publication date: 1995
pages (including back matter) : 368
For a book ostensibly about the decline in growth of Ponderosa pines in a small region of the Pacific Northwest, I found Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares to be surprisingly relatable.
In the book, Nancy Langston discussed the history of the Blue mountain range that spans the border between Oregon and Washington. At the time of her writing, the Blues had become a battleground between environmentalists, loggers, forest rangers, and bureaucratic government organizations. The history she gave of the Blues mainly encompassed the insertion of pioneers and ranchers in the 1880s up to the management by the Forest Service in the 1910s and the inadvertent destruction of the forest through the 1980s and 90s. Langston’s goal was to provide contemporary caretakers of the Blues with a way forward.
Being someone who is not overly interested in trees or plants or what Langston termed the “inland West,” I mainly picked up the book because I loved how melodramatic the title was. However, Langston wrote the book with such aplomb, I found myself constantly learning new and interesting things. Further, it is amazing how consistent human nature is, in its hubris and shortsightedness: from the Native Americans lighting fires in the forests decades before Americans arrived so they could ride their horses, to the loggers and ranchers in the 1920s who blamed the much milder sheepherders for any environmental damage done in the region because the sheepherders were often foreign, and to the overconfident Forest Service scientists in the 1940s who were so sure they knew what they were doing and instead brought in an era of unmanageable fires and insect invasions. Here is a long passage Langston shared about forest rangers attempting to reintroduce elk into the Blues after they had been hunted into extinction:
The history of elk reintroductions illustrates the ironic ways that attempts to save wild nature often led to the accelerated destruction of the wildness that people sought to preserve. . . . [In 1913], the [forest rangers] had to feed the [reintroduced] elk in stockyards for a month because of deep snow, and five more died and several calves were born prematurely and died. . . . The Association ran out of money to buy hay, and the elk were in danger of simply starving in the stockyards. . . . Finally one afternoon they drove them up to Benjamin Gulch on the edge of town. By morning all the elk had returned to the stockyards to be fed. Finally, in March, they drove the twenty-nine survivors to the Tumalum Creek at the north end of the Blues and released them in the forest, and this time they were too far to find their way back to the hay.
These are sad, confused stories of men who tried to manipulate wild things, which then refused to be wild, so people lost interest. . . . Reintroduction stories like the one recounted above are disturbing because people want wild nature to mean something.
The book’s explanations of its topic were interesting and sophisticated enough to keep me involved. However, Langston’s real masterstroke was that throughout all this, she told a story of American history and optimism. Of men (and a few women) who really thought they were doing right by god and country when they cut down old trees and grazed cattle until the land was barren and always moved ever West to find the next paradise. This is a book that is so much more than its compelling subject matter.
5/6: seek this book out