There’s more in the forest than trees

What if the brain decided it was the most important organ of the body and began to mine the liver? Rain-forest activist John Seed poses that parable in order to question modern humans’ relationship with nature.

“We think we are separate and that we can exploit nature as just a resource,” Seed explains. “But in fact we are all part of the same body: If we destroy that body, we destroy ourselves.” A passionate environmental activist, Seed has worked for more than 30 years on behalf of the world’s rain forests. This weekend, he’ll be in town for a Rainforest Benefit Gala in downtown Asheville and a three-day workshop at Earthhaven Ecovillage. The events are co-sponsored by assorted local forest-conservation groups, including Southwings, the Dogwood Alliance, the Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project and the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition.

A chance event near Seed’s home in Australia set him on his life’s path. “I was living in a community back in the early ’70s, like a lot of young people who went back to the land,” says Seed. “In 1979 some neighbors convinced us to help them try to stop the logging of a rain forest five miles from where I was living. Something happened to me there; I felt so moved by the beauty and the intelligence of that forest, I felt called to speak on behalf of and to defend such forests. It was very emotional, like a huge turning around in my life, and it set me on the path I’ve been traveling ever since. In retrospect, we realized this was the first direct action on behalf of rain forests anywhere in the world.”

Seed went on to found the Rainforest Information Centre, which works both in Australia and internationally on preservation issues. “Rain forests are the very womb of life, home to half of all the plants and animals on earth,” he notes. “Satellite photos show that they are being destroyed at such a rate that within our lifetimes, any rain forest that isn’t specifically protected will be destroyed. This is the greatest biological catastrophe since the extinction spasm that ended the age of dinosaurs. It is utterly huge what is taking place.”

Closer to home, lifelong conservationist Taylor Barnhill sees a similar situation unfolding in Southern Appalachian forests. “Our forests are under assault from multinational corporate interests and the politicians that are controlled by those interests. The threat to our forests is as great as I’ve ever known it,” he declares. Barnhill is director of Southwings, an Asheville-based nonprofit that gives community leaders an aerial view of environmental issues throughout the South.

“I wish folks understood the incredible value of an intact forest ecosystem in terms of oxygen, clean water, and a refuge for grounding our own spiritual selves,” said Barnhill during a recent phone interview. “A forest ecosystem is such a wonderful and rich model of life and enriches everyone who understands that,” he observes.

Longtime environmental activist Hugh Irwin says simply, “[Forests] are much more valuable for their habitat, their clean fresh water, and their solace to the human spirit than they are for their wood products.” Irwin, who is conservation planner for the Southern Appalachian Forest Coalition, says his goal is to establish a network of natural areas throughout the mountains that will enable their ecosystems to continue functioning. “[In] the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest, the individual trees are ancient,” he wrote in a recent e-mail. “Forests in the Southern Appalachians are ancient not in the age of individual trees, but in the antiquity of species and the ecological processes. The lineage of forests in the Southern Appalachians reaches back through 65 million years of forest cover.”

These and many other forest activists are particularly concerned about the U.S. Senate’s upcoming consideration of President Bush’s Healthy Forests Initiative, which they fear could have dire consequences for the forests of our region. “This administration is putting false labels on these policies,” charges Barnhill. “It is the antithesis of a healthy forest initiative, and yet they try to con the public with these labels. There are ways to promote healthy forests, and this policy is absolutely not it. They are taking an extremely important and emotional issue — forest fires — and manipulating the public’s knowledge of it.”

And though the public may believe our forests are cut primarily to supply lumber, much Southern forestland is actually harvested to produce disposable paper products. Kelly Sheehan is a national organizer for the Asheville-based Dogwood Alliance, a coalition of 72 groups seeking to protect land and communities by shifting the market for paper products away from destroyed forests and toward alternatives such as post-consumer recycled paper. “The southern U.S is the largest paper-producing region in the world, and 5 million acres of forests in this region are cut annually for the production of paper. With [this] comes large-scale clear-cutting, the destruction of our watersheds, the degradation of plant and wildlife habitat, and impacts on our quality of life. I am appalled that our forests, our water and our communities are being degraded for the production of disposable paper products” proclaims Sheehan.

Last year, via a two-year grassroots campaign, the Dogwood Alliance persuaded Staples Inc. — the largest office-supply company in the world — to dramatically increase the post-consumer content in the paper it sells and to phase out products from endangered forests, including those in the Southern U.S. “Now we are campaigning to secure a similar commitment from Staples’ largest competitor, Office Depot,” says Sheehan.

When asked what we should do for the forests, John Seed returns to the roots of his own environmental journey. “Once people realize we are inextricably embedded in nature, then they can listen to their hearts and they will be moved, just as I was,” he predicts.

Accordingly, as Seed travels the globe working to preserve rain forests, he also facilitates deep-ecology workshops, such as the one he’ll lead this weekend at Earthaven Ecovillage outside Black Mountain [see Buzzworm entry elsewhere in this issue for details]. Deep ecology uses ritual and creativity to teach connection with the earth. This weekend’s Council of All Beings workshop in Black Mountain is designed to inspire participants to get involved in environmental issues.

“It’s not as though there’s just one thing and we should all be doing it — there are thousands of things,” says Seed. “So my advice is to get connected, to spend time in nature, and to listen and ask the question, What is it that I’m called to do?”

G. Leigh Wilkerson is a freelance writer living in the Black Mountain Range (e-mail:

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