This long weekend before Labour Day, I am struck again by the irony of celebrating Labour by taking time off from work. Working through this long weekend (or much of it at least, as I did last weekend too), I am struck again by the enduring importance of my own work. (Perhaps you’d like to take a minute now to join your local chapter of the National Sarcasm Society: Not that they need your support.)
Last year about this time we headed off on our Scottish adventure, about which much of great (and enduring) value has been written. One of the themes of our program was the environmental damage done to the Scottish Highlands by those pesky Victorians.
After the last ice age, which finished up about 10,000 years ago, trees snuck across into what is now Great Britain on a land bridge. You can imagine the scene.
Psst! Stuart! Don’t move so fast. They’ll see us coming.
At one time, this Caledonian pine forest — a mix of all kinds of trees, but noted for the Scots pine — covered pretty much the whole island, but as the climate warmed the trees pulled up stakes and headed north. Soon-ish this forest could only be found in the Scottish Highlands, whose latitude and altitude presented acceptable growing conditions and whose sparse population placed no enduring pressure on it.
Then came Queen Victoria and a romantic view of country living that only the wealthy could hold without irony. Some say that’s when the trouble started, as it became popular to traipse around the hills hunting deer and grouse, and profitable to raise sheep in the valleys. The consequences for the human locals — the Highland Clearances — were devastating; the consequences for the plant-life locals no less so. Hunters, shepherds, and their respective animal buddies reshaped the landscape. Denuded might be the more precise word, as heather and gorse came to replace the incoherent jumble of a living forest.
Today, the Caledonian pine forest survives only in isolated patches, whose aggregate area is about one percent of its former range. In keeping with both weekend themes, one of the largest surviving patches of Caledonian pine forest is on Balmoral estate, home to that quintessential Victorian.
So what does this have to do with Labour? I’m glad you asked. I’m getting there.
There are moves afoot to rehabilitate the Highlands to promote the growth of Caledonian pine forest. Landowners are paid to fence tracts of land to keep out the deer — as much a pest there as squirrels are here, and almost as good jumpers — which simple action lets tiny trees grow into big trees, over time. Conservation groups go a step further and actively plant trees, learning by many trials and almost as many errors how to recreate a sustainable and diverse ecosystem rather than just a stand of monoculture trees.
Our young and enthusiastic guides, naturalists all, talked about their collective hopes to reforest the Highlands. To return it to its natural state: what our titled host called “God’s best idea for the Highlands.” It all sounded lovely.
Near the end of our trip we headed from Inverness to Skye. Stopping at a roadside viewpoint, we piled out of the vans to admire said view and marvel as our guides picked out deer on the hillside with their naked eyes: deer that we could hardly see even with our binoculars.
Looking at this sere landscape that stretched for miles and miles, I had a sudden vision of the scale of deforestation that had occurred and, consequently, of the scale of the effort to effect the hoped-for reforestation. I turned to the young Glaswegian beside me, gestured at the treeless vista and said, It’s going to be a big job.
He understood me immediately. Oh, yes, he said, it will take us hundreds of years.
There didn’t seem to be much to say to that.
Now, you can argue about the wisdom of messing with the environment on any scale, much less a grand one. Time and again it seems that what people knew for sure fifty years ago turns out to be dead wrong today: knowing that should engender a little humility about those things we know for sure today.
But what hit me was not so much that but, rather, his sense of working on — of belonging to — a noble and enduring endeavour that would last well beyond his lifetime.
It will take us hundreds of years.
As I jump from group to group, working on six- to twelve-week sales proposals for projects that last ten years at the longest, I wonder sometimes what it would be like to work like that. Of what it would be like to live like that.
Almost 25 years ago I sat on the floor at a house party, admiring my months-old daughter who gurgled and smiled despite the harness she wore to cure her hip dysplasia. The party was hosted by MBA-student colleagues of my husband; beside me sat one of them, a woman I had met a few times by then, discussing her lack of satisfaction with her new banking job.
“You should come and work with me at Finance”, I said. “We’re trying to hire and getting no one. You could learn tax….nothing to it!”
Twenty years later, and two or three ‘jobs on’ for me by then, I stood in the wings watching the retirement party I had organized unfold. Over 300 people attended (including the current Finance Minister) and that “woebegone MBA”, now a friend of twenty years, thanked the crowd for “the best 20 years of my life!”. And I marvelled at the impact of one little conversation on so many lives.
I too have wondered at the selflessness and long vision of people like your naturalist guide, who dedicate themselves to a task whose outcome they will never see and may not comprehend. Like those who laboured (generally against their will) on the pyramids of Egypt. Or, 5000 years before them, those who built Newgrange in Ireland. How could they do it? Who sold “the dream” without benefit of Twitter, Facebook or even paper?
But my experience with that “casual hire” of 25 years ago, and much life experience since, has convinced me that I usually don’t know “the big picture” or the “long-term picture”. A seemingly fruitless consulting assignment today may, months or years later, bear fruit when a slightly older, more experienced former client remembers something they did, indeed, learn through that experience. Etc.
I believe the impacts of our labours (paid or otherwise) stretch far beyond us. I am confident I have no idea (and will rarely be given the opportunity to see) the impact they have. I content myself (most days) with doing the best I can and having faith that by by doing so, good will eventually “out”.
Mary – Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I line up where you do… most days. Some days I have that wistful impulse to build some “thing” for the ages, Ozymandias be damned.
In contrast to Mary’s optimism (above) I have more of a sense of futility. (Ecclesiastes in the Bible does a pretty good job of expressing it!) I doubt if my efforts, whether by intention or chance, are going to have much lasting impact. On a few people, perhaps. For a few years. Then the splash subsides, the ripples fade away, the surface of the stream of life flows on apparently unchanged. No, I’m not bitter about that — it’s just the way things are.
Jim – Maybe you’d like to join me in planting Scots pines in the Highlands? They last a good long while if you can keep the sheep and deer from munching them in the winter. As for the enduring or transitory nature of our impact, maybe we could take some comfort from transitoriness if we also factored in the evil that we do. Good to know that there is some sort of “statute of limitations” on our nastier ripples! But whether life flows on unchanged – I’m not so sure. Our societies have advanced, albeit unevenly, and some (like Stephen Pinker) seem to think we’re getting better as people. What would that be, if not the result of many small ripples, gradually forging a gentle wave?
Perhaps it is not just your work that has import but the way you write, as you have done here. Thank you for sharing this perspective. Mary Gibson’s story adds an important personal dimension with which I can identify. Raising children, too, requires a focus far beyond even their lives; such a vision impelled my husband and me on our parental path with the wisdom of countless generations at our backs. However, unlike hip dysplasia, the problems we encountered included a condition generally considered untreatable: schizophrenia. Working with my son, however, I developed a treatment based on auditory stimulation that develops the neurology of the left side of the brain. He has had no symptoms of schizophrenia since 2008. For whatever reasons, the medical and scientific communities thus far remain closed to my discoveries. Caught between my experience and their indifference, I have felt overwhelmed in pursuing my teaching mission. But your young Glaswegian and all such planters of forests renew my hope. You can learn more about â€œfocused listeningâ€ to high-frequency music at my blog, or you can contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Laurna: Thanks kindly for your kind words. I can’t speak to the efficacy of your methods, but what a grand pursuit! I wish you well with it.
Ummm… thanks for the invitation, but I really should get approval from my wife before I go off with you to the Highlands.
Jim – Tell the lassie she can come too. Although considering how I feel today after spending a few hours yesterday weeding the large area/garden at the street end of the adjacent copse, I might not be going anywhere to do anything even remotely physical any time soon!