Conference Musings   Robert Leverett
  Oct 17, 2005 13:10 PDT 


I am a person who constantly looks to the past to gauge where I am in the present and to predict or even to try to shape the future. In reviewing the progression of events, sometimes I shake my head in amazement at the state of things at the starting line versus how they developed along the way, sometimes through forethought and sometimes entirely serendipitously.

mohawk_clearing.jpg (64283 bytes) photo by Carl Harting

The concept for the Eastern Native Tree Society, ENTS, began largely as fun-filled ideas being kicked around in a trailer in the Nantahala mountains of eastern North Carolina by Will Blozan, Norma Ivey, Rob Messick, Jani Leverett, myself, and a few others. A subsequent formal birth of ENTS at my kitchen table with David Stahle, Michael Perlman, Will Blozan, Matt Therrell, and myself giving substance to what might have been a mere passing fancy seems as though some unseen force was guiding us. But what has happened sense is truly more like a dream orchestrated from the world of spirit and ideas than as a sequence of improbable events. I suspect that the ideas and commitments that characterize the ENTS of today have bounced around in the heads of many. Some souls have acted locally and without fanfare and that is where the results of their efforts can be seen. God bless them. I sometimes think that the launching of the actual ENTS organization and its subsequent growth can only be understood as the work of either divinely inspired or thoroughly obsessed people. And the numbers of inspired or obsessed has grown. The ENTS of today is a much more potent and resourceful organization than it was in the early years.

tree_climb.jpg (83145 bytes) photo by Carl Harting

On Saturday, as I watched Will Blozan climb high into the Massasoit tree in a rain with intensely focused tree measurers going about their craft at the base of the tree, for a moment the scene became surrealistic. Why here, why us? I asked that question without expecting an answer. But it seemed so improbable. Here were very smart, accomplished people who came from far of places like Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, and Pennsylvania while most of the local population around Mohawk Trail State Forest never even visits the place. The local populace knows next to nothing about Mohawk. They care even less. It set me to thinking.

My comment about the locals isn't meant as a specific criticism toward the citizens of Charlemont Massachusetts. The comment is intended as a general recognition of how locals often relate to natural treasurers under their very noses. To take nothing away from the visionaries of a place, as a group, the Charlemont locals are not a whet different than the majority of citizens surrounding dozens of other great forest sites in the East. Indifference by locals is in the nature of our materialistic society and our human value system. But there we were, a group apart, doing something entirely inscrutible and utterly pointless to the predominant value system of our society. We were measuring trees.

tree_climb_audience.jpg (88138 bytes) photo by Carl Harting

Certainly, the incentives for us Ents to have spent our time on Saturday doing something other than measuring trees in the rain would seem to have been overwhelming. There was the major league playoffs to watch, casinos to visit, high impact recreation, home projects, shopping. Yet there we were, measuring a tree in the rain. We the faithful were not the least bit tempted to be elsewhere. As Will climbed higher and higher, I was willing to bet there was no place that he'd rather be, rain or shine, less it be in another great tree.

On Saturday evening, when my partner professor Monica Jakuc put together an absolutely splendid concert for ENTS, I thought to myself, "what and extraordinary thing that is happening here." Monica had caught the spirit. She had acquired the vision. ENTS deserved her support. As I watched Dr. Lee Frelich stand with violin in hand ready to play even after a 20-year layoff, I thought to myself, "how can he be doing this?". Was he performing because he was being guided by invisible forces that deem our cause important? After all, Lee Frelich does not have to get into a car and drive 1000 miles to make a presentation for which he receives no remuneration. Lee is in constant demand. His star as a scientist is recognized as having risen. He does not lack for status. His voice is now a very significant one within the community of scientists. He certainly needs no platform from us. No at all. He is doing what he is doing from a sense of inner knowing. He recognizes the value of ENTS and how our organization fits into or can fit into a much larger picture. He knows that we are not replacing anything that currently exists, but that we are adding value by giving forest places a form and voice beyond mere data in ways that transcend existing professions, interests, and purposes. He wouldn't have been standing there playing his violin had he not had the vision of an ENTS mission.

At such times of reflection, Cook Forest always returns to me as a strong focus for what ENTS has accomplished and is about. Remembering that Cook Forest was established by people of sensitivity and vision, people who wanted the remnant great pine forest to keep alive a spirit that had been largely lost as Pennsylvania's primary forest shrank to insignificance. Cook Forest State Park was being managed perfunctorily by officials who knew little about its forest history and absolutely nothing about its great trees. A tree was a tree was a tree. Officials invariably became imprisoned in day to day schedules and in seeing to the needs of throngs of visitors who often had only slight awareness of the trees that surrounded them, beyond the trees as a nondescript forest backdrop for recreation. In 1994 when I came to meet the local managment of Cook Forest, the very reason for the existence of that state park had became lost in managing human trivia. It was also lost in the misplaced
values of the state resource manager who saw the need to cull out dying pines and prostrate logs, which they perceived as the carriers of diseases ready to sweep through the entire grove in a matter of years. I talked with state managers who saw the standing pines valuable only as potential timber. Even if the actual trees were never cut, they saw their job as that of maintaining the economic potential of the forest. Who knows, maybe they would get their chance to create a "real forest"? Before Anthony Cook's crusade, assistance from ENTS, and the rise of Dale Luthringer, the great trees of Cook Forest were just a woodsy backdrop to recreation. The pines were anonymous. No, that wasn't true for everyone. For visitors with a sense of history, I'm sure it was different. They saw the swaying pines as speaking eloquently of times long gone by, but often only as symbols of a romantic past rather than living organisms that had earned a right to be noticed, honored, and protected. Today the atmosphere is different in Cook Forest, at least in degree, as it is elsewhere. In fact we have several impressive success stories to share with those who value our forest parks.  

Zoar Valley, and even in the GSMNP, which has never lacked for attention or appreciation, reflect the hand of ENTS. With the Smokies, it is an inspiting story, one of a cooperative venture. The Park people like ENTS and what we do. ENTS has a partnership with the GSMNP. However, with Zoar Valley versus New York's DEC, our role has been more confrontational. There the uniqueness and value of the Zoar forest as a natural area of incredible ecological value has to be constantly proven through hard science. The bureaucrats have been hard to persuade. Exploitative forces have never been far from the gates.

As for my forest Mecca, I could write a book about Mohawk Trail State Forest's prolonged period of anonymity, save for its use for convenient camping and as a staging area for river rafting. But thanks to ENTS, Mohawk is finally being recognized by officialdom as one of the great tree parks of the Northeast. Its recognition as such by state officials has been slow to grow, but I can state categorically that it is happening. However, we dare not take our eye off the ball, even for an instant, least exploitative forces lurking in dark places find other purposes for the tall pines, the peaceful meadows, and the all important area of river front. Mohawk's accessibility to the public, courtesy of State Route #2 , is guaranteed not to escape the notice of economically motivated development interests.

So what has the stream of reflections that were triggered by the past weekend's events led me to conclude? Well, we do have our supporters in the general public. But that is not where we have had the most impact. ENTS is making a significant contribution to the tricky process of increasing "official awareness" of and appreciation for federal and state forest parks in the East, especially with respect to where a porperty fits into the greater scheme of things. Minds of public officials who manage regional, state, and federal parks and forests are being opened up. As their legal custodians, if garnering their appreciation and understanding for the exemplary forest parks and individual trees under the watch of federal, state, and localmanagers is all that ENTS were ever to accomplish, it would be no small achievement.


Robert T. Leverett
Cofounder, Eastern Native Tree Society