(Forest) Products of Our Times

It’s a truism that we’re products of our times. We make this observation about prominent thinkers and activists of the past, observing how their passions and intellectual preoccupations were shaped by the world they experienced around them. We also make it about loved ones with whom we can’t see eye to eye, subtly slighting them as less evolved than we are while also creating space to connect across differences in our understandings of the world at a time when such connections are increasingly tenuous if not entirely broken. And we use it to explain the quirks of our elders: the Depression-era relative who still kept cash under the mattress or in the freezer, the adult children of the Cold War (like me) who still panic when relations between the US and Russia begin to fray. But how often do we apply this logic to those we’re closest to, or even to ourselves? How often do we consider that not only someone’s interests and habits but also their categorization by others depend on the times in which they find themselves – or which find them? As the deep forests and soaring high-elevation meadows where my heart has lived since childhood are progressively incinerated, and even the few forests closest to me here in Southern California have been reduced to sooty barrenness, likely never to recover in these days of rapid climate change, I can’t help but think of my dad and of the differences between how his ideas were received in his time and how they might be understood today.

My dad was a forest products pathologist, which means in essence that he studied wood decay in the built environment. Trained as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley in the latter half of the 1950s, he studied all aspects of forestry and forest management as well as what happened to the trees after they were cut down for human use. In his doctoral work at UW Madison, he further developed his specialization in microscopic studies of the fungi that cause a fair amount of the wood deterioration found in structures. He graduated one year before the first commercial scanning electron microscope became available, and my childhood is woven through with SEM images and memories of standing on stools to see into his microscope.

After earning his PhD, my dad returned to Berkeley to teach (such was the academic job market for white men in the 1960s), and he and my mom – finishing her own bachelor’s degree at the time, on her way to her PhD from Berkeley – landed right in the middle of intense political and social upheaval. Ardently loyal to his alma mater and to its chancellor, and a fierce defender of free speech, my dad only told us very late in life that he had been among the faculty members who defended the campus from the riot police during the free speech movement. Yet in the areas that directly impacted his career, what counted as progressive rapidly shifted far from where my dad stood.

As a forester trained in the late 1950s, my dad thought of forests as precious resources to be carefully tended. He loved California’s Sierra Nevada mountains deeply, had spent time there since his own childhood, and cared intensely for their well-being and that of all of the plants and animals they sheltered and sustained. He also knew personally, from his time as a student at Cal’s long-running Forestry Field Camp and then his many years as a professor at the camp, some of the people who made their living harvesting trees from those forests. But by the mid-1960s, especially in a place like Berkeley, the environmental movement and back-to-the-land white folks (often the same people) had reconceptualized the forest as a place of unchanging Edenic purity. “Leave no trace,” a sound principle to keep people from dropping their trash along the trails or – my pet peeve in Southern California – spray painting commentary on the rocks along trails in the wilderness, was becoming the driving principle for the management of all public lands. People defending ancient trees – in itself an important goal in my opinion and, I think, in my dad’s – turned to endangering rural laborers who had no other way to avoid severe poverty and whose employers didn’t really care about putting the safety of their labor force on the line when activists began spiking the trees.

My dad watched all of these developments with horror and disgust. These forests, he pointed out, need tending and they need to burn; fire is a part of their ecosystem. Left untouched, with fires immediately extinguished, over time they would build up disastrous fuel loads and become dangerously dense. Some species would be limited in their ability to germinate seeds, and the diversity of the forest would drop because of the density of the duff layer and the lack of open canopy spaces offering sunlight to seedlings that need it. Today, non-Native people are far more aware of the fact that the Native nations whose stolen lands are now designated as US national forests, wilderness, and national parks have carefully and actively managed these forests for millennia – until the US forced them to stop – but in my dad’s time, racism and settler colonialism meant that academia dismissed such traditional knowledge and favored what non-Native, largely white academics and activists perceived as more “evolved” approaches to nature. My dad’s advocacy of active forest management, and his intense opposition to tree spiking and eventually, as a consequence, to most environmental activism was widely shared and commonplace in the 1950s and even the early 1960s when he was a student; by the time he was a professor it was considered retrograde.

