Botkin Chapter 1: The View from the Marsh

Since Botkin did a great job in the introduction of summarizing the whole book, I thought we could go chapter by chapter through the book, and end up with the introduction to see if we missed anything.

So here are some tickler questions:

1) Is there something you strongly agree/disagree with?

2) Is there something that surprised you?

3) Does one of Dan’s stories remind you of a story of your own?

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5 Responses to Botkin Chapter 1: The View from the Marsh

  1. Bob Zybach says:

    I started this book by reading the beginning (Table of Contents, Acknowledgements, and Introduction) and the ending (Postscript, Notes, and Index), and then skipping around here and there based on interesting things in the Notes and Index. Then I started over at the beginning and started slowly going to cover-to-cover, dog-earing and annotating as I go. So far I have made it back through the Introduction and completed Part One and am part-way through Part Two. I have read very few books cover-to-cover in the past 20+ years, and only three novels during that time (Contact and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo trilogy) — mostly what I read are reference books these days, and only the parts I’m interested in. By contrast, in my youth I usually read several books a week, including Hesse, science fiction, biographies, poetry, and even text books cover-to cover. Exodus was the very first book I never finished, and I had been reading for six to eight years by that point. So this is a challenge — albeit a pleasant one — in that regard.

    1) I strongly agree with almost everything Dan writes, and enjoy the way he writes it. I particularly enjoyed his history of ecology. I also enjoyed his point-by-point examination of the deficiencies in predictive models as illustrated by fruit flies, moose, wolves, sandhill cranes, and elephants and the range of geographic locations and times in which these studies take place.

    2) After all of the proof-readings, I was surprised to find a typo/grammatical error on page 21. I was also surprised by the fact that he clearly identifies “foresters, fishermen, and farmers” as important sources of scientific information (p. 78), yet routinely fails to mention “people” when listing “kinds of evidence” (my Masters was in oral histories). For example, when discussing Buell’s work on the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (p. 80) he lists written history, existing forests (yep!), and lake sediments as evidence. I’m guessing oral histories/consultations, photographs, and historical maps were also very important. People keep getting left out of the equation, even by Daniel Botkin of all people.

    3) Yes. Several. I’ve probably already mentioned a few.

  2. Sharon says:

    One of the reasons I felt like we should have a book club on this book is that there is so much in it. I read this chapter four times and each time, different things struck me.

    First of all, the stories about Venice made me want to go there, but also reminded me that humans often act before we can “know” with absolute certainty, that the interventions we are making can work. I am thinking of the modern city of today resting on tree trunks collected so many years ago. And that we sometimes forget that people and nature working together can be beautiful. It seems to have somehow become imbedded in some thinking that people “destroying” nature is the only relationship; as Botkin says on page 6 Kindle “environmentalism of the 60s and 70s was essentially a dispproving and this sense a negative movement, focusing on aspects of our civilization that are bad for the environment. It played an important role by awakening people’s consciousness, but it didn’t provide many solutions to our environmental problems, or even viable approaches to solutions.”

    I would argue that that cast to “the environmental movement” has not changed much. The way I see it, the environmental movement has diverged into groups and issues that continue to follow that path, and others who are more pragmatic and solution-oriented. We can actually watch that in real time on the NCFP blog.. take an issue, say O&C lands. Which environmental groups are proposing solutions, or viable approaches to solutions?

    I too tend to agree with what Dan writes except for a quibble here and there.

    I was surprised to find out about the insect trials .. but not about the idea that they (the insects) were punishing us for our sins. It seems like that is one of the most difficult philosophical questions.. “why do bad things happen?” And since people aren’t 100% good by most measures, God is punishing us is always an answer.

    Nowadays we have the same story.. when bad natural events happen, they tend to be blamed on climate change. Which again is “our fault”. The problem with this is not only what Roger Pielke, Jr. says here..

    Further, don’t try associating a single event with human-caused climate change — whether it is an extreme snowstorm in Washington, DC (leading an enthusiastic Senator to build an igloo and name it “Al Gore’s New Home,” below) or rainfall in Colorado. If you want to detect changes in climate you have to look at long-term records. In Boulder at least, the long-term records do not indicate much change at all in the incidence of extreme rainfall exceeding 2 inches in one day

    The insect trials also reminded me of animal law (from Wikipedia)

    ” parallel to the debate about moral rights, animal law is now widely taught in law schools in North America, and several prominent legal scholars[who?] support the extension of basic legal rights and personhood to at least some animals. The animals most often considered in arguments for personhood are bonobos and chimpanzees. This is supported by some animal rights academics because it would break through the species barrier, but opposed by others because it predicates moral value on mental complexity, rather than on sapience alone.[7]”

    Now the way Botkin talks about it, the insect trials were not rational.. so I think it wise to delve into “what is rational” as not being as clear as one might think. And our philosophies, theologies and worldviews are all connected, and the information we collect and claim as “science” is in service to those philosophies. Not something that stands alone outside of human structures. If you don’t believe this, try taking the science budget of the federal government and having different stakeholder groups (health, forests, agriculture) prioritize it.

    I was interested in what Botkin had to say about George Perkins Marsh and the idea of constancy. It’s interesting that Marsh argued for forest regulation..

    In an 1847 speech to a local Vermont agricultural society, he warned farmers that they continued clearing the land of trees at their own peril and described responsible forest management practices already in use in Europe. By regulating when and how many trees were cut, timbermen and farmers could improve the health of the forest and nearby agricultural land.

