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Missing Trees & Specious Stories

October 5, 2009
Missing Trees & Specious Stories
I recently returned from a three-day hike on the Art Loeb Trail, a 30.1 mile trip through Western North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest. Deciding to take the scenic route to the northern trailhead of the Art Loeb, which begins at Camp Daniel Boone, my two hiking partners and I entered Pisgah through Brevard, NC.
(As a side note: Electing to take only one vehicle and just “thumb a ride” back to the car after the hike sounds a lot cooler than it actually is!)
One of my hiking partners, Chris Rumbley, a close friend of mine from college–he was actually my R.A. during my freshman year–now lives in Carrboro, NC where he runs Bountiful Backyards (www.bountifulbackyards.com), a landscaping company that specializes in installing “landscapes you can eat.” Due to his agricultural interests, Rumbley was particularly interested in stopping to check out the Forest Discovery Center, a museum of sorts just outside of Brevard that honors forest conservation history in America.
As we entered the Center, we were immediately greeted by an older man in a ranger uniform. His greeting began with a brief history of America’s first school of Forestry founded by George W. Vanderbilt in what first began as an effort to manage the forest lands surrounding his obnoxiously huge Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC. (Of course he didn’t actually refer to the Biltmore Estate as “obnoxiously huge,” but it would have been great if he had.)
The man went on to describe the sustainable method of forestry that the Biltmore Forest School had practiced. Hearing the s-word, Rumbley quickly interrupted, “What do you mean by sustainable?” The momentary look on the man’s face suggested this wasn’t a question he got very often. Gathering himself, he politely went on to explain that, rather than clearcutting the forests, some trees were cut down while others were left standing to promote a forest that could sustain itself even after it had been logged.
Skeptical still, Rumbley added, “Well, I’ve seen pictures that would suggest otherwise!” and, in an act that left our other hiking partner, Mike Corrigan, and me all but speechless, proceeded to walk right past the museum employee in disapproval, leaving us behind with the man for a few incredibly awkward moments.
When he finally returned, Rumbley held out a brochure for the man to look at. Gazing down at the black and white picture on the front of the brochure, I couldn’t believe what I saw. Rumbley was right: The photo, which was actually on the Cradle of Forestry’s own brochure (!), was of a mountainside that, apart from a few trees left standing in the distance (literally 8 or so), had been completely clearcut. The photo’s foreground pictured a small group of men busy at work placing the hundreds of downed trees on what appeared to be a type of conveyor belt leading down the mountainside.
(If you’ve hiked the Art Loeb Trail before, you’ve seen the evidence of this practice. From the top of Tennet Mountain and Black Balsam Knob (pictured), you’re quite possibly a quarter mile from the nearest tree! The entire area was clearcut in the early 1900s and never recovered.)
Abruptly changing the topic so as if to say “Look, buddy, I just work here,” the man pointed out the gift shop behind us and the café down the hall and quickly fled the scene. Corrigan and I, stunned by what we had just witnessed, made a quick pass through the museum before making our way back to the car.
As we headed up the road to the trailhead, we all shared a good laugh. For Corrigan, who had just met Rumbley for the first time the night before, the encounter was especially amusing. (I, on the other hand, am quite accustomed to Rumbley’s boldness.) But as the laughter subsided, we began to discuss what had really just played out.
It was no mistake the man was feeding us a distorted, if not completely false account of the first forestry school in America, an account that he himself seemed to accept without question. I mean, after all, who really wants to be reminded of something like ecological devastation?
Stories are all around us. Every day, as we hear, shape, tell and perpetuate them, stories bring meaning to our lives. And this is nothing new; its part and parcel of what it means to be a human being. In fact, the story is even at the heart of our faith. There is perhaps no better description for the life of the Christian than hearing, shaping, telling and perpetuating our most central story: “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.”
When we really stop and think about the matrix of stories playing out around us, we may be able to catch a glimpse of just how powerful and persuasive stories really are. Granted, this isn’t always easy, for so many of the stories that structure and bring meaning to our lives refuse to present themselves as stories. Rather, we are led to believe the stories we live into are reality, simply the way things are, the way they’ve always been and the way they’ll always be.
It’s a healthy practice to reflect on the stories we tell, shape and perpetuate with our lives. It needs to be asked whether or not we’re truly living the Gospel story or some version of the dominant cultural narrative (story). You know the one… It’s the story that places the individual at its center (egocentrism), presents man [sic] as the purpose of Creation (anthropocentrism/sexism), upholds a particular nation above others (nationalism) and depicts God on our side (tribalism).
Of course we seldom hear the story told quite like this. Pious words, multi-million dollar museums, high school textbooks and teachers, and pop culture in general disguise and distort it, preventing the story from being heard as such. Then again, are museums and textbooks, teachers and television really to blame at the end of the day? After all, of all the stories that play out before our eyes, is it not the one we assent to that’s hardest to recognize?

