Southern Maryland’s forest canopy of bright green, spring foliage had thickened into summer’s darker hues, and the forest rang with the liquid song of one of my favorite birds, the wood thrush, sounding over the swelling chorus of other birds and din of crickets.
We used to hear whip-poor-wills and the chuck-will’s-widows each spring. As our forests have disappeared under development, they are heard no more.
Ecologically, this is the season when the successes and/or struggles of many bird species is determined for the coming year. At this time, human intruders are barred from protected forests like Belt Woods, the last remnant of Maryland’s once primeval forest. Of the dozen ground-nesting types of birds in our area, six are “forest interior” species, which require the large parcels of trees found in these tracts to thrive.
Recently, while sailing north on the Patuxent River—her banks dark with vegetation where just a few months there were only naked boughs—I saw a tall plume of black smoke rising over the forest to the east against an otherwise clear blue sky. As soon as I could gain moorings and secure my boat, I drove to find the source of this disturbing sight.
In barely five miles, I came upon a scene of mechanized destruction which drew an involuntary cry of disappointment from me. A parcel of once-rolling forest was being destroyed.
As an ecologist, I’m naturally sensitive to this stuff, but this scene was one of unusually sudden devastation: I had visited this spot only a few days earlier, when it was still an unbroken woodland.
The face of the forest, with its tall, close-grown trees, was exposed by the clearing. Large equipment was tearing it away: The understory trees whipping about before being brought down with a crash. Heavy bulldozers pushed the remains into large piles which were quickly ignited in several great funeral pyres. The flames leapt 20 and 30 feet. Bare earth, once forest floor covered with the duff and topsoil of decades, was exposed over 13 acres.
Forest loss is a lesson I am now certain we have not, and will perhaps never, learn around the Chesapeake as this extermination of a supporting natural system has been carried out again and again.
Humanity used wood resources long before recorded history, and it’s arguable that without timber, civilization might have been impossible. Ancient historians Pliny and Lucretius concluded that wood was “indispensable for carrying on life.” But growing societies—one after another—have abused this resource to the vanishing point or until it was in critically short supply, all the while with only the most rudimentary inkling of ecological consequence.
One of the earliest recorded legends of the Mediterranean region was the Sumerian tale of Gilgamesh, its source thousands of years in the distant past.
In the story, Enil, the principal Sumerian diety, sent the demigod Humbaba to guard the forests, where “the cedars raise aloft their luxuriance.” Men feared to enter these dark places until Gilgamesh announced: “I will fell the cedars!” using “mighty adzes” and “axes of three talents (weight).”
In the ensuing battle, Humbaba was beheaded, “civilization” was victorious and: “For two miles you could hear the sad song of the cedars” as men cleared the forest, “stripping the mountains of their cover.” In response, Enil sent down an ecological curse upon them all.
Over the next millennia, other societies followed Gilgamesh’s example, rose to heights and power hitherto unimaginable and imploded, partly as a result of their destruction of the forest.
Wood enabled the extraction of metals in early cultures. A shipload of copper (for bronze)—about 200 ingots—took about 24,000 pine trees to produce.
Modern historians note that during the late Bronze Age, wood used for smelting bronze on Cyprus became so scarce that not only were old tools recycled, but pieces of iron in the slag were manually collected rather than melted out. It has been suggested that the discovery of these iron fragments’ strength may have signaled the beginning of the transition into the Iron Age.
Forest loss had all the secondary consequences as those of today’s Chesapeake: the erosion of soil, as well as its drying and compacting to the point where it no longer absorbs rain and is virtually an impervious surface.
Near the Mideast, erosion eventually filled in seaports like Scamander Bay, the port which supported Troy in the late Bronze Age. The Scamander’s estuary eventually filled in a mile and a half, and the ancient city-state was abandoned. The same thing happened at the seacoast cities of Myus and Priene in the 5th century B.C.
Excavations of sites in the ancient world have found signs of fuel constraints: the construction of houses designed for passive solar heat gain in the colder months, including walls to the north and open courts facing the south. Socrates was an advocate of this practice.
Wood was so scarce in some cultures that people took the woodwork with them when fleeing invaders. Others renting new quarters had to bring their own doors and lintels.
