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The Fable of the Forest, A Cautionary Tale

Published onDec 27, 2023
The Fable of the Forest, A Cautionary Tale

"Sadly, it's much easier to create a desert than a forest."

—James Lovelock 1919-2022

Once, long ago, there stood a great library. This was long before books were invented, before newspapers or DVDs or printers or any of those things that people nowadays use libraries for. This was even before microfiches.

It was a Library of Things, although back then they simply called it a Forest. 

There were trees in the forest library. But also, ferns and birds and squirrels and fungi and ants and bees and bats and rocks and puddles. Dead things and growing things and sunlight and shadows and shelters and trails and food and compost. 

There were places to sit and read or just sit. You could talk or conduct your business. You could find people who could answer your questions, meet up with folks with mutual interests or folks with different ideas. Sing or teach there or bring your kids to learn to play well with others.

Between the trees and the things and the people, the forest library contained all the information a person needed. You could learn the history of the world, look up ornithology or study entomology. Study herbal medicine and environmental science. Talk politics and philosophy. Make art and create poetry.

And it was in the forest where stories were told. Creation stories, family stories, scary stories, kids’ stories, romances, jokes and puzzles. Anyone could tell a story and anyone could listen. 

The people were happy there. Business and recreation took place there. It was a real paradise. Who could ever think of disrupting this library?

But one day, some new people came to the library. They were welcomed by all the patrons of course, and they found a bounty of wonders there. Plenty of trees, so much knowledge, everyone taking what they needed and leaving the rest for others. 

The new patrons enjoyed some of the trees in the forest, particularly the deciduous trees they were used to. Tall and sturdy, they dropped their leaves in the winter and grew new leaves in the spring, just like their trees from back home. There was much to enjoy and learn from these trees. 

But these new patrons noticed some of the trees, too many in their opinion, were different. They had needles instead of leaves and they didn’t drop them every fall like deciduous trees. They were pointy rather than rounded in shape and had cones instead of little helicopter seeds. Some of the new folks were concerned that the kids might learn about more than one kind of tree. 

They didn’t like that idea at all. They were raised to believe that trees should be a certain way. They thought of deciduous trees as normal and these “evergreen” trees (as the local folks called them) gave the wrong message to their kids.

The new folks started talking about how it was wrong to have evergreen trees in the forest. They complained to the caretakers of the forest, insisting the evergreens should be removed. The caretakers listened to their complaints but they did not remove the evergreen trees because many people got great benefits from the evergreens and the forest belonged to everyone. And the folks who didn’t like evergreen trees were welcome to avoid them and stick with the deciduous trees if that was what made them happy.

But eventually, some of the new folks said their kids being exposed to evergreens seemed wrong to them. They wanted the offensive trees gone and they tried to make that happen by disrupting the forest.

They brought in deciduous saplings to plant where the evergreens lived, hoping they would encroach upon the evergreens and kill them off. But the soil was not really amenable to the needs of these trees and most of them didn’t flourish. 

They tried cutting the branches off so that people wouldn’t recognize them as evergreens. But that didn’t fool anyone, and the caretakers of the forest took care of these evergreens so they stayed healthy and grew back.

Some of them cut down evergreens in the middle of the night and hauled them away to float down the river. But the trees left cones and seeds behind which grew into more evergreens. It took time to replace the removed trees but eventually the newer, younger evergreens grew strong and healthy in a natural and predictable way. 

This disruption did not go unnoticed by the caretakers of the forest and the longstanding patrons of the forest. They could see the new folks were not abiding by the unspoken rules of the forest: take what you need and leave the rest for others. The new folks were taking what they needed and removing what they didn’t want. But a healthy forest does not work that way. It needs diversity in wildlife, in weather and especially in trees. 

The caretakers knew that they couldn’t and shouldn’t tell the new folks they couldn’t come into the forest. The forest was for everyone. But no one should be removing trees that someone else enjoys. So the caretakers simply spent more time protecting the trees and promoting the diversity that ensures a healthy forest library that all can enjoy. 

That, of course, made their job more difficult but the caretakers knew that the health of the whole forest was at stake. If one group were able to remove evergreens from the forest, what would happen when a different group decided that deciduous trees were offensive? What would happen if some group wanted to get rid of all the birds or clean up the forest floor by getting rid of the composting and decaying dead things? 

What if they decided we didn’t really need a forest at all? 

A black-and-white photo of Neil McKay, a male-presenting person with shoulder-length curly hair and black-framed glasses wearing a hoodie.
Neil McKay (he/him) works for the Whatcom County Library System as Online Experience Coordinator. He is host of the podcast “WCLS in Whatcom County Presents: Library Stories” ( and serves on the Whatcom READS steering committee ( He has written for several magazines and newspapers, some of which no longer exist, and he has performed at poetry readings across Washington state. Most recently, his poem “The Salmyn” was included in Washington State Poet Laureate (2021-2023) Rena Priest’s anthology, I Sing the Salmon Home (Empty Bowl Press, 2023). The opinions expressed are his own.
Jonathan Betz-Zall:

Very effective and clear!