The personal blog of the cultural ambassador to the newly discovered planet of the Ant-people (the Myrmeiods).

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Trees, Big and Deep

Dan finally took me on a walk in the woods this week.

You may remember I wasn't supposed to go alone. It's a hard thing for a man to accept protection from a being less than a tenth his size, and I'm almost grateful that the reason I need protection appeared almost immediately; a twelve-foot python, which I probably would have stepped on, or otherwise antagonized, if Dan were not there to warn me of it. He can't see images, but he is very good at spotting movement and changes in pattern, and he spotted the animal's tongue move. It ignored us, other than tasting the air in our direction, and we avoided it. Dan says his people have nothing to fear from large snakes, as Myrmeoids are too small to be worth eating. I am big, so Dan carried a kind of poison-tipped spear so he could protect me, if necessary. I offered to protect myself with the dart, but Dan won't let me carry a weapon until I know enough not to step on snakes. I don't think he wants the animals to get hurt, either.


The woods behind the La'heli's farm have a curious legal status, and curious trees. Mymeoid navies are made up of wooden sail-craft, as wood is so much cheaper and simpler to work. More specifically, navel vessels are big, dugout trimarans; the main hulls of these things can be eight feet wide and sixty feet long. Military preparedness thus means having ready access to very big trees. It's warm over much of the planet, so trees can grow fast, but it still takes two to three hundred years for a tree to get big enough for the navy to want it. Of course, commercial vessels need to be in the same size range to cross the ocean, so there is fierce competition for the largest trees. Sorting out who gets which trees, and protecting enough trees for long enough that they can get big enough, is a major challenge for every major government on the planet. The La'heli's farm is part of this country's solution to the problem.

Simply ordering people to leave alone certain trees would not work; there is no practical way to prevent timber poaching when a single tree can bring the equivalent of a quarter of a million dollars or more. That growing navy trees requires generations of foresters to refrain from selling their product does not help. The government has to make trees more valuable to landowners alive than dead, and they do it with some serious tax incentives. This is not as simple as protecting individual promising trees, by the way. Large trees need the protection of the surrounding forest—the more forest the better. The tax breaks start when you set aside ten percent of your land as un-cut forest. After that, the size of the deduction increases with the contiguousness of the set-aside forest, the size of the surrounding buffer forest (which owners may cut), and the degree of connectedness to other forest patches. Essentially, your tax break depends on where you put your forest in relation to that of your neighbors. Most rural land owners actually pay no property tax at all, no property tax, no farm gains tax, and no sales tax when they buy land. It's almost impossible to sell land that is not enrolled in the program, so all land is. This means that land-related taxes really only exist on paper, unless someone poaches trees, but taxes abated work better politically than fines imposed. Local services are paid for by fees, not taxes.

The La’heli’s farm is thus part of a vast network of patches and corridors of forest in a variety of successional stages, including old-growth. That is why there are large predators in the woods sometimes; our woods are too small to support such beasts, but big animals can pass through on their way between larger reserves. The people permit these dangerous animals passage, even though occasionally someone might lose an urdle or two, because an intact ecology is necessary for the forest, and the forest is necessary for the navy. It’s a matter of money and of national patriotism and pride.

All of this kept striking me as familiar, and I couldn’t figure out why. Last night, I finally figured it out; this is exactly the kind of network our kind tried to build two hundred years ago, at the beginning of the Meltdown. The Myrmeoids succeeded where we failed, even though they don’t seem to have anything we would call environmentalism. No one protects trees and animals for their own sake. They do it for practical reasons, and for cultural reasons. It’s all politics.

So Dan took me to the grove of big trees. It’s only a few acres , and the La’heli’s own less than a quarter of it, but it’s been protected for a hundred and fifty years, ever since the law was passed. Some protected plots were open field when they were first enrolled in the program, but this one was young forest, so it had a head start. One of its trees is actually navy-size, the others are close. They are amazing.

The light is different. The air is different. The insects sound different—a more complex sound. And these trees…remember, the eight foot diameter does not count the thick bark, and it has to be eight feet across at the midpoint of a sixty-foot log. That means forty feet up the tree. Near the ground, at the height where I’d hug it, if I hugged trees, this thing is fifteen feet across. It’s two hundred feet high. I know Earth has trees this big, but I’ve never seen one. The biggest tree I’ve ever seen on Earth would fit comfortably under this tree’s lowest branches.

When I said these people are not environmentalists, I did not mean they have only mercenary feelings about the woods. As we stood there, looking at the tree, I smelled an odd pheromone from Dan, a mix of emotions I’d never smelled before. I bent down to talk to him.

“This is why I became a farmer,” he told me. I am not quite sure what he means.

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