Quite like modern societies faced with energy costs and supply limits, many cultures sought to control or exploit the resources of others. Athens sent 10,000 colonists to Amphiopolis in 465 B.C. to secure what they envisioned as a permanent supply of fir and pine.
In addition, Athenian pottery required clean steady heat and high kiln temperatures, a process that is more easily achieved with charcoal than wood. The manufacture of charcoal involves wasting much of the energy contained in the original timber’s volatile components and is even more consumptive than simply logging for firewood. (The rough men who followed this trade were described by the dramatist Aristophenes as being “hard in grain” as the maple and oak they burned as part of their trade.)
The Athenian colonists were slaughtered during an uprising by the indigenous peoples, a much larger event than the two Virginia massacres of 1622 and 1644 carried out by Native Americans faced with England’s incursions into North America.
The Peloponnesian wars, 431–404 B.C. were fought partly over wood resources, which were used in the battles.
Athens’ primary fleet of 300 ships required much Amphipolitan timber not only to build, but also maintain. When the fleet was destroyed and the massacre cut off this timber supply, Attica (Greece) was vulnerable to invasion by Sparta. The Spartans not only cut down timber in Attica territory, which led to massive erosion during deluge rains the next year, but the muddy marshes enabled an epidemic to sweep through cities crowded with refugees.
The remaining forests were ravaged to construct the towers and fortifications used as siege engines and defense works. Megara and Plataea fell, the latter after the Spartans hurled brush over its walls, followed by sulfur, pitch and torches. It ignited a firestorm that one observer claimed was the “largest blaze ever set by man.”
As Athens receded into history, the lessons of the forests’ devastation were completely forgotten.
Italy in 600 B.C. was blessed with great primeval timber resources, and Rome, itself, originated from an ancient forest setting. The Latin poet Virgil wrote: “Silvius of Alban name, thy last born child Lavinia shall bring up in a woodland, a king and father of kings; from him shall our race have sway.” The mother of Rome’s legendary founders—Romulus and Remus—was attributed to Rhea Silvia. “Silvia” meaning forest dweller.
Rome’s first buildings, including the first house in which its Senate sat, were made of sticks woven together and bound with the same wattle and daub method used thousands of years later by English colonists at Jamestown. Rome preserved this relic until the time of Ovid, to remind citizens of their woodland origins, much as we have reconstructed such buildings to recall our U.S. origins. Somehow over time, Rome’s revered relic was lost.
Through the third century B.C., all of the roofs of Roman structures were made of wood from her forests. In addition, fir and beech logs were exported for shipbuilding.
The forests disappeared as the population and the need for agricultural crops grew. Pliny wrote: “Earth that is unanimously spoken highly of is the kind…usually found where an old forest has been felled.” Thus it was in Colonial America’s swidden agriculture, patterned after that of the Native Americans.
“Day by day [farming] compelled the woods to retreat farther,” Lucretius. wrote. Appenine fir trees from the foothills outside Rome were especially valuable to builders in the first century B.C. But a century later, Pliny wrote that adequate forest could only be found “high up on the mountains as though it had run away from the sea.” By the time Caesar and Agrippa were marching into Germany, Romans were astounded by stories recounting the impenetrability of German forests and the size of the timber there, as if there had never been anything like that in their own backyard.
Laminated beams replaced large single timbers in construction at Pompeii as long timbers became scarce. Wheat straw was burnt in Campania in place of wood to free up timber for other uses.
Wood shortages plagued Rome and its glassmakers by the first century, and conservation measures included scouring the city for broken glass shards to recycle, a process that took much less heat energy than making new glass. Much of Italy’s glassworks were moved to the province of Gaul partly as a result of fuel availability.
Metalworking similarly, when usable ores were found, was moved to provinces where there was also wood for the smelting furnaces. Wood rapidly began to disappear.
Stripping the land opened it to erosion and rivers ran with mud. Rome’s harbor at Ostia, for example, became useless and larger ships were forced to anchor in exposed waters of the Mediterranean. One of the first recorded instances of dredging occurred in an attempt to keep this harbor open to shipping. How like the Chesapeake’s many small river harbors lost thousands of years later to the same cause. How like today’s perceived need for dredging the channels and harbors in our Bay.
