Thursday, November 7, 2013

White pine virtue

High above the river bend the great, noble pines of the north
beseech the attention of generations of man.

An old-growth tangent

Recently, someone asked me what my favorite tree is. I had to think for a second; I was a little taken aback. We were driving, so my first instinct was to look out the window at the close-knit forest blurring together at 60 mph. Maple, balsam, poplar, birch all mixed together into one brilliant painting. I kept thinking, spying up the road to see what was up there - a tall batch of red pines.

Minutes later and still I didn’t have an answer, but I was definitely thinking hard about it now. What should certify a tree as my favorite? What qualities should I be looking for? Were we talking about a nice shade tree in the summer or something that has beautiful colors in the fall? What trees are most common around here, I began to think.

Maybe the tree should be selected for its overall value on the wood market or its intrinsic value to Northwoods habitat. Or, maybe I should pick something that is more rare so as to stand apart from the crowd. Wait, am I really thinking along those terms?

Then it dawned on me...

“White Pine,” I proclaimed. Of course! How could it have taken me so long to decide. White pines made this country. White pines made this people. As Wisconsin was settled, people put down their plows and took up saws and axes. They moved their families increasingly north, cutting down great numbers of the giant, needly river sentinels.

It was the perfect combination - the great tree of the north loved to grow upon river banks, and those rivers were the ideal means of transporting the buoyant lumber product from remote growing locations to sawmills downstream. The jobs begot demand for workers, begot demands for shelter, begot requirements for food, support services, auxiliary industries, new business, and opportunity.

Of course white pines were not the only lumber product, but they were the major player, the star athlete, the stud. They represented the American dream for pioneers of this state. They created a massive success story for early lumber barons, created the network of river towns we still have today, and built the city of Chicago.

Like red-blooded Americans tend to do, though, we took it too far. We cut white pine (nearly) all down and failed to plant a new crop in its wake. We disregarded tomorrow for the prize of today. Those who jumped on the train early made a quick buck, but left subsequent generations with the bill of rapid, unmitigated growth.

It’s better now, the state of the Midwest's greatest pine tree. We learned from our mistake by finding out exactly what happens when we exhaust a finite resource. We have adopted new procedures, new philosophies, and a new industry for handling lumber and pulpwood markets. We have accepted responsibility for our actions, and now we can be successful.

The same is true in every facet of life.

Virtue is found between the extremes. That is to say the most moral outcome for anything is found between nonexistence and excessiveness. Aristotle believed that between two errors could be found a golden mean, sometimes closer to one extreme than the other. That is to say that courage is not always at the center between self-depreciation and vanity, but usually leaning towards one end or the other, dependent upon circumstances such as time and environment.

The definition of moral compass has waxed and waned and morphed and changed over thousands of years of human existence, but the concept has never disappeared entirely. In all facets of life, in all corners of the globe, little decisions add up to big changes. Each option anyone has ever chosen is a single drop to a river current that has, and continues to, cut a valley through the annals of both human, and increasingly natural, history.

Responsibility for our actions is important innately because we are human. That is to say, we’re the only ones with an option to correct our course should we be sailing head-long into disaster. Only once we accept responsibility will the path to good become clear.

Maybe that’s a bit of a jump from a question as simple as “what’s your favorite tree,” but I like to think this choice is stoic enough to warrant such tangents.

“None of the virtues of character arises in us naturally. The virtue arise in us neither by nature nor against nature. Rather, we are by nature able to acquire them; we become just by doing just actions, temperate by doing temperate actions, brave by doing brave actions.” - Aristotle

See you out there,
A woodsman in training.

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