Signs of Dementia

I stood this winter with my hiking companion Josh Brown at the threshold of the Headwaters Forest, cause celebre of California’s forest protection movement in the 1990s. The preserve encompasses five square miles of unlogged ancient forest, said to be a showpiece of monster ferns and cathedral-like groves. But the government’s sign said that we’d come as far as we’re allowed. No messy public on these public lands, thanks.

We’d hit a dead end in more ways than one. The no-people sign is the culmination of a trend that has sought to protect wild nature by banning more and more human activities from the landscape — first hunting, then horseback riding, mountain biking, and now, finally, walking. It’s a dead end, as well, for our connection with the rest of nature. If the very presence of people is problematic, then our species — and the future of our relationship with the planet we live on — is in deep trouble.

Many environmentalists promote this way of thinking, explicitly or not. But their approach sets people and nature against each other. Instead of envisioning people as one species among many, it perpetuates a philosophy of human exceptionalism that — reflected through other prisms — becomes the rampant exploitation of nature’s gifts. If you believe that humans are an exception to the rule, it’s just as easy to decide that we deserve more than the other few billion species as it is to determine that we should be sequestered away from them for their protection.

This blindness to humans as a species at large in nature is ridiculously widespread. A respected scientific report on the ecological role of salmon in Pacific Northwest forests catalogued 137 species that rely on salmon runs as a regular part of their diet. The 138th species, which no one thought to mention? Human beings. In another study, ecologists tried to quantify how much nitrogen and phosphorus was delivered to salmon-bearing watersheds by predators and scavengers eating salmon carcasses and then depositing their scat in the woods. The researchers scrupulously estimated the amount of salmon that was consumed by native peoples in prehistoric times — and deducted those nutrients from what was available to the soil. What did they think the Indians did with their shit, lob it into outer space? Once those nutrients flowed into a human digestive tract, they became invisible to science.

But I digress. There Josh and I were, standing at the edge of the old-growth forest. If we hadn’t already known the score, it would’ve been a serious disappointment to hike this far and find ourselves barred from the ancient forest. When the land was still in the hands of Pacific Lumber, Josh defied company security and trespassed here. He established and occupied tree-sits long before they were fashionable, and was one of hundreds of activists who staved off logging while legal challenges and public pressure led politicians to buy the land and protect it. So there was certainly a temptation to hike on.

Since the public purchase in 1999 of the ancient grove and over 4,000 acres of surrounding younger forest, the federal Bureau of Land Management has kept the old-growth forest closed to the public. Docent-led hikes are available, but even those lead only to a vista point where the venerable forest can be seen but not touched. Last year, the agency floated a plan to open up a couple of short trails on the edges of the old-growth forest, but still intends to keep the core of the ancient groves off-limits to the public. Even those modest proposals have drawn fire from the environmental groups that spearheaded the drive to protect the forest. They would prefer to keep hikers out entirely — let’s not even talk about mountain bikers and equestrians!

In the debate over public access, some lean on scientific rationales while others admit to more visceral motives. The biological justification for the ban is to protect the marbled murrelet, an endangered seabird that flies inland to nest on moss-covered branches high in the redwood canopy. Humans, according to lore, don’t play well with murrelets. Hikers bring food with them and leave scraps behind. Their litter attracts ravens, crows and jays, which also like to snack on murrelet eggs and chicks. Plus, people make noise, which is said to disrupt the success of murrelet nesting even at a distance of a quarter-mile. With murrelet populations in the state hovering in the mid-thousands, that’s a source of some concern.

But scratch beneath the surface, and forest activists admit they never wanted Headwaters Forest to be opened to hikers. “One of the ideas I had in helping to save Headwaters was that it would be untouched,” says Josh. “So many groves of ancient redwoods are accessible — why not let one of them be inaccessible and let it do what it has always done?”

Karen Pickett of Earth First! and the Bay Area Coalition for Headwaters is even more direct. “If I had my druthers, the place would be entirely off-limits to human beings,” she says. As author of the coalition’s comments on the BLM plan, she pressed the agency to ratchet down visitors’ access to the old-growth trees even further than the agency proposed. “Examples abound of areas that have been trampled and compacted,” she wrote, “wildlife that has been frightened away by potential observers, and areas and species that have been ‘loved to death.’ Keeping visitors out of the old growth with sufficient explanation provides an opportunity for important public education.”

Strip away the rationales, and her perspective comes down to this: humans contaminate nature. That’s a scary proposition. Sure, some human behaviors don’t belong in the forest. But along with the prophet who urged his audience to hate the sin but not the sinner, I hold onto the hope of redemption for Homo sapiens — or, more prosaically, to the belief that human beings can be forest-broken given enough training and discipline. I’m not arguing for recreation as the guiding principle of forest management, but I refuse to believe that I am doomed to go through life as a contaminant.

Josh and I ate our lunch on a redwood stump at the end of the logging road. It was big enough for both of us to stretch out on, and we gazed down the Elk River valley to Humboldt Bay and the Pacific beyond. “The places where I’ve been most at peace,” Josh told me, “are the ones where the hand of humans has been the lightest and the gentlest.”

