Editor’s Note: It is not enough to consider short-term productivity when we talk about restoration of the natural world. It is imperative that we talk about how the landscape will be in the future, hundreds, maybe thousands, of years from today. Only then will we be talking about true sustainability, or about true restoration.

By Austin Pearsons

Our actions today determine our options tomorrow. This is as good a time as any to ask ourselves hard questions. To look around, to look inward. How are our choices impacting future generations? What will be our legacy? Will the children of tomorrow benefit from our actions today? Will our grandchildren thank us for our dedication and foresight? Our grandchildren’s grandchildren? Will there be abundance or will there be scarcity? The answer hinges on us in the present.

Many of our cultural predecessors practiced the seven generation principle or something like it. They recognized that the conditions we inherit in this lifetime have been determined by the actions of those who came before us; from seven generations ago until now. They acknowledged that the decisions made today reach far into the future; affecting those yet unborn for seven generations (there are many interpretations). Today we are imperiled by widespread pollution, water contamination, chronic inflammatory diseases, global pandemics, escalating rates of deforestation, extinction and biodiversity loss, ocean acidification and collapsing fish stocks, massive uncontrollable wildfires, insect and diseases outbreaks decimating forests, loss of soil fertility paralyzing our global agricultural systems, food insecurity, sea level rise, climate chaos, flooding, drought, inflation, debt, war, and on and on and on. This is the legacy of our ancestors which we have inherited. I often wonder if we will last seven generations more.

If we are to secure a livable future for the generations to come, we must adjust our way of thinking, acting, and being. The solutions to the crises we face are less complex than we are often led to believe. Let’s break it down. Pollution, biodiversity loss, and climate change are our big problems to solve. In solving them, we can address every related problem of our time (governmental corruption, corporate greed, and media collusion are beyond the scope of this analysis).

I cannot claim to be a global expert so I will stick to what we can do right here in Appalachia which can, in fact, go a long way towards resolving global challenges. It is worth noting that Appalachia is the largest temperate deciduous forest on earth, among the most biodiverse regions on the continent of North America (and the world). A resilient forest that once stretched, nearly unbroken, from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean, from the Gulf of Mexico to Quebec. The chestnuts, chinquapins, oaks, hickories, walnuts, hazels, maples, countless species of berries and tree fruits, roots, herbs, fish and game provided abundant proteins, carbohydrates, fats, sugars, nutrients, and medicines to the indigenous peoples who were inseparable co-creators of the forests. Some peoples supplemented their diets with diverse varieties of corn, beans and squash (and other cultivated crops) as well. They did this all without factories, steel, internal combustion engines, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, plastics, fossil fuels, electricity, or the internet. The picture I am painting is of a landscape unfragmented by cities, suburbia, fences, and roads, where water was clean enough to drink, where ancient trees freely gave hundreds, often thousands, of pounds of food to any and all year after year for centuries on end with no need to fertilize, till, spray, or tax – all while improving soil fertility, sequestering carbon and protecting water quality. Food was always close at hand: no need to ship it from California, Mexico, Indonesia or Brazil. Medicine was freely available to those who were sick. Clothing, canoes, string, sealant and shoes grew on trees, in wetlands and fields – even walked about on four legs. The forests were chemists and cooks, providers of heat, they built homes, insulated, and illuminated them too. When I consider these things, I question the wisdom of our current paradigm.

The way we practice agriculture today is the leading cause of biodiversity loss, deforestation, topsoil erosion, and the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses globally. The methods are efficient by some standards and the food produced is calorically rich, perhaps, but nutritionally poor and loaded with poison. It causes us innumerable health problems such as food allergies, irritable bowel syndrome, tooth decay, obesity, and diabetes. Agriculture, as practiced today separates us from the land, from our food, and causes hopeless dependence on the very systems that are exploiting and polluting our bodies, watersheds, ecosystems, and the planet. Conventional agriculture decreases the genetic diversity of our crop species and decreases the diversity of food that we have access to. If we wanted to stop eating roundup-ready genetically modified corn, soy, and rice, most of us would starve. We argue incessantly over jobs, and obsess over our fitness regimes, but if we took a shovel and a hoe and planted our lawns with food, we would be healthy, wealthy, and wise in no time. If we planted them with chestnuts and cherries, pecans and persimmons, our grandchildren might not face the problems we do.

