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(from a letter to Wendell Berry (1996)
by Ed Iglehart (with apologies)
In response to his essay Conserving Forest Communities

Most Esteemed Sir,

I LIVE IN the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright, near the lower end of the valley of the Urr Water, on a small farm that is half woodland. Starting from my back door, I could walk for days and never leave the woods except to cross the roads. Though the Stewartry is known as a farming county, 25 percent of it is wooded. From the hillside behind my house I can see thousands of acres of trees in the Stewartry and neighboring Dumfriesshire. Sadly, the majority of these are fast growing conifers whose genetic origin is overseas.

There are, however, many small and a few larger remnants of semi-wild, semi-native woodland, often including broadleaved species from afar. Many of these trees are standing on steep slopes of the river and creek valleys that were cleared and ploughed at intervals from the early years of settlement until about the time of World War II. These are rich woodlands nevertheless. The soil, though not so deep as it once was, is healing from agricultural abuse and, because of the forest cover, is increasing in fertility. Some have never been ploughed or otherwise 'improved'. The plant communities consist of a few native Scots pines and a great diversity of hardwoods, shrubs, and wildflowers.

The history of these now-forested slopes over the last two centuries can be characterized as a cyclic alternation of abuse and neglect. Their best hope, so far, has been neglect-though even neglect has usually involved their degradation by livestock grazing. So far, almost nobody has tried to figure out or has even wondered what might be the best use and the best care for such places. Often the trees have been regarded merely as the occupants of 'waste ground', which, because of the steepness of the terrain, has been unavailable for better use. Much of the relatively recent conifer forest has been a last resort use after centuries of overgrazing. Ploughing vertically to improve drainage prior to planting has increased acidification in the watercourses with destructive effect on aquatic life, from the bottom of the food chain (at the top) to salmonids, wildfowl and others at the top of the food chain (downriver!)

Forestry, after farming, is the second largest land use in the Stewartry, but a meagre provider of the promised employment. That which is generated too often feeds bank balances in distant cities. Large forest holdings are more general than small, owners, if human, rarely visiting and even less frequently alighting from their off-road vehicles. To be fair, the relatively large holdings of the Forestry Commission offer the most visited 'attractions' to the small, but economically important tourist trade. Management decisions on these 'publicly-owned' forests are made in distant, carpeted, double-glazed offices by people who are too busy in most cases to ever set foot in them. For these people the forests consist of lines drawn on paper and pages of statistics. They are what the files say they are, despite what I, sitting before them with mud on my boots may offer to the contrary.

And so as I look at my home landscape, I am happy to see that I am to a considerable extent a forest dweller. But I am unhappy to remember every time I look-for the landscape itself reminds me-that I am a dweller in a forest for which there is, properly speaking, no local forest culture and no local forest economy. That is to say that I live in a threatened forest.

So you see, sir, we have much in common. I cannot sufficiently thank you for your writings, many of which I have still to read, and have the pleasure of anticipation. Thank you for all of it; it leaves me inspired but somewhat un-nerved. Your arguments are un-answerable and do not suffer inaction, excuses, or procrastination easily.

I am sending you some of our own scribblings so that you can see what we are up to here in Scotland. The entire culture is severely dis-empowered through centuries of increasing centralisation of authority. I reckon the commonest pronoun in use is third person plural. Locally, we are optimistic and active. Communities here are better off than most, being blessed with backwater status (mixed blessing!). Palnackie is a seaport, but it is a long time since it was really on the way to anywhere.

The 'improvement' of communications in the broadest sense - motor transport, telecommunications, etc. reaches even to Palnackie (pop: ~300), where there is now an evening rush hour as local residents return from work, each increasingly in an individual automobile. (Why not? That's what the word means!) Community was easier to identify when, not so long ago, everyone walked to work. It was the folk you walked with, worked with, came home with, drank with, argued with, - in short, those with whom you shared life and locality. Now there is a community at 'work' which is drawn from a 40 mile radius or more, the scene of career strategems, flirtations, betrayals, etc., just as before, but separated from 'home' by some sort of hyperspace journey morning and evening. Mixing with our fellows on the return journey leaves us unfit company for anything but a TV set. This provides what every responsible citizen must have: a complete update on the affairs of the entire global 'community', its wars, inhumanities, & disasters, all thankfully sufficiently distant to be out of reach, but for a conscience-easing credit card donation by toll-free number. When a neighbour dies, we wonder who to notify (if we notice!)

'Home' is a territory whose size and degree of fortification is in direct relation to financial status, proof against a hostile environment. It is one of the chief ironies of our time that we who think of ourselves as the age of emerging environmental awareness are also the most accomplished at isolating ourselves mentally, physically, and spiritually. Out of a thousand footsteps it is unlikely that as many as ten fall on un-prepared surfaces. We rarely know the phases of the moon, see wildlife mostly on the cathode ray tube, and scenery through the windscreen. Darkness has been banished by electricity so that the only real difference between night and day is the television schedules. The use of the logically meaningless word 'un-natural', invariably in the pejorative, speaks volumes, for it is used to mean 'human', and such self-hatred cannot be healthy.

While our local communities share much of this Euro-American malaise, we are better off than many. There are still many folk in Palnackie whose grandparents were born within walking distance. Even so, of the village and surrounding community, only a handful walk more than a quarter mile beyond the houses. The regeneration of communities is a process which may occupy us for a large part of the next millennium, and, as you have often pointed out, it cannot be done from without. Few, if any, of us know fully what community really is/was; most consider its demise unfortunate. I, who was raised to a large degree on National Geographic, now suspect that 'improved communications' may not have been the unquestioned good we once believed.

I thank you once again for your writings and for your forbearance in reading my rantings if you have gotten this far. As you will learn from the enclosures, we are engaged in re-forestation and community regeneration and the direct relationship between the two. One purpose of this writing is to ask your kind permission to copy and distribute extracts (and whole essays) of your work amongst our local membership. I feel, as you have seen from the opening above, that much of what you have to say is directly applicable to our concerns. Native to Maryland, I have always lived elsewhere. I know and love the Applachian area, was in school in the Shennandoah, have walked sections of the trails, admired the regeneration of the forests in North Georgia, but after 24 years in Scotland, I believe I have 'settled' and found home. It would be a great honour to meet and converse with you should our paths ever cross. Should I find myself near Henry County, I will be courteous enough (and arrogant enough) to ring before calling round, and you and yours can be assured of hospitality should you find yourself in our neighbourhood.

I wish you health, happiness, long life, and hard work.


Ed Iglehart

To this letter I received a very cordial answer, written in pencil reciprocating the invitation to call, but not mentioning the underlined request. Subsequently some visiting Polish students were so struck by "Another Turn of the Crank" that one of them made scanned copies of all the essays to take back to Poland, and they eventually got posted on the internet. I have ever since felt that I owed Wendell a personal letter (in pencil) to thank him and ask forgiveness. I also believe, however, that someone who has as much to say as he and who is so eager to say it, cannot mind too much if his words are being put about, even though it has involved computers. Some tens of thousands of 'visits' have been recorded to the posted essays, and some, at least, will have been moved to buy some books. I certainly have.

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