I asked him if he had ever visited a wild place near my home, a couple dozen miles away. Known as Rainbow Ridge, its mosaic of coastal prairie and unlogged forest is still owned by Pacific Lumber, and the trees are falling steadily to the chainsaw. He has, and thinks it’s beautiful. He had helped with a campaign to halt the logging there, too. I shared a fact I’d recently learned: that Rainbow’s intricate pattern of grassland and forest is the product of centuries of intentional fires, set first by the native peoples, and later by ranchers who sought to keep the land open for grazing. People had shaped that landscape for centuries, as surely as had the Douglas-fir, the pocket gophers, and the brome grasses. Human influence was significant, but it met the other species on their own terms, not as the sole superpower. So maybe, I offered, there’s a chance that human presence — or even human intervention — does not necessarily taint the landscape.

We packed away what remained of our sandwich fixings and contemplated the tall trees to the east and south. Let’s face it: we hadn’t come this far merely to glimpse the ancient forest. The inconsistency of Josh’s stance troubled me a bit — he’d be happy to close off the forest to the public, but there we were hiking into it, admittedly at my suggestion. I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt for the moment.

We were probably flouting some provision of federal law, but Josh braved far harsher challenges to get here when the land was owned by Pacific Lumber Company and patrolled by hired guards. Josh has hiked into the grove a couple dozen times, but he hadn’t entered it since 1999 when the purchase of the forest was consummated and he guided an Associated Press photographer to the end of the road to snap a shot of what the taxpayers had just acquired for a cool $380 million. Even after four years, he wound his way expertly through the terrain. “We’d always use the same trail,” he recalled, so as not to trample new paths through the forest. Every so often, he ducked suddenly to avoid a web that a spider has woven across the path. If every hiker were as careful, it wouldn’t matter if this grove saw a few visitors now and then.

Josh’s long absence from Headwaters didn’t surprise me, because I’d heard similar stories from a number of other activists. Their civilly disobedient occupation of the forest stanched the logging while political support grew to protect the land, but few had been back since the acquisition. I began to understand that the luster of Headwaters might have faded now that it was public land. As we picked our way through the chest-high ferns and tried to discern the rapidly vanishing trail amid the lush understory, Josh told me how different it seemed compared to the era when hiking in Headwaters meant trespassing and risking arrest. It’s odd, he said, to be able to park at the end of the paved road and start hiking in broad daylight. When the property was still owned by Pacific Lumber and he was trying to deter the company from logging it, he would get dropped off in the dark of night. “If we weren’t totally quiet, like if we rattled the gate, the dogs would go off, and the neighbors would come down and tell us they’d called the sheriff,” he recalled.

His sentiments echoed those I’d heard from another activist, musician Francine Allen, who had helped to scout Headwaters Forest for protest encampments. “It’s weird to walk along talking so loud. We used to keep practically silent,” she remembered. “Now it’s too easy, too simple to get here.”

Hearing their stories reminded me of times I had scouted similar forests myself. Crossing a meadow, I would hug the edge of the treeline, as a rabbit might do for fear of hawks. I perceived myself as prey. In timber company territory, we weren’t quite at the top of the food chain any more. We had to shrink our boisterous presence. The blade of fear forced us to abandon our ordinary style and rendered us forest-broken.

Josh and I spent four hours in Headwaters Forest that day, from the time we hiked in after lunch until we emerged onto the logging road again. We made a pilgrimage to a spring he calls Agua Dulce, and to Postcard Grove — the stand of trees where the most famous publicity photo of Headwaters was taken. It is an utterly magical place, so far away from the world of automobiles and terrorist alerts. By the time we left the tall trees, we realized that we hadn’t eaten during the entire time we’d been in the ancient forest. We pulled snacks out of our knapsacks and fell to.

In the pleasure of replenishing lost calories, I realized that we had inadvertently practiced an etiquette that respects the marbled murrelet. We had visited after nesting season was over, and we kept our food scraps out of the ancient forest, avoiding the possibility that we would attract the predators that devastate murrelet nests. In effect, we observed a fast while we were in the forest, which served an ecological function to boot. If we had done it on purpose, it could have been an element in a conscious practice to shift our focus and awareness in preparation for entering the forest. It could have set our trip into the forest apart from our everyday. In the absence of timber company goons, fasting in Headwaters may be the pathway to awe, humility, and mindfulness.

To the north, in Oregon’s Coast Range, the beaver was trapped nearly to extinction in the 19th century. As a result, the streams lack for beaver ponds, which had served as important rearing pools for juvenile salmon. Excluding any one species affects the system in unpredictable ways. If we hang a Do Not Disturb sign at the forest gate, both forest and people may be the poorer for it.

Seth Zuckerman’s writing has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, Orion Afield, and on the pages of, where he is chief correspondent. He is at work on a book about the false divide between people and the rest of nature. His last essay for OrionOnline was The Klamath Debacle in our From the Front feature.