Locally we farm hay, grains like corn and wheat, and cows on our most productive lands – lands that once supported thousands of plants and animals per acre. The productivity of our local agriculture declines over time as soil fertility washes downslope. Why not apply the principles of regenerative / restoration agriculture, agroecology, or closely related permaculture? The benefits of replacing conventional agriculture with diverse perennial polycultures have been demonstrated all over the world, often in more challenging conditions than those encountered here in Appalachia? Millions now replicate successful strategies worked out by indigenous peoples everywhere and described by: Yeoman, Fukuoka, Mollison, Holmgren, Shepard, Smith, Holzer, Gotsch, and so many more. There are countless documented approaches to growing food that are vastly more productive and resilient than industrial agriculture. If we applied these principles instead, we could grow more (and more nutritionally dense) food per acre, with less inputs, and labor that decreases over time while yields simultaneously increase. Intact forests would sequester carbon while feeding people, improving soil fertility, cleaning our waters and decreasing the forest fragmentation which endangers the irreplaceable biodiversity that defines Appalachia. Most importantly, by reconciling our relation to the land, we take responsibility for the future that our grandchildren will inherit, giving them a chance to prosper in what seems an uncertain and perilous future.

Our forestry paradigm is an extension of industrial agriculture. While it has (arguably) been changing for the better it still looks at forests in terms of dollars and board-feet. More troublesome yet, the benefits from cutting the trees of Appalachia’s forests don’t remain in the area, but line the pockets of far away lumber barons who ship it to distant markets where they have already exhausted their forests. Each timber harvest releases carbon into the atmosphere and disrupts the complex web of life in the soil, exposing it to erosive forces, reducing forest biodiversity above and below ground, and introducing invasive species. Mature forests are more species rich and resilient than those that grow back after logging. Ancient trees are critical genetic banks who carry the wisdom to survive changing climate, insect and disease pressures and who transfer those abilities to future generations. They also support more species of birds, insects, amphibians, reptiles, mammals, fungi, and other plants, produce more food and sequester more carbon than younger trees. It is now known that old trees nurture the young and the weak through the mycorrhizal network that connects the entire forest. When we harvest the biggest and healthiest trees in the forest, we destroy the communication and support network that is hidden below ground. Should we not revere the old giants of the forest who have been here longer than us? Should we not offer the wonderment and spiritual presence of old-growth forests to future generations? Should we not learn from their teachings of generosity, reciprocity, persistence, intra- and inter-species cooperation for the good of the whole – for intergenerational prosperity? There is great wisdom in the soil, in the forest community, and if we are wise we will pay close attention.

If you believe that there is a better way, I assure you that you’re right. If you feel powerless to do anything about it, you are not alone, but you are incorrect. We can all make small adjustments to our lifestyles, paying attention to the choices we make each day. Collectively, such actions can make a difference, but it will not be enough if we do not affect larger systems change. There is much we can do to protect what little remains and to restore what has been lost, but we must come together. We must take responsibility for the future, we must shift our perspective, we must collaborate. This human-centered, narcissistic, capitalistic, punitive, infinite growth paradigm that we have inherited is unsustainable, unethical, and unintelligent. I believe that we have the capacity to do good work for the benefit of the whole. But first, we need to shift our consciousness to an ecocentric worldview that removes humans from the hierarchy and places us in a circle with the rest of life on earth. If you agree, let’s get to work. Together we can achieve what is impossible alone.

We are a diverse group of people in every season of life with different skills and assets that are significantly greater than the sum of parts. Linked by a common past and future – like an old-growth forest – ancient mother-trees carry wisdom, access deep water and scarce resources that the young, weak, and sick need to survive. They share through an unseen network so that when the storm brings down the tallest tree, others are prepared to take their place. The individual lives on through others so long as the forest remains intact. So it shall be with us, the visionaries and change-makers. We who give freely of ourselves to ensure that tomorrow is more abundant than today.

Photo by Abigail Ducote on Unsplash