I recently returned from a three-day hike on the Art Loeb Trail, a 30.1 mile trip through Western North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest. Deciding to take the scenic route to the northern trailhead of the Art Loeb, which begins at Camp Daniel Boone, my two hiking partners and I entered Pisgah through Brevard, NC.

(Side note: Electing to take only one vehicle and just “thumb a ride” back to the car after the hike sounds a lot cooler than it actually is!)

One of my hiking partners, Chris Rumbley, a close friend of mine from college–he was actually my R.A. during my freshman year–now lives in Carrboro, NC where he runs Bountiful Backyards (www.bountifulbackyards.com), a landscaping company that specializes in installing “landscapes you can eat.” Due to his agricultural interests, Rumbley was particularly interested in stopping to check out the Forest Discovery Center, a museum of sorts just outside of Brevard that honors forest conservation history in America.

As we entered the Center, we were immediately greeted by an older man in a ranger uniform. His greeting began with a brief history of America’s first school of Forestry founded by George W. Vanderbilt in what first began as an effort to manage the forest lands surrounding his obnoxiously huge Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC. (He didn’t actually refer to the Biltmore Estate as “obnoxiously huge,” but it would have been great if he had.)

The man went on to describe the sustainable method of forestry that the Biltmore Forest School had practiced. Hearing the s-word, Rumbley quickly interrupted, “What do you mean by sustainable?” The momentary look on the man’s face suggested this wasn’t a question he got very often. Gathering himself, he politely went on to explain that, rather than clearcutting the forests, some trees were cut down while others were left standing to promote a forest that could sustain itself even after it had been logged.

Skeptical still, Rumbley added, “Well, I’ve seen pictures that would suggest otherwise!” and, in an act that left our other hiking partner, Mike Corrigan, and me all but speechless, proceeded to walk right past the museum employee in disapproval, leaving us behind with the man for a few incredibly awkward moments.

When he finally returned, Rumbley held out a brochure for the man to look at. Gazing down at the black and white picture on the front of the brochure, I couldn’t believe what I saw. Rumbley was right: The photo, which was actually on the Cradle of Forestry’s own brochure (!), was of a mountainside that, apart from a few trees left standing in the distance (literally 8 or so), had been completely clearcut. The photo’s foreground pictured a small group of men busy at work placing the hundreds of downed trees on what appeared to be a type of conveyor belt leading down the mountainside.

(If you’ve hiked the Art Loeb Trail before, you’ve seen the evidence of this practice. From the top of Tennet Mountain and Black Balsam Knob (pictured), you’re quite possibly a quarter mile from the nearest tree! The entire area was clearcut in the early 1900s and never recovered.)

Abruptly changing the topic so as if to say “Look, buddy, I just work here,” the man pointed out the gift shop behind us and the café down the hall and quickly fled the scene. Corrigan and I, stunned by what we had just witnessed, made a quick pass through the museum before making our way back to the car.

As we headed up the road to the trailhead, we all shared a good laugh. But as the laughter subsided, we began to discuss what had really just played out.

It was no mistake the man was feeding us a distorted, if not completely false account of the first forestry school in America, an account that he himself seemed to accept without question. I mean, after all, who really wants to be reminded of something like ecological devastation?

Stories are all around us. Every day, as we hear, shape, tell and perpetuate them, stories bring meaning to our lives. And this is nothing new; its part and parcel of what it means to be a human being. In fact, the story is even at the heart of our faith. There is perhaps no better description for the life of the Christian than hearing, shaping, telling and perpetuating our most central story: “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.”

When we really stop and think about the matrix of stories playing out around us, we may be able to catch a glimpse of just how powerful and persuasive stories really are. Granted, this isn’t always easy, for so many of the stories that structure and bring meaning to our lives refuse to present themselves as stories. Rather, we are led to believe the stories we live into are reality, simply the way things are, the way they’ve always been and the way they’ll always be.

It’s a healthy practice to reflect on the stories we tell, shape and perpetuate with our lives. It needs to be asked whether or not we’re truly living the Gospel story or some version of the dominant cultural narrative (story). You know the one… It’s the story that places the individual at its center (egocentrism), presents man [sic] as the central purpose of the universe (anthropocentrism/sexism), upholds a particular nation above others (nationalism) and depicts God as an American (tribalism).

Of course we seldom hear the story told quite like this. Pious words, multi-million dollar museums, high school textbooks and teachers, and pop culture in general disguise and distort it, preventing the story from being heard as such. Then again, are museums and textbooks, teachers and television really to blame at the end of the day? After all, of all the stories that play out before our eyes, is it not the one we assent to that’s hardest to recognize?

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One Comment leave one →
  1. October 16, 2009 3:15 pm

    Good stuff Matt.
    Christianity belongs to the universe which means inside and out our faith should be the guiding narrative. I especially liked the second-to-last paragraph. The seductive attraction of the “isms.” I appreciate your voice here.

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