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Issue Date:  October 1, 2004

Strangely Like War:
The Global Assault on Forests
By Derek Jensen and George Draffan
Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 192 pages, $15
Save the vanishing forests

Authors count the costs of the war on the world’s trees

Reviewed by JEFF GUNTZEL

How do you talk about trees?

Derrick Jensen and George Draffan, authors of Strangely Like War: The Global Assault on Forests, begin with a metaphor fit for the times: Deforestation is war.

The book takes its title from historian Murray Morgan’s description of deforestation in Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula in his book The Last Wilderness. Murray writes: “It was strangely like war. They attacked the forest as if it were an enemy to be pushed back from the beachheads, driven to the hills, broken into patches, and wiped out. Many operators thought they were not only making lumber but liberating the land from the trees.”

But Jensen and Draffan tell us it is not just lumber that we demand of the world’s forests. Trees come down for your newspaper, your kitchen table, and the throwaway chopsticks at the Chinese restaurant. They come down for highways and homes, for cattle to graze before slaughter and for coffee beans to be grown and then ground.

War as a metaphor for human destruction of the natural world is not a new idea. Morgan’s loggers as soldiers were captured on the page a half-century ago. During America’s war against Vietnam, poet, essayist and farmer Wendell Berry noted that the same mentality of greed and exploitation he had seen in the strip-mined mountains of his native Kentucky was also at work in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

According to Jensen and Draffan, “About three-quarters of the world’s original forests have been cut, most of that in the past century. … Ninety-five percent of the original forests of the United States are gone.

“Four hundred and forty thousand miles of logging roads run through the National Forests alone.

“Enough road,” they add, “to drive from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco 150 times.

“Next time you fly over a once-forested region on a clear day, look down. Pay attention to the crazy quilt of clear cuts you see below, to the roads linking clear cuts and fragmenting forests, roads that wash out in heavy rains to scour streambeds and destroy fisheries.”

Streambeds and fisheries are “collateral damage” in the war against the forests; the forest dwellers too. Remember the spotted owl?

“The loss of the forest,” the authors remind us, “means the loss of the creatures who live there.”

Some forest dwellers are human: the pygmies of Central Africa; the Orang Rimba of Indonesia; the Dayak of Malaysia; the Niugini of Papua New Guinea.

Indigenous voices accompany the book’s arguments for indigenous rights. A voice from Papua New Guinea offers a glimpse of two worlds clashing: “You white people use sawn timber to build your houses. We Niugini use black palm for flooring. We use cane instead of nails. We use Kunai to make our roof instead of iron. Machines of the company have spoiled our black palm trees, our cane, and the dozers have trampled our Kunai land.”

The machines -- trucks and bulldozers, skidders and fellerbunchers -- have become part of the landscape that they are tasked to destroy.

And they are destroying it at a rate difficult to comprehend. “One estimate,” Jensen and Draffan write, “says that two and a half acres of forest are cut every second. That’s the equivalent of two football fields. That’s 214,000 acres per day, an area larger than New York City.”

The authors are shrewd observers of the intersection of government and industry. And they examine the language of the global players. They point to the lexicon of the logging industry: “Clear-cuts become ‘temporary meadows’ and ‘mimic natural disturbances.’ Clear-cutting is called ‘even age management,’ or ‘mechanical fire suppression.’ … Ancient trees are called ‘decadent.’ … Old-growth forest is called a ‘biological desert.’ ”

Both Jensen and Draffan have worked against the agents of deforestation for years. Their struggle is as much against the habits of private life as it is about the patterns of corporate and government power.

“Of the major categories of wood products,” they write, “the United States is the top consumer of all but firewood. … With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the United States consumes between 25 and 38 percent of the world’s wood and paper products.”

According to Jensen and Draffan, “The average person in the United States consumes 700 pounds of paper per year; the average in Great Britain and Japan is 330 pounds per year; the average in the nonindustrialized world is 12 pounds per year.”

We recycle, yes, but not enough. In 1997, less than half of U.S. paper was recovered for reuse.

A sort of desperation-induced schizophrenia infects Strangely Like War. The book is short, occasionally messy. If the authors’ intention was to make contagious their desperation, they have succeeded. At times the book reads like the retelling of an argument that ends abruptly, hands thrown in the air. Other times the book reads more like a fiery manifesto or a deeply personal diary of struggle.

The book suggests some practical steps readers can take: “We can consume less. We can eat less meat, drink less coffee. We can eat locally grown foods. We can spend time in forests. We can ask the trees -- and forests -- what they want.”

But mostly Jensen and Draffan seem to be looking for help in moving towards a sustainable relationship with what is left of the world’s forests.

“The forests are being killed,” Jensen and Draffan write. “What are you going to do about it?”

Jeff Guntzel writes for NCR in New York.

National Catholic Reporter, October 1, 2004

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