Beauty Is As Beauty Does

Richard Cartwright Austin may be a Presbyterian minister and internationally known theologian, a high-brow intellectual and refined aesthete, but he’s also something of a Sybarite.

I found this reassuring, in a man who might otherwise intimidate. What gave him away was his hot tub, set into a gracious deck with beds of summer flowers and a view into the Clinch River valley of southwest Virginia. It was an appropriate setting for a man who, in articles and an acclaimed series of books, urged a return to the sensuous as way for Christians to reconnect with nature.

By awakening the senses — to such everyday pleasures as the smell of a rose, the taste of a tart apple, the tingling of snow on your tongue — Dick believed that people would be more receptive to the experience of natural beauty. And it was in that human experience of beauty, with all its emotional, intellectual, spiritual and cultural entanglements, that Dick saw the salvation of the world.

The sensual side of human nature has traditionally been suppressed under Christianity as a source of sin. In a similar vein, Christianity has also generally regarded nature as an enemy or a slave. Christianity has, in fact, been blamed for the current environmental crisis because of its espousal of a human right to dominate nature.

Dick therefore sought to rearrange some of the building blocks of Christianity, and fashion a Christian perspective of nature that would both strengthen the faith and enhance its moral beauty. Environmental ethics, he believed, would spring from the relationship that natural beauty engenders in those who perceive it. The observer and the object considered beautiful are no longer detached from each other but engage in a potentially meaningful relationship.

I played a lively game of object and observer with Dick’s cat, who cleverly thrust a paw through a tear in a screen door every time I waggled my finger, while I waited for Dick to finish a phone call from Moscow.

Although graying hair hinted at his recent retirement from professional church work, his mustache was still sandy, his blue eyes were unfaded, and his pace had hardly slackened. Since 1959, when he entered the ministry in the mountains of Pennsylvania, he had served 16 churches, most in rural settings, although some also in Washington, D.C.

Early in his career he was contacted by a federal agency then called the Soil Conservation Service (now Natural Resources Conservation Service), which originated during the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s.

“During the Dust Bowl, the Soil Conservation Service began trying to reach farmers through the churches,” he said. “Most American theology dealing with care of the land is courtesy of the federal government. Only recently have churches begun to rethink their attitudes toward the environment.”

Dick was one of the first clergy to take up the question of religion’s relationship with the natural world. “I was a decade into my ministry before I realized that my Christian training had ignored both God’s relationship to nature and the ethics of human relationships with the natural world,” he said.

His special ministry in faith and the environment intensified in the early 1970’s, as he was finishing a five-year pastorate in West Virginia. As an organizer of resistance to strip mining, he felt called to a more direct approach to the relationship between faith and nature. He decided to become a farmer. He bought an old farm of 160 acres on the Clinch River. The house had been abandoned for 25 years when he moved in. It was a modest clapboard house with a gracious air. I ran my hand along the railing of the unusual curved porch, and thought how hard it must have been to leave this house behind.

Lessons In Humility

One of Dick’s first mistakes was to take an extension agent’s advice to clear a hillside of “brush.” The agent meant the unruly shrubs and vines that people often consider worthless and unattractive, but which represent a natural stage in the process of reversion of clearings to forest. Afterwards, erosion from the naked hillside filled Dick’s pond. “Much of this mountain land should never have been cleared,” he said. “And I learned to just let it grow back.”

Like most old farms, Dick’s had a large woodlot, in this case about 100 acres. From early on, he saw that he had good timber. Is there a woodland owner who doesn’t think about financial gain from the trees? Economic profit is the driving force of our economy, ourselves. It’s a byword among foresters that woodlots must yield profits for their owners, otherwise what’s the point of managing?

Dick was certainly interested in the profitability of his woods. But he was no more satisfied with the advice of the consulting forester he asked than with the extension agent’s, and by then he was thinking twice about taking any of it. He saw the muddy streams and mangled woods left by conventional forestry at work around him, and decided he wanted to do something different.

He built a barn of his own lumber, cutting the trees himself and hauling them to the mill. There was no one else he trusted to cut responsibly. With his organizing skills, he galvanized interest in a new kind of forestry in southwest Virginia, and helped to found a regional non-profit group named Appalachian Sustainable Development. In the process, Dick came to know and trust one of his neighbors as a skilled, low-impact logger. I was there to look at the timber cut they had completed in the past autumn.

