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A stack of trees can make all the difference

The very language that we use and the way we go about our business often determine how we treat the land around us. The valley below the north wall of the Eiger in Switzerland is densely populated and heavily used. But there is a unique, almost undisturbed feeling about the place. The people seem a part of the land, not at all intrudes in their natural environment.

Many attitudes and habits fuse together to fashion this gentle mood. But it was the customary use of wood from the local forest which gave me a first glimpse into the heart of the inhabitants' general approach to living with their land.

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The curious shape of stacks of lumber stored for future use prompted the first questions. Instead of boards of the same dimensions being piled on top of one another, boards were stacked in the shape of the log from which they were cut. This unique shape is part of an important story.

When I asked a local carpenter how much wood he had used for his project, he answered, "We used a lot of wood. We used 13 trees."

The valley has been settled for centuries and wood is recognized as a valuable community resource. The practice of using and selling individual trees as units makes all carpenters and buyers of wood aware of not only of how many "board feet" or "francs' worth" of lumber they are using but of the number of treesm as well. The tree-like shape of the stacks also serves as a constant reminder to anyone who passes that a certain number of trees have been cut so that the farmer can have the wood that he does.

This is an immediate contrast to the situation in the United States. Does the average American have any real conception of how many trees it takes to make those ordinary rectangular piles? The lumber buyer in the US usually doesn't have trees on his mind as he is thinking about his construction project. And he certainly won't find anything at the lumberyard to remind him that he is indeed using trees and not boards that somehow fell from the sky.

It is suddenly easier to understand how the small percentage of the world's population living in the US can consume such a disproportionately large share of the world's natural resources without even stopping to think about it. The average American never sees the vast amount of forests that are cut or the large areas of earth that are strip-mined to suppot his life style. In fact, there is usually no connection whatsoever in most American's minds between the finished products they use and the natural resources needed to make them. Most of this is due to the almost total lack of reminders of this connection in American buying, selling, and packaging practices as resources are transformed into consumable goods.

Even the language we use to describe final products is almost devoid of reminders of the connection between the products and their natural components. The Swiss carpenter's response to the question of how much wood he used tells of a constant exposure to living with the connection between this work and the trees he is using.

So, while some economists might see the price mechanism as the most efficient way to remind consumers to use resources more wisely, there are other, perhaps more effective, signals that can be used. The Swiss stack of lumber has subtle beauty in this sense. It is a reminder without political connotations. Farmers , carpenters, and casual passersby all see the connection between lumber and the valuable trees that are cut to make it. The carpenter was using trees to build his house. This attitude is at the heart of the nonintrusive presence of people in the valley.