Philosophers and men of the leisure class in Rome began, too late, to realize the value and beauty of forests. The poet Seneca wrote: “A grove that is full of ancient trees…grown to an unusual height…and the thick unbroken shade…will prove to you the existence of God.”
In Venice, during the era of the great Mediterranean city-states, Giuseppe Paolini in 1601, wrote and published graphic woodcuts of deforestation in the city’s mountainous hinterlands. First the trees were cut, then farmers and landowners burnt the slash and undergrowth, then the denuded landscape was stripped of its valuable soils in subsequent rains.
England, by the time Henry VIII became king should long have learned to conserve its resources, but one observer reported seeing 37 ships called “hoys” carrying wood to northern France from Essex. “No lack of timber was felt or feared,” contemporaries noted as smelting iron alone consumed 117,000 cords of wood (about 15,000,000 cubic feet) annually by the 1540s. Good oak was better than simple cordwood for smelting. Between 1560 and 1587, Derbyshire lead mines consumed more than 178,000 oaks, about 93 percent of the region’s woodlands.
Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I, confronted by the wealth and expansionist plans of Spain, was urged by her advisers to increase the country’s metallurgy industry which required immense wood resources.
Heavy English warships, which defeated Spain’s Great Armada in 1588, were built to withstand the shock of escalating armaments and also took their toll on the nation’s forests. Historian John Perlin, in his book, “Forest Journey,” stated that a large warship consumed 2,000 oak trees. The repair of four naval ships required 1,740 trees, an estimated 2,000 tons of timber, according to Perlin.
The continued construction of naval and merchant fleets eventually gave England world dominance of the seas, although it decimated her forests.
The lifestyle of King Charles I left him in constant need of money, and he all but ignited a bidding war for his nation’s woodlands. The loss of some forests were so unpopular that the public protests and riots ensued. Charles’ response was to sell woodlands “for our (the king’s) best profit.”
In 1655, one year after he sold the Forest of Dean, only 40,281 of 128,657 enumerated trees remained.
What better model of behavior for adventurers in the New World could one have than their sovereign? The resource awaiting harvest across the Atlantic was, after all, completely inexhaustible.
All of these lessons in history were recorded for subsequent generations to read and learn. Many of the colonists and our founding fathers were perfectly able to read the Greek and Latin accounts, but the lessons went unheeded, and the litany of errors continues.
Four centuries later, we have soundly disproved the premise of inexhaustibility. Today’s towns, malls and developments say a lot about what we’ve allowed to happen: Willow Grove, Willow Woods, Aspen Hills , Forestville, Greenbelt, Oakland, Washington Grove, Laurel, Lothian Woods all bear the names of the beautiful ecological resources largely consumed in their building.
The fires I witnessed from the Patuxent were still pluming skyward later in the day, as heavy grading equipment began to level the topography, taking away nature’s landscape, sculpted over the last hundreds of thousands of years to turn it into an anchor supermarket with eight accessory stores totaling 100,000 square feet—plus acres of impervious tarmac paving. One of these units will be a much needed gas station, there being only two others within several hundred feet! Surely the oldest, a family-run service station that has been there for decades, will suffer.
A competition among developers and flaws in zoning is resulting in three separate shopping centers within a few hundred yards of each other. There are two more within four miles. Each has swallowed either old-growth woodland or former agricultural fields under the county’s widely awarded planning and zoning regulations.
The Calvert County environment planner responded to my inquiry by stating that this area is a predetermined “town center” open to development regardless of the nature of its woodlands. Once the master plan criteria are met, the county does not control how development is carried out. There had, after all, been meetings with the citizens. The recording secretary of a citizen’s group, however, noted their unwavering opposition to the project from its earliest stage.
No matter what the political, engineering or environmental negotiations over these projects and their ilk, the ecosystem always loses. They all chip away, well, really whack away, at the basin’s remaining forests and natural resources.
From the point of view of the Chesapeake Bay, which has existed for 10,000 years, forest—old growth forest—is the “highest and best use” of landscape. You can plant baby trees in buffers or backyards at taxpayer expense all you want, you can turn agricultural fields back into “meadows” or even into “restored” wetlands, but we will never, ever reverse the decline of the Chesapeake Bay while these activities, and the flux of people with their energy and space demands, continues in this watershed.