Like many outdoor enthusiasts, I spent a great deal of time in the woods this past summer. Unlike the majority of them, I spent my time in wildland that shared a common feature, not meandering rivers or agate deposits, but that they were engulfed in flames.
The summer of 2021 was my first year as a wildland firefighter. About to finish my undergraduate studies with degrees in German and the ever enigmatic “Arts and Letters,” I had managed to delude myself into thinking that my erudition on the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales would make me an asset in fighting the megafires that have been ravaging the Western United States with increasing intensity since the early 20th century. The impetus to fight fires had begun the summer before, in 2020, when a rare wind event caused the smoke from fires in three states to converge and make the sky above my backyard in Portland, Oregon roil with orange and greenish clouds for over a week. This recognition that the problem was at my back door, combined with my love of the wilderness and near masochistic tolerance for physical exertion, was enough to convince me to fight fires the following summer. If nothing else, I was driven by a desire to save some acreage of the beautiful temperate rainforest that blankets the Pacific Northwest so that my future children might one day see it.
In his book The Precipice, Toby Ord urges that we “consider human history as a grand journey through the wilderness. There are wrong turns and times of hardship, but also times of sudden progress and heady views.” This insight fuels research into nuclear science, AI governance, and effective altruism, and now, a pugnacious undergraduate with a penchant for German romantic literature and thinking about the future of humanity, I have taken it into the wilderness itself.
Imagine the wilderness burning. Now imagine, as hundreds of gigatons of biomass go up in flames, that this biomass could be used to feed the world through a nuclear winter, sink and stabilize carbon for generations, and allow for the discovery of the next penicillin. These are woods that have not only survived generations of feverish logging, railroad building, and mining but also woods that could survive countless years more and present us with innumerable future possibilities. Thus, I found myself fighting fires to protect goods, tangible and intangible, many of which were unclear at the time and which remain unclear because they are not yet known.
There was of course the imminent value of saving nearby communities and protecting infrastructure. As global warming acts on landscapes and as woods accumulate combustibles from decades of fire exclusion, the fires in today’s forests tend to burn hotter and cover more acreage. This poses a higher threat to communities living in adjacent areas, which are only made more vulnerable as development in the wildland-urban interface continues to grow. Protecting human lives and valuable infrastructure is the foremost goal when it comes to fighting fires, but it is not the only reason to care about the woods.
This is what makes Ord’s comparison of humanity’s development to a walk through the wilderness so compelling. The wilderness is not just a beguiling metaphor but a reservoir of potential practical solutions for staving off existential catastrophe, a belief that has been echoed by German romantics and contemporary biomechanical engineers alike. If the history of hominids tells us anything, it is that exposure to the elements encourages human ingenuity. This summer when I was not doubled over digging fire lines or hauling sticks across forest roads, I was sitting in the dirt thinking about why people should care about the forest. Occasionally, I would think of this as I actively cut down trees and participated in the suppression of fire in fire-adapted ecosystems, a perfect illustration that our values and behaviors are not always in sync. It seemed to me that whatever value humanity places on the forest, be it romantic or instrumental, it circles back to the idea of possibility. Whether we should care about the forest because of what we can possibly learn from it or because of what it could possibly do for us, it is this as of yet unmapped potential that gives us a reason to care.
One possible reason to care about forests relates to their impact on human health. Since the beginning of human history, the woods have been providing us with safety and sustenance. I spent a great deal of time on fire thinking about this, as can be expected while working sixteen-hour shifts in ninety-degree temperatures while carrying thirty pounds of gear with barely any breaks. One thing that would happen during these delirious bouts of hunger and fatigue was that the woods would begin to look delicious. Sugar pine trees transformed into the floury cracked tops of artisanal bread loaves, and shelf mushrooms looked like smoked jerky.
This made me think back to a talk from the mechanical engineer and co-founder of Alliance to Feed the Earth in Disasters, David Dankenberger, in which he discusses ways to feed the world in the event of a nuclear winter. Dankenberger emphasizes how mushrooms could nourish us in the event of a catastrophic disruption to food supply chains. This is because they can readily break down materials that are inedible to humans and turn them into valuable mycoproteins that we can digest. When one considers that all of the organic biomass on forest floors can potentially be converted into mycoprotein, the importance of logging slash, snags, and timber litter becomes abundantly clear. What I experienced as a result of the inadequacy of peanut butter sandwiches to sustain a laboring adult, may have been a prescient glance into the forest’s gustatory possibilities.
Adding to the voices of those championing mushrooms is Mycologist, Paul Stamets. In his fervent appeal for the protection of forest land, Stamets cites the discovery of penicillin, a mold-derived antibiotic that may have helped turn the tide in WWII and has saved untold millions of lives since. Stamets suggests the forests are teeming with fungal species still unknown to science. Acknowledging the risk of infectious diseases and bioengineered pandemics, Stamets suggests that we must save the forests as a matter of national defense. Whether or not this rationale is hyperbolic is beside the point. With the havoc of global pandemic in recent memory, the idea that the next penicillin might be hiding in our forests provides another excellent reason for caring about its future.
Fire fighting is all about knowing what to prioritize. While these priorities may not be global in scale, they demand a similar logical calculus. We must ask ourselves what we should care about and then weigh these considerations against each other and see where we can do the most good. What is essential in fighting fire is the idea that one does not want to be left optionless. An idea that presents us with the same kind of potential that a walk through the wilderness does. So while I spent this summer saving the woods from fire, I was and remain unclear on exactly what I am saving it for. This doesn’t mean that I acted without passion and urgency--quite the contrary. Rather, the best reasons for saving our forests almost certainly lie in the future.