In Maine, Never Takes Seven Years

I was reminded of the powerful force mentors exert on impressionable minds when I recently returned to my forestry school for a memorial service honoring a great professor, David M. Smith, who was my first and most valuable mentor. Dave Smith wrote the textbook that most foresters still use—The Practice of Silviculture—that was, and is, a wonderfully rich combination of ecological detail and practical approaches to understanding how forests change over time and how foresters can nudge Mother Nature—within certain limits—to produce the products and services societies depend upon.

But beyond that, Dave Smith was a real person. His dry humor was as legendary as the proverbial drying of paint—if you didn’t listen carefully, you might not hear it all.

I recently dug out the notebook I kept from Smith’s silviculture (from the Latin silvi, or forest,the art and science of growing crops of trees) course during spring 1975. I kept notes in the margins on his use of language. Most of his wisdom could be applied to life itself. Dave distrusted dogmatic presentation of ideas; he objected to the “magnificence of hindsight” among those who would “whoop it up” over some supposed new insight. He wanted us to keep our minds open and flexible—in his words, to “keep several different strings to our bow,” and, “to cook up new strategies” lest we “blunt our pick” on stubborn facts and “get blown from hell to breakfast.” He was careful about overgeneralizing lest we fall into the habit of “racing the engine pretty hard,” by trying to “cover too much waterfront” and end up “being disappointed in love.”

Dave reminded us to ground our ideas in the field so that we wouldn’t “exceed the speed limit in the arm chair,” or worse, “write the Lord’s prayer on the head of a pin.” Overly bookish people, in Dave’s mind, were apt to “chew the corners of their typewriter.” Dave avoided abstruse mathematical analyses, which were like trying to figure “which shell the pea went under last” and observed that “figures don’t lie, but liars can figure.”

Fuzzy-headed thinking, on the other hand, would be equally dismissed as “flapping around in the breeze.” Knowledge was to be put into action, otherwise we were just “throwing dead cats” at a problem, allowing “our forgettery to outrun our memory,” or risk having the “whole thing disappear down an Orwellian memory hole.”

When Dave and I worked together in Maine, he counseled me not to get discouraged when an important silvicultural idea was rejected out of hand because it would never be adopted in Maine. Dave let me know that he had been told this many times by Maine foresters over the years; the first time he was told one of his ideas would never be accepted in Maine, it took 10 years to take hold. The second time foresters told him something he advocated for would never happen in Maine, it took eight years; the third time, three years. From this Dave concluded: “In Maine, ‘never,’ on average, takes seven years.

June 1, 2009