I AM A GUEST
I wrote the following account of my June, 1992, trip to Slovakia shortly after my return: Having just returned from eastern Slovakia, where I was asked to help a group of concerned citizens to evaluate the ongoing management-created destruction of their forests, I’m again reminded of the thin line a visiting, so-called “expert” must walk. I can’t give advice, because my advice, by definition, is good only for me. What I can offer is the benefit of my knowledge and my experience, but this must be a gift of ideas only, a gift of possibilities. Here a guest’s responsibility ends. It’s for the people to select what works for them and what does not.
There must be no judgment of how the people use the gift. There must be no “you should do this” or “you should do that.” Such admonishments are self-serving only to the guest’s ego or to the guest’s hidden economic interests. I have seen such hidden economic agendas all too often. If fact, while attending a meeting on the environment in Presov, eastern Slovakia, I listened to an American who was clearly giving the Slovakian people a sales pitch for his product, a certain kind of plastic with which to line waste dumps, and he was not, as far as I could tell, even slightly interested in the real well-being of the people. When asked if his company had any programs to educate the public about recycling, he said, “Why would I do that? My business is built on the production of waste, and it needs more and more to grow. Increasing waste is how I make my money.” Here, before my eyes, was the epitome of the “Ugly American.”
A person thus enters a country (or in our case another state) as a guest and tells the host people what they should do, and each “should” has hidden within it either a favorable stimulus for the guest’s ego or a secret financial benefit for the guest’s business. Each stimulus or financial benefit is, in turn, a point of compromise with that which is truly best for the people.
If a guest is really detached from the outcome of his or her visit, the guest must at times tell their hosts things for the host’s benefit that they don’t want to hear. Such was my task in eastern Slovakia. Even as I was speaking, however, I had to remind myself that I was guest in another’s country and that such ideas as I might offer were suggestions only, and that was as it should be.
In was invited to eastern Slovakia, to evaluate the condition of the native forest of Cergov, which is primarily European beech ( Fagus sylvatica ) with an admixture of white fir (Abies alba). The native forest is being rapidly clear-cut and replaced with plantations of such non-native species as Norway spruce (Picea abies), larch (Larix spp.), and pine (Pinus spp.). The biological errors of forestry made in Germany, the United States, and Canada are all being repeated in the forests of Cergov and for the same reasons—short-sighted, immediate economic gain.
All the economic and ecological errors I’ve seen and written about are being made again. But, even as I write this, I must remember that the foresters of eastern Slovakia have been forcibly hidden from the world for decades behind the Communist wall of silence and obsolete ways of thinking, and it’s neither reasonable nor rational to catapulted them suddenly into a different reality—one I might take for granted—and expect them to be able to accept all the new ideas instantly and at once.
With the above in mind, I’m going to share with you a little of what I told the people of eastern Slovakia, where state land is suddenly coming under private influence:
I’ve been asked to share some ideas with you. Before I do, I want you (the people of eastern Slovakia) to understand that ideas are meant to be a gift from one person to another and from adults to children. And a gift is free. A gift is given with no conditions attached to it. If, therefore, I say something that feels good to you, you may keep it. It is yours to use as you wish. If nothing I say feels good to you, that too is alright.
I am a guest in your country. It’s very important for you and me to understand that. It’s also important for you to understand that I did not come here to criticize what you have done or what you will do. Nor did I come here to give you advice. I don’t know what’s right for you to do within your own culture. That’s for you to decide. I can only point out the ecological consequences of some of your actions. If you elect to live with them, that’s your choice and it’s your children’s inheritance.
I was asked to look at forest of Cergov and to make recommendations for it’s biological health and sustainability based on what I saw, on my years of experience as a research scientist in forest ecology, and as a person who has lived and worked in other countries.
To prevent anything I say from sounding like a directive, I will tell you what I would do if I were suddenly made chief forester and told that my job was to maintain Cergov in a condition of biological health and sustainability into the future for seven generations of children. This, of course, is no less than the moral and professional charge of all foresters.
