The Language of Pinyon-Juniper Trees

Will Falk / Deep Green Resistance Great Basin

Pinyon cones Photo by Katie Fite

Pinyon cones

Photo by Katie Fite

After two months of struggling to write anything coherent about pinyon-juniper forests, I was on the verge of giving up.

Members of the group I am campaigning with to stop pinyon-juniper deforestation began brainstorming about applying for grants to support the campaign. Many of the grants they discovered required us to demonstrate that pinyon-juniper deforestation harmed wildlife populations, poisoned water supplies, or had a tangible effect on human populations.

Thinking that I could support our grant application process with an essay, I sat down many times to write about the countless beings that call pinyon-juniper forests home. But, I never wrote anything worth reading.

It took me a long time to figure out why.

The principles of ecology certainly teach us that countless beings face extinction if their habitats are destroyed. Every species must be fought for, especially when 200 species a day on average are going extinct globally. I figured that linking the fate of pinyon-juniper forests to the fates of cute porcupines, for example, would be a good way to build support for the forests.

So, I set out to learn about the species living in pinyon-juniper forests with an eye for species that would pique human interest.

I learned that the forests are extremely biodiverse communities with around 450 species of vascular plants living alongside pinyon pines and junipers. Additionally, over 150 vertebrate species of animals including elk, mule deer, and bears call pinyon-juniper forests home either seasonally or throughout the year. Woodlands with juniper trees are bird paradises because the trees offer sites for perching, singing, nesting, and drumming.

The trees also yield plentiful berries and house a high insect diversity for birds to eat. Mammals eat the berries while seeking shelter in hollow juniper trunks, taking advantage of the trees’ shade in hot temperatures and the trees’ thermal cover in cold temperatures.

Pinyon pines offer similar benefits to forest-dwellers. For example, pinyon mice, Abert’s squirrels, cliff chipmunks, Uinta chipmunks, wood rats, desert bighorn sheep, and black bears all eat pinyon pine nuts.

While I was researching and writing like this a profound discomfort was growing within me. It started as a sadness that it was not obvious to us, as a culture, that forests are communities where each forest-dweller lives in mutually beneficial relationships with other forest-dwellers.

The discomfort grew as I asked questions like, “What ecological role do pinyon-juniper forests play in the Great Basin?” and “What happens to human communities when the forests are destroyed?” and “What interesting animals live in the forests?”

Looking for answers, I emailed and phoned experts on the topic. I spoke about the forests at the Public Interest and Environmental Law Conference at the University of Oregon in the hopes of meeting people with insights into how to stop the destruction. I built a wall around myself at the kitchen table with books about the Great Basin, public lands ranching, and the global assault on forests of all kinds.

I focused on the work of scientists writing in their neutrally cool tones about the “ecological importance” of the forests. I read scientists writing phrases about the Bureau of Land Management’s lunacy with polite words like “scientific evidence for most of these beliefs, however, is lacking” to understate the fact that clear-cutting pinyon-juniper forests is insane.

Learning about forests from books and scientists, though, is learning through hearsay. I realized, then, that so many of us are so far removed from forests that few of us possess firsthand, experiential knowledge about them. Many of us have never gotten to know forests.

My sadness grew into frustration. Scientists studying the forests do have valuable insights, but most of the knowledge being produced by scientists is focused on demonstrating the utility of the forests. That utility is often described as something the forests do for humans or something that forests do for beings that humans seem to feel more of an affinity towards than pinyon pine and juniper trees. Reading report after report, scientific article after scientific article discussing only the utility of the trees as habitat for animals or food for humans broke my heart.

It broke my heart to think that we occupy a moment in the environmental movement where blatant attacks on pinyon pines and junipers cannot, by themselves, stir environmentalists to action. It broke my heart to learn that the murder of pinyon pines and junipers cannot stand by itself but instead must be re-characterized as attacks on birds, or mammals, or humans. It broke my heart to learn that we will not protect trees as trees and instead must appeal to a human sentimentality to gain any real measure of material support.

With a broken heart, I could not write.

***************

Juniper berries Photo by Max Wilbert

Juniper berries

Photo by Max Wilbert

Writing, more than anything, is about listening. Luckily, for me, there are those who will not stop speaking. Good writing is about listening in the right way. There are many voices for writers to listen to, but too often the easiest voices to hear are human. These voices are spoken aloud and recorded in books, articles, and web pages. They are shared on the phone, written in letters, and typed as email messages.

Human voices affect writers in deeper, subtler forms, too. They are expressed as expectations from publishers, editors, and those who control ways writers can support themselves. They are expressed as the beliefs held by those writers are trying to persuade.

In my efforts to write about the ecological importance of pinyon-juniper forests, I made a mistake. I immersed myself in human voices. Too many of the human voices I heard were interested in valuing pinyon-juniper forests only in human terms. Too often, I found forests’ value measured as a function of the benefit forests bring to humans.

I found forests valued for the amount of money that could be made when forests are converted into so-many square feet of board lumber. I found forests valued for the emotions forests stir in human visitors. I found forests valued for their ability to sequester carbon and to slow human-caused runaway climate change currently threatening human existence.

Listening only to human voices, I became convinced that my success as a writer hinged on my ability to persuade my readers that pinyon-juniper forests were valuable for the benefits they offer humans – directly or indirectly.

Today’s dominant human culture possesses no valid means for measuring the value of a forest. As a member of that culture, I have little experience with language that can come close to describing the full-importance of a forest. Traditional societies have come closest by accepting the sacredness of forests and then devising ways-of-life where the destruction of forests is simply unthinkable.