Dick’s woods bordered a pasture, and just beyond the barbed wire fence we passed through an edge of thick, weedy brush before entering the woods proper.

“It’s unclear whether there can be such a thing as sustainable forestry,” Dick said. “It has been a Holy Grail since Gifford Pinchot established the whole idea of forestry in the early 20th century. Most of what’s been done in its name has degraded the forest. We can’t just assume that trees of the same quality or quantity will grow back where we’ve cut, because they haven’t in many places.

“And it’s getting tougher with increased acid rain and climate changes. No one has shown a sustainable forestry that I’ve seen, at least in this part of the country. It’s ridiculous to call most of the forestry that is done today sustainable. Not a single logging job in southwest Virginia on private lands has even passed BMP standards in the eight years since the state adopted them.”

Best Management Practices, called BMPs, are specific on-the-ground procedures that reduce environmental damage, particularly erosion. They consist of technical standards for roads, stream crossings, and log loading sites, all of which have far more potential for erosion than the logged area itself. Whether the use of BMPs should be required by law, or left voluntary, is at the heart of a raging debate over the public versus the private values of forests.

Public Vs. Private

Until recently, when it came to woodlands lovely, dark, and deep, the direction of environmental concern was toward public lands. Government-owned lands usually provide for public input into the land use planning process. Private lands have no such formal mechanisms, and chance conversations between neighbors at the local store are increasingly unlikely as absentees and strangers buy forested lands. Legislation therefore offers the most immediate way to address practices, like clearcutting and road building, that can have destructive impacts on water quality, wildlife habitat and scenic beauty.

Legislation of private forestry is nothing new. Gifford Pinchot, whose name Dick had invoked, was America’s first professional forester, and he strongly advocated federal control of cutting on private forest land. That hasn’t happened, although some federal laws do affect forestry, particularly the Clear Air Act, Clean Water Act, Coastal Zone Management Act, Endangered Species Act, and various laws on wetlands and the use of pesticides and herbicides.

For the most part, though, direct regulation of forestry has been left to the states. In the 1940s, some states began adopting “seed tree” laws that required reforestation to avert future timber famines. In the 1960s, a handful of states passed more comprehensive forest practices laws. After passage of the federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972, most state forestry agencies began to develop BMPs.

BMPs differ in every state, but all focus on protecting soil from washing away and clogging the streams with sediment. One of their most fundamental features is the concept of streamside management zones. Of varying widths, but increasing to 100 feet or more according to the size of the creek or river, these zones should be left undisturbed.

Streams should be crossed at right angles with timber bridges or culverts. Water bars and dips are recommended for road drainage. All skid trails (the route by which the log has been dragged to a truck), and landings (the place where the logs are loaded onto a truck), are to be seeded, fertilized and mulched.

Most southern states have opposed the enactment of forestry laws and rely on voluntary use of BMPs. But as Dick pointed out, compliance is often very poor. An audit by the Virginia Department of Forestry completed shortly after my conversation with Dick found that only 17% of logging jobs across the state had properly implemented BMPs, although that was a significant increase from a similar audit six months earlier. Active or potential water quality problems existed on 62% of the sites.

“The only thing that will make some people change,” my own county forester told me, “is the law.”

But the growth of what some foresters view as “government command-and-control bureaucracies” raises the hackles of quite a few landowners, not to mention most of the forest products industry. Forestry regulations challenge a particular idea about ourselves as Americans, an idea based on property rights. Belief in absolute rights over property makes ecosystem management downright subversive because the “it’s my land and I can do what I want, even if what I want is to take more than the land can sustainably give” approach becomes invalid.

You hear a lot about those hallowed private property rights in Appalachia, and in rural areas across America, but much less about private property responsibilities. Do I have the right to crisscross my land with destructive logging roads, causing the creek to silt up with every hard rain? If I need money because I’m sick, should I be able to earn the most profit in the quickest way, regardless of the loss to future productivity?

Our ideas about property are still evolving. After all, it wasn’t very long ago that human beings were bought and sold like livestock, and on the whole that didn’t work out very well. A new social perspective is now emerging, one that focuses not on individual tracts and private rights, but on aggregates of land across political jurisdictions, and on the responsibilities of landowners to the community and to the future.

