Murderers of Old Men

giant redwoodsI remember reading a tragic news article once about two men, aged 102 and 99, who were shot to death while attending the funeral of their friend, who’d died at 100. It seemed more unfair than just the average terrible murder. To kill someone who’d made it so far just seemed not only a crime against them but also a crime against humanity, and a crime against nature itself.

But I feel this same sense of injustice whenever I read of someone logging unprotected redwoods, trees th08at have been fighting the odds for 500 years or more to live out their lives. What kind of person could kill a 500-year-old tree?

For that matter, just logging in an “average” old-growth forest, with trees merely 100 or 150 or 200 years old still seems to me a crime.

Of course, we can’t do away with logging altogether, obviously. Not even an avid environmentalist could advocate that.

But we can certainly agree not to log in our national forests, and we can agree that we need to rely more on tree farms than on virgin forests.

When I went to the Muir Woods near San Francisco for the first time, I had two simultaneous, overwhelming impressions. First, of course, was a sense of awe being in the presence of life that had been thriving since even before my ancestors came to this country in 1650. Many of those trees had lived throughout my entire lifetime, and the lifetime of my father, and of his father, and his father, and his father, and back several more generations beyond that.
What kind of person does it take not to be overwhelmed with a sense of respect for a life like that?

But my other deeply felt impression that day was one of dismay. The Muir Woods covered an extremely small area, a few measly acres among what were previously many countless acres of these trees.

It’s not that I only appreciate nature and shrug my shoulders at civilization. When I went to Paris, I was equally impressed with the art in the Louvre and with the gothic Notre Dame and with Sainte Chapelle, a church built almost 800 years ago which still to this day has never developed a single crack because it was so well constructed.
Anything that has survived so long deserves respect and deserves preservation.

But when it involves an actual life, how can we dismiss it so carelessly?

Trees are not humans. They are not even an animal species. But they are alive, and even if they weren’t an indispensable part of the ecosystem, they deserve to live out their lives naturally, at least as much as our industrial society can allow.

I eat beef, so I understand one life living off another. Even vegetarians eat plants and so live off of other lives, too. It is impossible not to kill some members of other species in order to maintain our own lives. And trees are certainly no exception.

But there are alternatives to clear-cutting the land. There are alternatives to destroying old-growth forests.

Johnny TownsendWe can live at least a little more fully in harmony with nature than we do now. All environmentalists are asking is that we make an effort.

Or are we really the type of person who can shoot a 102-year-old man and let it have no effect on our conscience? It’s an important question.

I’m hoping deep down that we are better than the murderers of old men.

Johnny Townsend

Johnny Townsend earned an MFA in fiction writing from Louisiana State University. He has published stories and essays in Newsday, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Humanist, The Progressive, Christopher Street, The Massachusetts Review, Harrington Gay Men’s Literary Quarterly, Glimmer Train, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Sunstone, and in the anthology In Our Lovely Deseret: Mormon Fictions. He has also spoken at the Sunstone symposium in Salt Lake on the subject of gay Mormon literature. His latest work is Zombies for Jesus.


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