If you think the word "slut" insults women, how about the use of the word "virgin" to describe a forest that's never been logged?
It's a commonly used term. Dictionary.com, for instance, defines "virgin forest" this way: "a forest in its natural state, before it has been explored or exploited by man."
Still, I was hoping that environmental organizations, which work for the good of the Earth and humankind and all that, might have become more sensitive over the last 40 years or so. So imagine my surprise when I was reading a piece about the importance of biodiversity on the World Wildlife Fund website and found this statement taken from a book published in 1994: " In the contiguous United States, 98 percent of virgin forests have been destroyed." I've worked on forest issues for 40 years and find this statement unbelievable.
Virgin is not only an unscientific term, it is also impossible to quantify. Yet the "virgin forest" moniker has even crept into some National Park Service documents. While looking at descriptions of the agency's National Natural Landmark program, you can find the term "virgin forests," though none of the areas are west of Nebraska.
Two forests even incorporate "virgin" into their names: Cold River Virgin Forest, which is touted as the "only virgin stand in New England," and the Nancy Brook Virgin Spruce Forest and Scenic Area, which boasts that it is the "largest virgin forest tract in the northeastern United States."
What is the word "virgin" even doing in this context? Although males may value virginity in females as a way to ensure paternity, it is quite the opposite for females. In fact, if virginity were such a great deal for both genders, Homo sapiens would have died out a long time ago.
There is also the question of how much human intervention causes a national forest to be "deflowered." Is virginity over when air pollution routinely fouls the air, or mine waste fouls streams? Is a national forest forever sullied after visitors pick its mushrooms, or if the remains of an old cabin and an old two-track road can still be seen?
Here in the Interior West, where fire is an inevitable part of the landscape, the question arises: Does a forest become "revirginated" if it hasn't been logged since the last fire? If so, could a post-fire, 10-year-old stand of lodgepole pine regain its virginity? Or can the human intervention that created contamination never be undone. That, after all, is the claim of the World Wildlife Foundation -- that "98 percent of virgin forests have been destroyed."
From the standpoint of biology, however, virginity is or it isn't, and the middle ground, if any, lies in the land of lawyers, not biologists. In people's relations with forests, the middle ground is basically all we have to talk about these days, because humans have so thoroughly affected climate, pollution, native species, wildlife, fire -- no forest on the planet exists today that has not felt impacts in one or more of these areas.
Calling anything involving forests "virgin" muddles the concepts of "old-growth," "native forests" and "past practices," promotes the notion of nature as female and humans as male, and slanders all the non-virgins in the world. It's so sloppy a usage that it conveys a trifecta of trickiness: three bad ideas surreptitiously conveyed in one word.
Perhaps even worse than talking about "virgin forests" is describing some human activities in forests as "rape." The key difference between the sacred act of union and the crime of rape is mutual consent. At this point in human and forest development, we cannot ask the forests permission and hear them say, "No." Using the term inappropriately demeans the word itself, which should remain powerful and specific about a brutal violation. But here's a suggestion: How about substituting the word "castration" for rape? This is how that might sound: "This timber sale will continue the Forest Service's castrate-and-run policies."
Making this substitution is a simple yet compelling way to help improve the clarity of thinking in the world. I've found that when I suggest this replacement to people, it always makes it easier for them to stop using any sexual terms in these kinds of discussions -- at least, they stop it when I'm present.
But for those who continue to have difficulty controlling their urges, I recommend an abstinence pledge, and if necessary, a cold shower.
Sharon Friedman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes about forest issues in Golden, Colorado.