Defining the “Virgin” Forest

A vestal virgin, detail of an engraving by Sir Frederic Leighton, created Lord Leighton, the first British artist to be given a title. (around 1880) The artist died in 1896.

Long before this blog, I became irritated by an email at work and wrote the following response about “virgin” forests. I attempted to get it published as an op-ed by Journal of Forestry, but they (wisely) demurred, both because it could have been written better, and it’s a bit out of the box, and perhaps, offensive.

I’m not going to pick on our invited poster, Mark, who first brought it up, but I have difficulty believing that the Park Service actually has an index of “virgin” attributes. Here is Fenwood’s related comment.

DEFINING THE VIRGIN FOREST

I would like to point out that the term “virgin” forests may not be the best term to use for a variety of reasons. At least not from my perspective, that of an evolutionary biologist who happens to be a human female. The use of the term in the human context seems to presume that the virgin forest state is somehow preferable to other states. While virginity is a trait that might be desirable for males to look for in females in terms of evolution (ensuring paternity), it is quite the opposite for females (no fun, no children). One could argue that it is a vestige of a patriarchal society that focuses on the desirability of virginity (usually only for females). If virginity were such a great deal for both genders, Homo sapiens would have died out a long time ago.

When the two genders come together it is the fountain of much of the physical and spiritual creativity of our species, and leads to the miracle of new persons. It is a sacred act. To call a forest with minimum human intervention “virgin” seems to assume that equally creative and sacred acts are not likely to come from humans relating to the forest, and that there are not mutually positive things that could come from such a relationship. I don’t agree with that underlying assumption and with the fact that it is disguised and not open to question simply by the use of the term and analogy to“virgin.”

I think the words that we use can circumscribe the possibilities we see, and are important to dialogue and mutual understanding, which is why I have taken the time to point this out. I also have a hard time with the term “rape” (to describe) human intervention in forests, as the key difference between the sacred act mentioned above and “rape” is mutual concurrence. At this point in human and forest development, I am not sure we can listen to the forests and hear them say, “No.” Using that term for forests that can’t say no seems to me that it demeans the term itself, which should remain powerful and specific to the deep violation (a desecration of the above sacred act) that it was originally intended to convey. Since castration is generally thought to be a bad thing regardless of whether it is voluntary or not, I suggest that each person who feels the urge to use sexual analogies for destructive acts by humans on the land substitute the term “castration” for “rape” at least half the time. As in “this timber sale will ultimately continue the Forest Service’s castrate and run policies.”

Because many of the founders and leaders of our professions and sciences were men, and lived in a patriarchal society, I believe we have a responsibility to question the words they used and the worldview that those words convey.

Finally there is the question of how much human intervention would cause a forest to be “deflowered.” Just air pollution? People picking mushrooms? A campground? People having camped there once twenty years ago? Thinning stands of trees? The occurrence of chestnut blight? This is another place where the analogy would break down. In virginity, from the standpoint of biology, it either is or it isn’t (this is a family blog so if we discuss this aspect further perhaps we should use code words), and the middle ground, if any is the land of lawyers, not biologists. In people’s relations with forests, the middle ground is basically all we have to talk about since humans have affected climate, pollution, species introductions, and essentially no forest on the planet exists today without any of these influences.

If you or your agency feel an overwhelming urge to use sexual analogies in dealing with natural resource issues, my advice is- first, push yourself away from the keyboard and then, take a cold shower.

4 Comments

  1. It’s not a term I would use in connection with forests or ecosystems. I’m not so sure anymore about a few others either: native, natural, exotic, wild, wilderness and even species. Not because of any sexual connotation, but because I don’t know how to define them in any absolute way. Past uses of these words reflect a worldview that didn’t recognize indigenous inhabitants as “people” and drew a sharp line between people and animals.

    I’m sure that most of the “founders and leaders of our professions” thought they had all these terms figured out. Of course, they probably didn’t foresee a world where women would pursue careers in and even lead those professions. I suspect that the more self-actualized among them would embrace a broader role for women in the world while the less secure might feel “castrated.” Perhaps that’s not an apt analogy though. I wanted to say “somewhat castrated” but realized that castration is really another absolute like “virginity.” (Although many members of Congress seem to think that “rape” is not so clearly defined.)

    Human relationships seem to be more productive when we avoid the use of labels. Perhaps our relationship with our environment would be more productive if we could focus on outcomes and, if not avoid labels, at least be more objective in describing ecosystems. I don’t think it would be a bad thing though for us to also focus on how we feel about ecosystems. For us to care responsibly about wild (sorry) places we need to know about them and love them. Otherwise, they’re just resources for us to plunder.

  2. There are two distinct definitions for the word virgin (according to Websters):
    1. (adj) never having had sexual relations
    2. (adj) not marred or altered from a natural or original state

    The author obviously chose to discuss the first while ignoring the second. We could long debate how to define an unaltered state, certainly since there is no place on earth that is untouched by human activity. Some of the other definitions, such as old-growth forest, are equally disputable.

    I have suggested a few changes to the lexicon over the years, usually met with resistance if not outright derision. I doubt this is a term that will vanish from use until long after the last “virgin forest” has been lost.

  3. A lot of words have more than one meaning… but the fact remains that for most people ‘Virgin’ refers to definition 1. I don’t see any reason to use the term when others are available.

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