out over the tops of the pines, which stretch far. The trunks of the pines show signs of the fires that pass through. The ground is thick with wiregrass and the spent spires of blazing star. “There are not many places left in the world that look as good as this,” Leon says, humble and soft-voiced. “Probably this is one of the best longleaf stands you will ever see.” The group is quiet. “It’s something special.”

WE KNOW THAT WE WILL NEVER IN OUR lifetimes see on the farm the kind of forest we toured at Ichauway, but maybe our offspring will.

Early one morning in the middle of winter we spend a day tree-planting. When Mama and Daddy arrive, my husband and I are up and dressed in work clothes, gloves stuck in our back pockets. First we sit at the old enamel kitchen table, push the breakfast dishes aside, and draw a map of the farm: road, house, pastures, fields, stream run, pecan tree we discovered in a fence-row. Around the map we mark where we want the forest to be, years from now — coming up out of the hardwood bottomland, along the bottom edges of the fields. We call it a Forest for the Children.

Daddy has bought one thousand seedlings from the Georgia Forestry Commission, and they come in four bundles, each about as big as a foal. We pile them on the back of the pickup and drive out to the field. All day, using hand dibbles, we plant the trees, one by one, by making a hole in the ground with the dibble, pushing the seedling in and arranging its roots, then using the dibble to push dirt against the roots. We stamp the dirt down around each tree.

We plant at random, wandering here and there as if we were the wind itself, spreading seeds. Longleaf seedlings don’t have trunks for a few years; they look like tufts of thick grass. After we take a few seedlings, we carefully close the bundle so they won’t dry out. We work steadily. My little niece and nephew arrive to spend the day, and they plant too, sharing a dibble, until they get tired and wander away to climb trees and build sand castles in the field.

Mama and Daddy leave with the children in the late afternoon to cook supper, and by the time we finish, the sun is going down toward Alabama. My husband and I gather the tools, then stand and survey the day’s work. It is more than a day’s work. It is our dream to rebuild a forest, and also the Earth’s dream. We are making the dream of the Earth come true. We are filling in the holes of the quilt.
I stand and hold my hand out over the future forest. “Grow,” I say to the trees. “Grow for the children. Grow straight and tall and ancient. Spread far and wide until you cover this land.” My husband is beside me.

Welcome back,” he says.

Janisse Ray is an American writer whose subject most often falls into the borderland of nature and culture. She has published five books of nonfiction and a collection of eco-poetry. Ray has won an American Book Award, Pushcart Prize, Southern Bookseller Awards, Southern Environmental Law Center Writing Awards, and Eisenberg Award, among others. Her first book, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, was a New York Times Notable Book. The author has been inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. She lives on an organic farm near Savannah. Red Lanterns, Ray’s second book of poetry, is forthcoming in Spring 2021.