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Ozark-St. Francis National Forest – photo from National Forest Service

Here’s an interesting new article on the attempt to re-establish the Ozark chinquapin into the forest. It’s a close relative of the chestnut, which was essentially wiped out in the chestnut blight that swept North America from 1904 to the early 1940s, and the chinquapin proved susceptible to that same blight. (There was an earlier article on this effort in the Missouri Conservationist as well.)

By coincidence, I’ve been reading Robert Macfarlane’s essay on forests in his wonderful book The Wild Places, in which he seeks out the remaining wild places of the British Isles and details his experiences in them – islands, valleys, moors, forests, and the like. Macfarlane combines rich and precise description, personal and social history, and a strong literary sensibility to try to give a sense of the significance of each wild place he visits, not just its significance to himself but to the wider culture. Underlying his depictions of these Irish, Scottish, English, and Welsh wild places, with their marvelous ancient names (Rannoch Moor, The Burren, Bin Chuanna, Ynys Enlli, the Isle of Raasay – doesn’t simply reading their names make you want to go see them?) is the recognition that as wild as they are, they are not untouched. Macfarlane climbs a mountain and finds a forester’s hut; he camps on a windswept ridge and awakens to the sound of a lanyard clanking on a yacht in the bay below.

And thus it is with the Ozark chinquapin. The efforts to bring it back from the brink of extinction are admirable in the utmost; and according to the experts, there’s a good chance of success. But we know that the forest to which it will be re-introduced is not the 19th- and early 20th-century forest from which it disappeared.

Castanea ozarkensis

Photo by Eric Hunt, republished under Creative Commons license from Wikimedia Commons.

Will that changed circumstance make the new Ozark chinquapins any less precious or valuable an addition to the diversity of the forest? Not in my mind. Is the deer I see on my hike on the Katy Trail, or the fish I watch on my float on the Black River, any less “wild” because I’m seeing them from the roadbed of an old railway or a stream that is floated by thousands of people a year? Not in any meaningful sense of the word.

“Wild” is a relative term. As the recent news about Mount Everest shows us, even the places considered to be the world’s wildest and most remote are subject to human intervention at all times, for better or worse. What matters is not the purity of the wild experience, but the mental state it brings us, the humility and reverence we feel when we come face to face with natural systems that predate us, exist without us, and in some form or another will outlive us. The “forest primeval” is gone forever; our task now is to appreciate, preserve, and (where possible) restore the pieces that are left.

At the end of his chapter on Rannoch Moor, Macfarlane quotes Wallace Stegner’s 1960 “Wilderness Letter,” and it’s worth quoting again here: “We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”