Originally published November 28, 2001 for USC Writing 140. Updated December 6, 2001.
Towering nearly one-hundred feet above me, and below an additional two-hundred feet of living wood, grew a single branch larger in diameter than any tree east of the Mississippi River. As massive as that branch itself was, in comparison to its supporting structure, a giant sequoia, its size seemed insignificant. Even more impressive, the branch’s bearer, in its vast age, had seen the surrounding wood arise over a period spanning three millennia. The first time I gazed upon that astounding limb, my eyes having traversed the journey from the sequoia’s base skyward, I was struck with a sense of awe which I have felt few times before or since. Standing in the shadow of such a giant, I remember feeling small– existing as a current burden on the sequoia’s roots, one among a long succession of fleeting observers.
The awe that I felt in response to the sequoia arose from my musings as to who those observers might have been: heroes, presidents, and kings among them in the preceding two-hundred years alone. Considering this question, and also the varied conditions with which such observers might have existed, I drew upon the sequoia’s ability to serve as a connective tissue transcending the traditional boundaries of the human life span. As a result, my concept of time and my understanding of human action began to radically change.
At first consideration, the sheer magnificence and inspirational power of the sequoia seem to dictate that it must be protected and revered as a treasure of nature. However, as will be demonstrated through comparisons between humanity and the sequoia, time dictates the way in which humans relate to their environment, and it is through the various interpretations of time that humanity defines environment in terms of the natural. Though some would argue otherwise, it is my opinion that nature, as it is currently perceived, does not exist– instead, humanity lives in an ever changing environment whose goal is to produce increasingly viable life forms. This suggests people must alter the perspective from which they approach the environment, moving from the belief that environment is fragile and must be protected toward a philosophy that views environment as reactive and durable.
My notion of time prior to the experience which I have related had always existed in relation to a human scale, a reference based upon the eighty year life span of modern people. The metric of a human life is finite and easily understood; people are born, they live and are active, they die. In accordance with this scale, human activity is often judged by the degree to which it impacts a society during the lifetime of a given individual. For instance, loggers, who came to the Sierra Nevada in the 1800s, felled sequoia and other rare lumber for the purpose of providing entertainment to curiosity seekers in the east. However, as I looked upon the remains of sequoia that had been cut down long ago, yet still lay intact, I realized that the use of a human metric to examine the world has one flaw in that it ignores the magnitude of human action in relation to other temporal scales. Though I was aware other such scales existed, that of planet Earth used in geologic time for example, none had been as tangible as humanity’s until I viewed the living sequoia beside its fallen companions. Sequoia, much like human beings, exist in a cycle of birth, life, and death, a commonality which simplifies the task of considering time as it might appear from a sequoia’s perspective, a frame of reference I will refer to as sequoia time.
To further clarity the concept of sequoia time, it is useful to consider the ramifications of humanity’s shift from reliance upon oral tradition to its possession of written history. The vast majority of recorded human knowledge has been gathered in the relatively recent past, the ability to store vast amounts of information, through technology such as electronic archival, available to people for the first time in the modern era. Prior to the most recent generations of humanity, such stores of knowledge were impossible. While some information did succeed in crossing generational boundaries, such as developments in mathematics, the majority of human experience could not be communicated through the spoken word alone. Lessons learned on an individual level, encompassing topics such as the feelings of terror passing through the minds of soldiers in battle, could not hope to outlive those who experienced them first hand. Humanity was essentially forced to begin from scratch with the transition to any new generation, as experience literally died out and inexperience replaced it in an information cycle. The sequoia, spanning a period of over 3,000 years during its lifetime, serves as a living catalogue of the past. Through its presence in various epochs of history, it offers a new metric by which the magnitude of humanity’s actions can be judged.
It is my hypothesis that many of the recurring problems faced by humanity arise due to a combination of the human tendency to accept a given truth only once having experienced it firsthand and a lack of readily accessible recorded information which might provide incite concerning the missteps of others. If this hypothesis is taken into account, the repetition of such disasters as war, segregation, and oppression almost seems inevitable. Reliance on human memory restricts the information utilized by a society to that gathered during the human time-frame of a generation, an inadequate reference for a problem, such as war, that will not necessarily occur during that span, yet who’s threat cannot be ignored. In order to deal with such a problem, it is necessary to make the transition to sequoia time.
The environmental author, Gregg Easterbrook, who encourages his readers to “think like nature” when approaching environmental issues, offers a similar suggestion. The implication of Easterbrook’s statement is that people must consider the state of the environment in which they live relative to the billions of years the environment has had to evolve. Interestingly, when Easterbrook’s advice is taken, two very different descriptions of the environment are discovered, one as seen from a human time frame and the other with respect to sequoia time.
