An Excerpt from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter of November 19, 2007
issued from Yerba Buena Clinic just outside
Pueblo Nuevo Solistahuacan, Chiapas, MÉXICO
about 1740 meters in elevation, ± LAT. 17° 11' 27"N, LONG. -92° 53' 35"W

GATHERING FIREWOOD

All day long, seven days a week, I hear machetes and axes chop, chop, chopping at what's left of Yerba Buena Reserve. Sometimes when I'm jogging at dawn, way up in the cloudforest, chainsaws whine away. During the day various groups of men pile heaps of logs along the highway, then at certain intervals pickups arrive, the logs are loaded and spirited away. I use the word "spirited" because this isn't supposed to be happening in the developing reserve. The pillaging is of such a scale that clearly most of the wood is being sold commercially, not taken home to local people's kitchens.

When the invaders occupied the reserve they kept other firewood gatherers out, allowing only themselves to collect. Now that they've abandoned the area not only do they return gathering firewood but people from town no longer fear entering. It's a free-for-all, everyone trying to get firewood before someone reestablishes order.

Atop all that, Yerba Buena's owners are felling large trees in the much smaller tract across the road from the reserve, where I live. Throughout each day large trees crash to the ground with all the attendant popping of other trees' branches as they're ripped off, the raining sound of bark and epiphytes cascading from the sky, the shaking of the earth itself. The logs being removed are large, straight ones that go right to the sawmill. A forester marked the trees with sustainable production in mind, but clearly he wasn't thinking in terms of maintaining reserve/ecotour ambience, or protecting the very fragile and unique cloudflorest community we have here. Felling these large trees creates holes in the forest that lets in sun and wind, drying out the forest, making it inhospitable for bromeliads and orchids.

Sometimes when a giant falls I ask myself what I'm doing staying here.

After I think about it awhile, I realize this: What's happening here is no different from what's going on everyplace else. It's just that here it's all done at such an elemental level that you can see the effects of people's appetites. When the big trees fall you can go look at the new hole in the forest, smell the crushed herbage, see the dislodged epiphytes and see the disoriented birds and squirrels whose nests have disappeared.

In contrast, when people in North America and Europe turn up the thermostat more than it needs to be, they don't see the meter at the power plant saying that more energy needs to be generated. They don't see the air- polluting coal that has to be mined, mostly through ecosystem-obliterating strip-mining, to produce the energy they're calling for, or the spent radioactive nuclear fuel that later will have to be disposed of somehow, in someone's "backyard." They're not confronted with the environmental violence that'll have to be committed someplace on Earth, at some time in the future, in their name, responding to that wrist-turn at the thermostat.

For my part, I prefer being here, where the violence at hand is other than by remote control. When a tree falls so close that it jars the ground you're standing on there's no room for hypocrisy or self deception. If you use the wood from that tree, there's no escaping the knowledge that you are an accomplice to the removal of that tree, and to the destruction of the biotic community that once depended on the tree.

Conversely, if you put on a jacket instead of adding an extra log to your fire, you know that not far away a tree and its community of living things survives a little longer, thanks to you.