In fact, anything less than a biologically sustainable forest steals the hope from the souls of our children, their children, and their children’s children. The forester who allows this to happen will surely pay, if not in this lifetime, then in the next.
A forester’s charge is to be a trustee of the forest for the children of the future, because the great and only gift we have to give our children is the right to chose as we have chosen and something of value from which to choose. As a trustee of the future forest, the greatest virtue a forester must have is humility, because every forester is confronted daily with the unknown and the unknowable.
Here I must offer you a caution. Once cultural desires, such as economics, become intertwined with ecological principles, it’s easy to loose sight of a sound ecological perspective.
For example, I was told by a forester that it was inevitable that the old trees of Cergov would be clear-cut and that plantations of spruce would replace them. I asked: Why? There was nothing inevitable either about clear-cutting the old trees or about planting spruce in rows. It was simply someone’s choice to maximize immediate economic gain.
The forester then told me that clear-cutting was necessary because the ground was too steep for logging with horses. This statement I find to be particularly interesting because the forest had been logged with horses for many decades before the chain saw and log truck became available. So again, I asked: Why? All the clear-cuts I saw would have been easy to log with horses. In addition, I used to work on a cattle ranch high in the Rocky Mountains of the United States, mountains that are very steep. So I know what a good horse can do. People who respect their horses and work with them as a team can do amazing things.
As chief forester, my first obligation is to protect the soil. Therefore, in order to give the forest’s soil maximum protection, my general working ethic would be that any land too steep to log with horses is too steep to log under any circumstance because of soil erosion. My second obligation is to protect the quality of the water used by people in the towns so buffer strips will be left along all streams. My third obligation is to protect the biodiversity of the forest to ensure, as far as possible, a biologically healthy and sustainable forest for the generations of the future. To this end, a generous representation of all habitats will be protected at all times. And my fourth obligation is to maintain, as far as biologically possible, a sustainable supply of quality wood for industry’s mills, and so long as I’m chief forester, the mills will have to adjust to such volume of wood fiber as the forest can sustainable produce after all the other necessities are accounted for.
Remember, whether to log or not to log an area and how to log it is only a choice. It’s a choice of short-term economics balanced against long-term ecology. It’s a choice of the present generation balanced against those of the future. In the end, therefore, it’s a moral choice—as all choices are. And it’s your choice for your children and for your grandchildren!
What did I learn in Slovakia? I learned much that I cannot put on paper or even explain, as is always the case when I visit another culture. There are, however, three things that I learn over and over when I travel:
The first thing I learned, as I always do, is what I don’t know. It’s therefore with a great deal of humility that I accept being a guest in another’s country—and in my own country for that matter, because I am no more than a guest on this planet.
The second thing I learned is that to be able to see an issue clearly and to be able to frame the issue so others can understand it, I must detach myself from the emotions of the moment and focus on the present choice of action in terms of the consequences for the generations of the future. This means, if I want something to change, that it’s incumbent on me to determine how I must behave to have the best chance of bringing about the outcome I see as desirable. Here the choice of thought and action is my responsibility and mine alone. I am thus a large factor in the projected resolution of the issue. I have a voice. I am neither powerless nor a victim. I am therefore responsible for the relationship I foster with those whose views I may oppose.
And the third thing I learned is that change is an ongoing process and that any perceived finality to someone’s concept of a victory in point of view is but an illusion of a stationary object in the fluid continuum life. Because there is nothing static in the Universe, we, each and every human being, bring to life a point of view that is but a continual adjustment in the perceived reality of the cosmos. We are each part of the great process of change, which in itself is the outworking of choice and consequence—equal partners in the power to create and the responsibility for that which is created. This being the case, every choice made by a human being is a decision based on our individual senses of morality, and that is something we cannot escape anymore than our children can escape the consequences of our actions.
Text © by Chris Maser, 2010. All rights reserved.