The environment viewed in terms of human time, that is based on what we as humans can surmise using knowledge collected during our own lives, appears fragile. From our perception, Earth exists in a state of careful balance, relatively true over the course of a single human generation. To some extent, Earth even seems to remain constant, existing in perfection. After all, on what other type of planet can we imagine living, Earth’s past configurations being out of the scope of human time? The environment present on Earth, it follows, is seen as existing in a similar state of perfection as well. This view prompting the desire to return the environment to its perceived original state whenever we notice a change has occurred. For example, an increase in the frequency of forest fires, fire according to human experience seen as detrimental to living systems, caused people to introduce firefighters into the wilderness in order to protect the state of nature then considered normal. In the short term, this decision seemed to be valid, the decades that pass as forest regenerates from horrible fires hopelessly long in relation to human life. Later, however, it was discovered that such prevention lead to unexpected results. For instance, many pine species, later found to rely on the high temperatures of fire to release pollen from their pine cones, were unable to reproduce. Such a result implies that people may have chosen to preserve the wrong environment, a possible reason for this mistake being that they did not consider the time-frame in which the environment exists when developing environmental policy.
If the same problem of recurrent forest fires is approached in terms of sequoia time a very different description of the environment results, changing and robust. From the perspective of an organism that lives 3,000 years, each decade the forest spends in recovery corresponds to roughly the equivalent of 98 days of human time. That means that a forest decimated for fifty years by fire would seem, from a sequoia’s perspective, to be in recovery only a little over a year, an amount of time probably acceptable to many humans and roughly analogous to the rebuilding cycle of a corporation or sports team. Viewed from this scale, not only does the environment rapidly change, it is also capable of quickly responding to outside change and repairing damage inflicted upon it. This view of the environment gives it a revised definition; environment becomes an adaptive system in which changes occur in order to develop a sustainable model for supporting life. Its definition revised, the significance of environment as it relates to human efforts of preservation and conservation now comes into question.
Currently, in accordance with main stream thought, the goal of preservation is to protect the natural environment from damage caused by the negative results of human intervention. However, if it is accepted, as has been previously suggested, that the environment changes over time, with or without this intervention, then the question of which environment is “natural” must be asked unless humanity is to risk preserving the wrong environment. For instance, assume that a river has been dammed for a number of years and then, at some point, an organization decides that it would be more natural, and in nature’s best interest, to return the river to its previous condition. The required process could entail the reintroduction of disappeared fish species or a shift of the river’s path, changes that, while eliminating the dam could result in other forms of damage. For example, fauna requiring low levels of water may die as the increased river capacity floods their roots or the rise in river speed may result in additional soil erosion. Many other such alterations would also have to be considered as well. If, for instance, the river had at one time sustained fishermen, the question of whether fishermen will once again be needed in the river ecosystem as a check on the fish population would have to be raised. The problem such a project faces is determining when a stopping point has been reached, when the natural has been recreated. In truth, from the perspective of sequoia time, it is probable that a stopping point can never be identified and, as such, what people refer to as nature, a human construction idealizing an unchanging environment, cannot exist.
In the absence of nature, the relationship between people and the environment must be reassessed. In the context of a natural world, a world existing on a human scale, the role of humanity is commonly assumed to be that of preserver. Interestingly, though the concept of natural preservation may be flawed, it does not follow that environmental preservation must also cease to exist. The difference between these concepts is hidden in the definitions of the words natural and environment. Nature refers to a human construct idealizing an unchanging environment. Alternatively, environment has been defined as an ever changing system who’s goal is to create a sustainable means for supporting life. While it is true that preservation of the “natural” by the humanity might undermine the goal of the environment, it is definitely feasible to say that people can instead refocus their preservation efforts to assist in the creation of an environment that is capable of supporting life.
This new role introduces numerous avenues of human interaction with the environment, many of which are suggested in the writing of Greg Easterbrook. One of the most interesting concepts Easterbrook discusses is the possibility that the environment, in its struggle to create a suitable support structure for life, has evolved to the full extent possible while relying on sheer chance. For example, Easterbrook notes that the current period in which humanity has evolved is unusually free of the meteor impacts that traditionally erase a majority of Earth’s life forms with regular frequency. It may be that this almost cyclical erasure is a failure of the environment to succeed in its goal, a failure that the cognitive abilities of humanity might be able to overcome through the development of progressive technology. Though I agree with Easterbrook’s suggestion, I believe it is vitally important that humanity consider the responsibility it takes on as it enters into an era of environmental preservation. The primary aspect of that responsibility arises when it is recognized that the time a person spends on Earth is borrowed. Decisions we as a society must make place a great burden upon us, the current moment being equal to the total action of those who have lived before and, at the same time, the foundation for all of those yet to arrive.
Standing at the foot of the giant sequoia, taking one last photograph of it in my mind, the smallness I had felt earlier began to fade as I started to think of the impact I might have. Noticing the sequoia’s roots, its weakest and most vital attribute, protected through human effort, I realized my responsibility as a visitor to the sequoia grove. My presence there had connected me with a segment of environmental history that spanned generations. I wondered at all the simple human decisions which must have occurred in combination for something so basic as my specific presence in the grove at that moment to transpire, decisions as numerous in number as the millions of sequoia seeds dispersed upon the ground which might result in only one adult tree. In my final thoughts, as I quietly stepped out of the forest, I imagined who, in another thousand years, might stand there after me and what kind of Earth they might inherit at that distant time.
Easterbrook, Gregg. A Moment on the Earth. 2nd ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.