Defining the “Virgin” Forest
Long before this blog, I became irritated by an email at work and wrote the following response about “virgin” forests. I attempted to get it published as an op-ed by Journal of Forestry, but they (wisely) demurred, both because it could have been written better, and it’s a bit out of the box, and perhaps, offensive.
I’m not going to pick on our invited poster, Mark, who first brought it up, but I have difficulty believing that the Park Service actually has an index of “virgin” attributes. Here is Fenwood’s related comment.
DEFINING THE VIRGIN FOREST
I would like to point out that the term “virgin” forests may not be the best term to use for a variety of reasons. At least not from my perspective, that of an evolutionary biologist who happens to be a human female. The use of the term in the human context seems to presume that the virgin forest state is somehow preferable to other states. While virginity is a trait that might be desirable for males to look for in females in terms of evolution (ensuring paternity), it is quite the opposite for females (no fun, no children). One could argue that it is a vestige of a patriarchal society that focuses on the desirability of virginity (usually only for females). If virginity were such a great deal for both genders, Homo sapiens would have died out a long time ago.
When the two genders come together it is the fountain of much of the physical and spiritual creativity of our species, and leads to the miracle of new persons. It is a sacred act. To call a forest with minimum human intervention “virgin” seems to assume that equally creative and sacred acts are not likely to come from humans relating to the forest, and that there are not mutually positive things that could come from such a relationship. I don’t agree with that underlying assumption and with the fact that it is disguised and not open to question simply by the use of the term and analogy to“virgin.”
I think the words that we use can circumscribe the possibilities we see, and are important to dialogue and mutual understanding, which is why I have taken the time to point this out. I also have a hard time with the term “rape” (to describe) human intervention in forests, as the key difference between the sacred act mentioned above and “rape” is mutual concurrence. At this point in human and forest development, I am not sure we can listen to the forests and hear them say, “No.” Using that term for forests that can’t say no seems to me that it demeans the term itself, which should remain powerful and specific to the deep violation (a desecration of the above sacred act) that it was originally intended to convey. Since castration is generally thought to be a bad thing regardless of whether it is voluntary or not, I suggest that each person who feels the urge to use sexual analogies for destructive acts by humans on the land substitute the term “castration” for “rape” at least half the time. As in “this timber sale will ultimately continue the Forest Service’s castrate and run policies.”
Because many of the founders and leaders of our professions and sciences were men, and lived in a patriarchal society, I believe we have a responsibility to question the words they used and the worldview that those words convey.
Finally there is the question of how much human intervention would cause a forest to be “deflowered.” Just air pollution? People picking mushrooms? A campground? People having camped there once twenty years ago? Thinning stands of trees? The occurrence of chestnut blight? This is another place where the analogy would break down. In virginity, from the standpoint of biology, it either is or it isn’t (this is a family blog so if we discuss this aspect further perhaps we should use code words), and the middle ground, if any is the land of lawyers, not biologists. In people’s relations with forests, the middle ground is basically all we have to talk about since humans have affected climate, pollution, species introductions, and essentially no forest on the planet exists today without any of these influences.
If you or your agency feel an overwhelming urge to use sexual analogies in dealing with natural resource issues, my advice is- first, push yourself away from the keyboard and then, take a cold shower.