Bill McKibben

The place I love best

by Bill McKibben

In the middle of the place I love best in the world, a town in the hardscrabble and remote south-central Adirondacks, there is a mountain that rises a few thousand feet, and from its top you can see in all directions a considerable distance.

When I first moved there, 35 years ago, I remember talking to an old man, a friend, who had been there his entire life. He said that in his boyhood—in the 1920s—you could climb to the top of that mountain and look out in every direction and not see a tree. He liked that world—liked the settled farming world spread out before him.

Now, when you climb to the top of that mountain and look out, you literally cannot see an opening, save for the ones created by marsh, pond, and lake. Every inch of those many square miles has grown back into the forest that once was there. I confess that I like that view.

I don’t like it in contrast to the open farms of before; to each age its own glory. But the birch-beech-maple forest has always been my home, and I’ve come over time to feel very much at home in it. Its closeness attracts me: I like being able to disappear in a few strides, made invisible by the denseness of the forest. I enjoy, of course, its brief spasm of neon crescendo come late September; but I also like the deep leathery green of late summer, and the delicate light green of early summer. And I treasure above all the trees in what at this latitude is their default normal mode: the leaflessness that begins in early autumn and lasts well into blackfly season. A tree without its leaves is the essence of the thing, a sculpture revealed.

And though I enjoy trees in the aggregate above all, there are individual stems that call to me—high on this mountain, for instance, there’s a hemlock that in my clichéd way I embrace each time I pass (half-hug, that shoulder pat of the slightly repressed male). So, tree-hugger. There are particular white pines that I climb each season, or smooth-skinned ashes that I seek out annually to see the bear claws heading topwards (and to make sure that the beech-bark disease hasn’t claimed them since last I visited).

It is a pleasure to pick up this volume and find that there are others who have similar connections, and who have thought about them with more eloquence and depth. Trees are in certain ways our most obvious neighbors on this planet. They are, unlike say microbes, roughly our size: taller, but comprehensible. They are, unlike most animals, unlikely to flee at our approach. They are a way, then, that we come in contact with the more-than-human, a gate to the larger world beyond us. They are the opposite of a smart phone; they defy self-absorption. I am, I guess, strongly in favor of them.

Originally appeared as the Introduction to ROOTED: The Best New Arboreal Nonfiction. Available at bookstores nationwide. Or buy a copy directly: ROOTED: The Best New Arboreal Nonfiction – paperback $16

Bill McKibben is a founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org and the Schumann Distinguished Professor in Residence at Middlebury College in Vermont. He is a 2014 recipient of the Right Livelihood Prize, sometimes called the “alternative Nobel.” He has written a dozen books about the environment, including his first, The End of Nature, published 25 years ago, and his most recent, Oil and Honey.