As a consequence of these changing perspectives, conceptualizations of my dad’s field by other academics and administrators shifted from “academic” to “applied,” not worthy of the academic heights to which Cal aspired. He tried to move institutions more than once, but his was a small field and the problem was the same across the country. Passionate about the importance of his work, he took a sabbatical to co-author with a colleague at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa a textbook for architects on how to build with wood in ways that would maximize the life and health of the wood – an effort that got him denied a promotion at a school that, like most research universities, denigrates teaching as an insufficiently intellectual enterprise. He retired bitter and angry; the lab where he thrived in his early career, where I sat on stools to look into his electron microscope and breathed the intoxicating scent of wood dust when we visited the shop, was closed a few years later. Ironically, I don’t believe anyone knows whether the gorgeous reclaimed old-growth redwood with which the lab was built was ever re-reclaimed. So much for environmental principles.

Today, as fires rampage unimaginably across the entire breadth of the Sierras, wiping out thousands upon thousands of acres of forest, countless wildlife, towns, people, pets, and livestock, attention has returned to managing the forests in the way my dad knew how to do. Now the Edenic approach that castigated him as backwards and old-fashioned before he even hit thirty is itself perceived as backwards and even dangerous. He lived to see bark beetles destroying the pines and firs in the Sierras, and I heard the sadness, loss, and worry in his voice every time he saw browned stands of trees. He lived to see Sudden Oak Death among the majestic old oaks in the foothills, and certainly there have been out-of-control fires for decades that made him shake his head in anger, frustration, and sorrow.

Dad died before the Camp Fire became national news, before the El Dorado Fire, which I watched from my dining room window for weeks, turned entire forests into bare rock and ash, without even blackened timbers left either standing or fallen. He didn’t see the Dixie Fire, second largest in the state’s history, narrowly miss the Forestry Field Camp just southwest of Quincy and, in a bitter irony, destroy most of the forests where he taught students about forest management and took them to felling sites and sawmills to learn about the timber industry. He didn’t see the Caldor Fire tearing through the forest south of Highway 50 and threatening the Desolation Wilderness where we backpacked so many times as a family – although, depending on what you believe, he might be watching and shaking his head from the area around Lake Winnemucca, where he took his final backpacking trips with his sciatica, hip replacement, pacemaker, and granddaughter, and where we scattered some of his ashes last year when the forests finally reopened at the beginning of winter. As my mom reminded me and my brother the other day, my dad would have been right there saying, “I told you so.” I think he would also have been grieving, and today I carry the grief of both of our souls at the destruction that could have, should have, been avoided.

We are a product of our times not only in our own interests but in how the world reacts to us and how those reactions in turn form us. Had my dad been born sooner, he would have been part of a mass chorus of voices on forest management. Had he been born later, the same would have been true. Instead, he was caught in a time that imagined that human beings are not part of nature and don’t belong there except as tiptoeing trespassers, and he was left contributing his resonant, classically trained baritone to a small chamber choir of voices shouting, as it were, in the wilderness.

Today I outrank my dad – I got the promotion he didn’t, in part because he taught me to be cynical, suspicious, and strategic about the motives of academic institutions, at the same time as he taught me to passionately love teaching (and textbook writing). Although our lives led us to opposite ends of the political spectrum and to no small number of blow-ups because of that, he also taught me to speak out loudly and insistently when things are wrong, no matter how unpopular your message may be or what consequences your speech may have. This blog is even an homage to him, in a way, though I’m not sure whether the title would have made him laugh or get that nonplussed look on his face: his professional organization was the Forest Products Research Society – FPRS, one letter off from the blog’s title.

Through my grief at the fires I think I’m learning another lesson from my dad, and I wonder how the reception of my own work is the product of the times in which I have found myself. I know nearly for a certainty that had I been born a few years earlier my work would not have been possible within an academic position. Had I been born later, perhaps my work would have been different, but if I’d been born later and done the same work I would have had a much larger circle of fellow scholars to welcome me. Unlike my dad, though, I think I landed in the sweet spot. I wish he had done the same, but I also know that he had a profound impact on the lives of many of his students regardless of how his field and his research were perceived by others. And I know that he’s still there, happily hiking behind me, every time I’m in the forests that haven’t yet burned.

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