One school of thought holds that most people want to do the right thing, if only they know what that is. Education of landowners, loggers and forestry professionals offers a slower resolution than legislation, but one that protects property rights. Restructuring of capital gains and estate taxes to reward good stewardship would be another powerful non-regulatory route. Market-based incentives such as Smartwood certification, aimed at tapping the market of socially conscious consumers, constitutes yet a third approach. These are slow ways of changing the culture toward a new land ethic.

The Greed Factor

But there is also a school of thought that holds that private economic interests will usually prevail over other values unless laws safeguard the public interest. There is a certain urgency in the arguments, as global demand for wood products rises. Coincidentally, many eastern forests are reaching economic maturity after abusive, wide-spread logging in the early 20th century.

The proliferation of chip mills across the South, and the controversy over the large clearcuts that they provoke, herald the clash between economic and ecological values. A lesson from forest ecology could be applied here: diversity is good, because it enhances stability. A diversity of approaches, from education to incentives to regulation, offers the best support for the necessary change.

Change, at least its more drastic forms, was what Dick sought to defeat in his woodlot. He had made a 30-30 forestry rule for himself: to remove no more than 30% of the standing timber, so that 30 years in the future, the same species and ages that were there now would be there still, just not the same trees. He decided to cut about 50 trees over 50 acres after a big storm knocked down a number of prime specimens — red oaks, poplars and ashes. His neighbor took them out with a mechanical skidder.

“Now I know that someone can use conventional equipment and do a good job,” Dick said. There was no bare ground in his woods that I could see, but a lush understory punctuated by an occasional stump. I stood on one that was 3 feet in diameter, and surveyed the equally large poplars and ashes still remaining.

All BMPs had been followed but were hardly necessary because the disruption was so slight. Because the woods were more or less surrounded by farm fields, yielding easy access, no new roads had been made just for the timbering.

“It feels sustainable,” Dick said, looking around. “I don’t like the word stewardship, it treats nature as a thing, objectifies it. We need to develop a new moral relationship with nature. We are abusing the body of our Lord, not in a metaphysical sense, as pantheism holds, but in an ethical sense. I don’t believe that ‘self-restraint’ will be enough to form this new ethic and stop our overuse of natural resources. Love is the only motive sufficient to protect the world.

“The changes required of human society to give nature its due are so far-reaching and challenging, only love can induce them. If we come to protect the earth, it will only be because we have discovered a new delight in God through love of the beauty in nature. And in the image of God, we carry responsibility for life in the world. We have a vocation both to experience and to cultivate the beauty of the world.”

I stepped down from my stump, feeling that Dick ought to have it. The beauty of the world was at the moment captured in the suffused green shimmer of late summer sun on the canopy, which stirred now and again in a warm breeze. In Beauty of the Lord Dick writes:

“Beauty perceived in nature serves not so much to suggest higher truth as to indicate the value of the life and relationships perceived…The beauty in life-giving relationships is heightened when these relationships support diversity and individuality or span distinctions between beings. Ecology may be a science of natural beauty, developing understanding of the relationships among beings in the natural order. Beauty reflects the health of life…its very absence can serve to warn us of problems.”

The experience of beauty is real enough, but dangerously subjective, or, as Dick put it, “corruptible.” There can be no absolute standard of beauty, because our perceptions of nature are shaped by our culture, and in our urbanized culture beauty is almost entirely based on one sense only — vision. Beauty may lie in the eye of the beholder, but we’re all wearing corrective glasses.

Given a choice, many people find a domesticated, pastoral scene more beautiful than wild, uncontrolled, threatening nature. And examples abound of natural scenes that are considered beautiful, but are corrupt: a pristine river in which every living thing has been killed by acid rain, grasses waving in the wind because the soil can no longer grow trees, a fiery sunset colored by air pollution. Visual beauty, Dick knew, is no guide to ecosystem health. Real beauty lies rather in actions that build life-sustaining relationships; moral rectitude then flows from those relationships. The philosophy may delve into murky depths, but the ethical lesson is clear: BMPs are beautiful.

This is the first of three excerpts from Chris Bolgiano’s book-in-progress, tentatively titled, “Groping Towards Harmony: True Tales of Sustainable Forestry in Appalachia,” due out in 2002. The book explores such motifs as scale, beauty, and value added through profiles of forest landowners of various kinds.


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