    In the 1847 speech, which presaged his book, Man and Nature, Marsh said that “Steep hillsides and rocky ledges are well suited to the permanent growth of wood, but when in the rage for improvement they are improvidently stripped of this protection, the action of sun and wind and rain soon deprives them of their vegetable mould . . . They remain thereafter barren . . . producing neither grain nor grass.”

    Yet Marsh’s ideas have somehow lead to the concept that no cutting by humans is good and removal of trees by fire that leaves hillsides bare is good. So there is an added misanthropic bent since the time of Marsh.

    The actual observations (of environmental problems) are easy to think about; the idea of constancy, not so much. So I wondered, were Marsh and Darwin contemporaries and if so, how did Darwin’s work influence this idea of constancy?
    Here’s what I found in this..

    Marsh’s European experiences gave impetus to his desire to codify discoverable knowledge in this field, and he wrote Man and Nature while posted to Rome. The conceptualization and data-gathering was substantially complete by 1860, just as Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, published the year before, was attracting attention. (Marsh thought that Darwin did not give sufficient play to human influence on nature as a shaping force of natural processes.)

    So it seems that evolution and Marsh’s ideas have long been not clearly fitting together. Marsh seems to be saying “too much use can destroy the environment” which is one message.. and “the environment is constant” which is another message and the one that doe not fit very well with Darwin’s observations. Even today these ideas get conflated.

    Here’s another quote.. that could be from today

    Thus, his solemn warnings, spoken from 1864, which have undiminished relevance to us today: “Even now…we are breaking up the floor and wainscoting and doors and window frames of our dwelling, for fuel to warm our bodies and seethe our pottage.” Such wanton and heedless use of the planet’s forests, he said, meant that earth was “fast becoming an unfit home for its noblest inhabitant…Another era of equal human crime and human improvidence…would reduce it to such a condition of impoverished productiveness, of shattered surface, of climatic excess, as to threaten the depravation, barbarism, and perhaps even extinction of the [human] species.” A proto-ecologist, Marsh also said: “The [exact relations]…of animal and vegetable life is too complicated a problem for human intelligence to solve, and we can never know how wide a circle of disturbance we produce in the harmonies of nature when we throw the smallest pebble into the ocean of organic life.”

    It seems to me that this last idea.. “anything that humans do might have unpredictable and catastrophic consequences” is still in the scientific literature from time to time. But it is interesting to note when it shows up in policy (timber harvesting, a technology we’ve been observing over centuries) and when it does not (biotechnology and nanotechnology). To me, observing these differences makes me wonder what it is that lies behind the differences in policy.

  3. Pablo Korach says:

    Enjoyed reading capter one because it catches immeditely the interest of the reader
    but what is the most important issue that shoould be tackled firt in the order of import.ance
    In my opinion it should be a subject regarding the discredit of the forest industries
    and the insane attacks that we only seem to have. Since the spotted owl syndrome we have been loosers most of the time. the question is why us? There are dozens of industries that are more contaminatoing, non renewable, where the health of the workers is in risk and where the nergy needed to make them usable exceeds largely others that use far more energy than we do
    which is ten times more.
    So why did our ememies choose our industry as most favorable to attack
    1) because we are not united to claim for our rights and it seems that we do not use the same tactics ( for example lobbying.) When I read that some realistic writes in your page post that
    we are a decadent industry is because we have been contaminated by the most efective
    tools ever used:.: the environmen. Our enemies with far smaller resources than we have have managed to beat us convincing people that we are the devils by cutting down the trees
    and not only they have succeeded with the adults but they have contaminated our children.
    At school the children that have fathers who are in the forest industries try to hide it in front of their fellow students. The harm has been done and to solve this problem we need to come up
    with an innovative answer proving that really we are the opposit of this feeling. Of course
    they have been able to participate in our industry by the certifications where they are
    allowed to inspect our homes (our forests to see what we are doing anddictate whether it is right or wrong.
    ¿Do we have the same authority to inspect their homes to see if what they are doing personally
    is what they tell us what and how we should do it? Are we permitted
    to see what they are doing with the mpney income from these certifications?
    What have these certifications meant to our rndustries? Higher costs for us andour clients
    The closing of many small andmedium class sawmills that are unable to pay for these fees
    So from this point of view they are the badboys , not us. But to convince the general public of this we have to come up with an innovation that we become the good boy. Well this is a tough problem where everybody shouldbe invited to participáte.
    At this time I will propose my solution but certainly it is not the only one
    My solution is to discover a technology where the yield of lumber from small diameter logs
    is improved to the double of what we are gettingtoday
    But let us hear other possibilities!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. Sharon says:

    Pablo, I am not an expert on this (but others on the blog are)..but I think many mills have converted to using small logs in the western US already.

    I don’t know why the timber industry has been singled out. I have been comparing it to the oil and gas industry, which is significant here in Colorado. But the Sierra Club has not said “no commercial oil and gas extraction on public lands”… one could argue that it is more environmentally problematic than cutting trees. Anyone who has ideas about this, feel free to chime in.

  5. Bob Zybach says:

    Hi Pablo: Your comments make me very curious as to who you are and what your background is. Would you mind providing a brief history of yourself and your education as Sharon, Travis, and I have done? Here is the link:

    Thanks! I enjoy reading your posts and trying to figure out what you are getting at (and who you are, exactly)!

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