The Monterey List:
Growing toward a sustainable future
for ourselves and for the planet

Now available as a Kindle e-book! Click the cover image at left.

The Monterey List originated as an actual list I made in a Monterey, California hotel room one November night in 1997 (hence the name). The items on the list were all short observations pertaining to sustainable living on this planet, couched as aphorisms, mostly made up on the spot. There were 112 of them. Over the next few years I rearranged the aphorisms into a coherent order, combined a couple of them with others (there are now 110), expanded them into essays, and collected them into a book. I plan to release the book on this web page - one essay at a time, once per week. This will take approximately two years. If you are impatient, you may purchase the whole thing as an e-book by clicking the image at left. Then you will be able to read all of the essays without waiting. Otherwise....well, patience is a virtue, and anticipation can be sweet.

Enjoy! And please let me know what you think. You can enter your comments at the bottom of this page.


37. There are no ancient forests.

The term is a misnomer. Like most slogans coined for political advantage, it has little bearing in reality. It is strong on emotion but short on fact, and its widespread adoption has damaged the credibility of the environmental movement.

Though forests have been described as "ancient" for about as long as people have been talking about trees, it was not until the late 1980s that the word was used to describe a forest type. Before that time, it described an impression. Wandering through deep shade among huge-boled, hoary old trees, heavy with moss, it is easy to gain a sense of green antiquity. You feel the continuity of life, stretching back past the Ice Age and the dinosaurs and the trilobites to the first self-reproducing molecules in the first seas. Used in this way, the term has meaning. It is personal, immediate, and strongly descriptive, and it kindles a kinship of experience with other forest users. We all recognize that feeling of mingled awe and respect and connection with deep time. We have been there ourselves.

Beginning about 1986, though, there was a tectonic shift in the way the term was used. The wilderness movement had entered a new phase: most of the prime scenic areas were either already protected or already ruined, and what was left was attractive primarily because it was wild. Clearcuts were advancing on it. There was a need to act, but there was no constituency to act with. Whales had a constituency; scenery had a constituency; rivers had a constituency; but trees were just trees, and the general public was having trouble getting excited about them.

Until someone had a bright idea. There was (and is) a widely accepted but pedestrian term, "old growth," used to describe forests that show no signs of previous harvest. Foresters have a precise definition for it. Old growth has a mature overstory; a complex and multilayered understory; and a healthy number of snags and downed, rotting trees. It is at least ten acres in size (anything smaller cannot maintain all the attributes of a forest), and it shows few or no signs of human intrusion. This was the complex of characteristics environmentalists were trying to protect, so we were talking a lot about old growth. The conversation was dry, academic, and distinctly unsexy. Suppose we were to juice it up a bit?

And so "old" became "ancient," and "growth" became "forest." The new name was specifically packaged for emotional appeal. Growth is just a process, but a forest is a place; ancient gets revered, but old just gets thrown away. "Old growth" is a technical term, and sounds like it. "Ancient forest" is a hallowed landscape. I remember being specifically discouraged from using the older language. I remember being told why. We were trying to compete in an arena where "jobs" had become "livelihood" and "clearcuts" had become "harvest units." It seemed necessary to fight back with emotional euphemisms of our own.

The problem with fighting back with the same tools that your enemy uses, however, is that you tend to become indistinguishable from your enemy. By creating our own euphemisms, we tacitly accepted the euphemisms of the other side. That moved the battle from facts to emotions. It became easier to win, but we lost control of what we were winning. How could we fight for the right thing if we couldn't even describe it accurately?

And as a factual description, "ancient forests" is bloody inaccurate. Forests are not living organisms, but living systems. They contain some trees that might reasonably be described as ancient, but they also contain saplings, trees of intermediate age, annual herbs, animals who are old at the age of ten and birds who are old at three, and a great many creatures (insects; microorganisms) whose lifespans are best described as ephemeral. The past states of forests are often discontinuous with their present. They move at the whim of climate. They are always changing, and thus are always new. They are more akin to children than to archaeological digs. They need protection. They do not need preservation.

Battle has been joined over a nonexistent entity. We pursue laudable goals, but with the wrong techniques and for the wrong reasons. We have shifted from dependence on fact to dependence on rhetoric, and though that may gain us an early advantage, we are likely to pay dearly for it down the road - when the forests, managed as "ancient," proceed to act that way. And die.

This is the third part of a six-part discussion on the concept of "wilderness" as it is currently conceived (emphasizing preservation), and as I believe it should be practiced instead (emphasizing protection). I hope it proves provocative. Next up: Section 38, "Protection and preservation are not identical."


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I think you mentioned 3 or the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. I forget what the 4th is. (Yes, I know, "Google it.")

This may be my favorite section. Death has a bad name that it doesn't deserve. While it is human to want what we like to go on forever, what we like wouldn't even be here if death weren't an integral component of the incredible miracle of life.

My dad was warning about overpopulation back in the 60's and 70's. I remember seeing 'The Population Bomb' in his small library and he, my mom and myself having conversations at the dinner table on the topic. He was adamant about the profound effect it would have on the planet if there was no intervention, either through individuals choosing to limit the number of children in their families or through governmental attempts to control the situation. Of course, the latter is severely problematic due to individual rights and freedom. However, education does not seem to have made any difference whatsoever. It's a topic that has been a struggle for me. I chose to not have children, although I did miscarry in my early 20's. I find one of my less appealing traits about myself is to judge those who have more than about 2 or 3 children. I wonder if they are blind to the condition of the world and what kind of a world those children and their children are going to inherit. I find myself haunted by these and related questions even in my life today. My wish, which has remained secret until now, is that people will choose to have one child of their own and adopt as many more children as they can support and allow to thrive.

Diane, you will see my views on that question developed in this space over the next few weeks - William Ashworth

Dave Forman, in his book, Take Back Conservation, (I have an autographed free copy thanking me for all of my work), says that we need to retain the idea that we value natural places and preserve them for their own sake, not for human-related reasons. I agree with that, while still recognizing that we need to maintain sustainability.We need both views.
Diane Newell Meyer

Looking forward to the next installment.