It took me a long time to realize that my questions could not be answered by the people I was asking. It took me even longer to realize that, perhaps, my questions could not be answered by people, at all.

***************

I didn’t know it then, but I was starved for voices when I found myself standing in front of pinyon pine and junipers west of Dove Creek, Colorado not long ago.

I didn’t arrive in these forests with the intention of writing about them. In fact, I was on the way to Durango to help my partner drive her car back after she purchased a van there. The painful contrasts between beautiful, intact pinyon-juniper forests and clear-cut dead zones on mountainsides in eastern Utah and western Colorado became voices so compelling I knew I had to figure out a way to keep writing. I had to tell the forests’ stories.

Hearing voices and understanding those voices are two different things. As a member of a settler class occupying land stolen from traditional cultures through an ongoing process of genocide, living thousands of miles from the homes of my ancestors, there simply is no spirituality available to me that would allow me to understand immediately, and with confidence, the voices of forests.

Regardless, facing pinyon pines and junipers, I asked the forests what they wanted me to know.

Hearing nothing but the brush of pine needles, spring precipitation as it hesitated between rain and snow, juniper berries swelling, and the silence of the sun behind an overcast sky, I slumped my shoulders and walked back to the car. I was confused and defeated in my lack of understanding.

***************

Forests speak. Their syllables form slowly. Their words are confused with hallucinations by those who do not spend adequate time to listen. Their sentences are patterns of experience revealed through the passing of seasons. Their stories take multiple generations and can only be known as combined wisdoms passed along lines of ancestral heritage.

Forests speak. Forests also scream, weep, and wail. Pinyon-juniper forests sob to themselves remembering the wounds on mountain sides where chains were stretched between bulldozers and pinyon pines and junipers were ripped up by their roots. Forests have voices writers can hear, if they choose to listen.

I bump into an image in a dark corner of my mind. I don’t remember storing it there and it carries the feeling of a surprise gift left by someone who knew one day I would know what to do with it. It is a few days after my trip to Durango. I am reading about the ecological importance of pinyon-juniper forests, again, hoping to write an essay that will persuade those still brave enough to listen that pinyon-juniper forests are an environmental cause worthy of their support.

I pick the image up. It is hot with anger. It reeks with the desperate kind of fear that accompanies an inevitable death foreseen. As I unwrap the image and each shred of packaging falls to the floor, the image solidifies in my mind.

I see myself strapped to a table in a strange room. There are two men. One stands at my right hand and one on my left. The man on my right hand looks friendly, has a sympathetic light in his eyes. The man on my left is angry. He holds a chainsaw. He terrifies me.

The sympathetic man tells the angry man about me. “Look at his brain size and body mass. His encephalization quotient is an exquisite 7.6. He is quite intelligent, you know. He can reason, employ deductive logic. He writes essays! If you carve him with your chainsaw, he will experience a tremendous amount of pain,” the sympathetic man says.

The angry man shrugs, fingers the pull cord on his chainsaw, says “We can sell his blood for $2.”

I begin to scream, but the men take no notice.

“Look at the way his lungs convert oxygen into carbon dioxide. It’s a brilliant example of the efficiency of evolution. Wouldn’t it be better to keep him alive so we can marvel at his breaths?” the sympathetic man asks.

The angry man is still unfazed, pokes my ribs, pulls my head back, and strokes my throat. “Depending on how we drain the blood, we could probably get close to $1 for his flesh.”

Again, I try to scream. I try to tell the men that I am much more valuable than $3, that my life is more precious to me than anything in the world. The men act like they cannot hear me.

“Aw, look, he’s urinating all over the table,” the sympathetic man notices. “It’s truly incredible how his kidneys clean the water he takes in, isn’t it?”

“Shit,” the angry man says, “We could use that water.” I give up on screaming and the realization that I am going to be sawed to death on this table sets in.

“Do you know how many micro-organisms live on his skin and in his stomach? Millions of life-forms call his body home,” the sympathetic man offers weakly. I want to ask him if that is truly the best argument he can come up with.

The angry man grunts and starts up the chainsaw. The sympathetic man, possessing no chainsaw of his own, takes no action to stop him.

I fling the image away, terrified. The last vision burned into my memory shows a mixture of pain and fascination washing over my face as I watch the spray of my bone and blood and recognize it is not unlike the spray of wood and sap.

***************

When I asked the trees what they wanted me to know, I believe they spoke. I believe they placed that image in my mind and I believe I was given the responsibility to communicate what I saw. I believe that to be a pinyon pine or juniper living in a place set to be clear-cut is to feel like I did strapped on the table.

The trees also illuminated for me what I was struggling with in trying to assess the value of a forest. If I attempt to persuade humans that we should not allow pinyon-juniper forests to be cut to death because the forests provide habitats for birds or because the forests provide food for humans, I act like the sympathetic man trying to talk the man with a chainsaw out of murdering me.

The trees compared a forest to my human body. The comparison is apt. Just like a human body is produced by countless, ongoing physical processes and mutually beneficial relationships, so is a forest. This is not to say, however, that a human or a forest can simply be reduced to these processes and relationships. A human is much more than a collection of the processes and relationships giving her life, and so is a forest. In the same way, a human’s body is precious to her in the same way a forest’s body is precious to the forest.

Finally, pinyon-juniper forests exist, just like you and I do, for their own sake. A forest is not a forest to be habitat, to be food, or to sequester carbon. A forest is a forest to be a forest. It’s as simple as that. Those of us who would stand on the side of pinyon-juniper forests must remember that we do so, more than any other reason, because the forests are forests.

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