Face it: All forests are "sluts"

  • Sharon Friedman


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.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Jeanne Kirkpatrick
Jeanne Kirkpatrick Subscriber
Apr 05, 2012 01:32 PM
‎"A cold shower" is right. This commentary is ludicrous. The only concern I share with the author is the use of "rape", a clearly loaded term, to describe forest destruction. Maybe that's my own bias, but to my mind it clearly trivializes something that shouldn't be.

"Virgin" is gender-neutral. Did anyone see the movie, "The 40 Year Old Virgin"? Not an endorsement, but clearly not a gender-specific term. "Virgin" might not be scientific, but neither is "old-growth" or any other word (hmm -- how about "climax"?) we have to use. It's a word meant to pique emotion, in order to pique the conservation instinct, no doubt, which is why conservation org's use it.

Putting a valuation on the word is a subjective act and says far more about the author than about the word itself. The assertion that not using the word "slanders" non-virgins is equally ludicrous, and its suggestion by the author, inflammatory.

By all means, let's be as thoughtful and accurate as possible in our word use, but let's also make an effort to separate our own biases from the forest's.

(cross-posted on Facebook)
Ralph Cutter
Ralph Cutter
Apr 06, 2012 08:58 AM
I'm sure Mr. Limbaugh will appreciate this column as a prime example of what environmentalists are fighting over. This ultra politically correct BS moves environmental issues backwards, not forward.
Christine H.
Christine H.
Apr 11, 2012 09:23 AM
I have to admit I groaned when I saw the title and initial premise of this piece, but actually the author makes some good points. Like it or not, the words we use carry (often unintended) subtext. The use of virgin, whether it's gender-neutral or not, doesn't make any sense for forests. And when we start throwing around words like virgin, rape, or many others that are common in societal discourse today ("death squads" and "femi-nazi" come to mind), we dilute the original meaning of the words and conflate things that are not truly comparable or related. When it come to bemoaning political correctness, I have to ask: is it really such an imposition to substitute a word or phrase for the sake of being clear and accurate, not to mention not offending people? The author's not really asking for much here. If we want to have an open democracy, we need to take it upon ourselves to have civil discourse and to attempt to actually communicate with one-another. The words we use matter.
Andrew Sipocz
Andrew Sipocz
Apr 13, 2012 12:41 PM
Old Growth (or Over Mature Forest if you're with a timber producing agency or company) is the term used by ecologists/biologists these days. This term acknowledges a forest's past which may include many disturbances, current management practices, and its future. Old growth can be managed for given enough time.
Daniel Watts
Daniel Watts Subscriber
Apr 14, 2012 09:10 AM
The labeling of a forest as "virgin" implies that it has never been disturbed by human activity. Nothing more than that. This label ignores the activities of the people that lived here before white people came along, who lived and played in the forests for many, many years.

Anyways, I agree with the author that the use of "virgin" is not an accurate way to describe forests, and it implies that forests are somehow pristine and untouched, despite the constant changes and disturbances from weather, animals and far away human activities.