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.