Lifetimes to build–moments to ruin.

I love trees. I have always been a forest-dweller, reveling in the sounds, scents, and sights of the deep woods. I love moss, and water, and the lilt of wood thrushes at twilight. When I need comfort, I go to the forest. When I feel adventurous, I go to the forest. When I want to get in touch with spiritual matters, I go to the forest. I love to sit and play my cedar flute and hear it echo among the trees and ravines.

I have lived in the State Forest for fifteen years; we moved here because I have access to the horse trails and such. I am accustomed to the idea that it is being “managed” for lumber (as an ecologist I have had the Forestry propaganda and other party-line gibberish thrown in my face for many decades now), but this has been brought painfully to my doorstep in the past weeks. They are logging the horse trails. Again.

Where there were beautiful little beech trees (considered “trash” by foresters, who basically have no regard for biodiversity) there are now stubs. Where there was a shady, winding hillside trail there is now a caterpillar-tractored muddy morass. Where there was once a lovely little rill of water crossing the trail—an excellent water-stop for the horses—there’s now a mud-filled ditch. I was angry, and my horse not a little nervous (what had happened to her familiar trail?). Then I reached the top of the hill and there, off to my right, was one of my favorite landmarks—a beautiful sassafras with a young beech tree twining gently around it as though in tentative, loving embrace. It was unusual to say the least…this symbol of tolerance and acceptance and whatever-else-you-wanted-to-read-into-it.

The loggers had gone out of their way to destroy it. It wasn’t in the path; they had merely bulldozed it over (having left the main track to do it) and gone on their way. I couldn’t help it—I cried like a child when I saw it. It broke my heart.

I won’t dwell here on the absurdity of trying to turn this part of Indiana into oak-hickory forest from the (rather obviously) more predominant beech-maple. The fact that so many little beech trees have to be destroyed kind of makes that clear. In fact, there’s actually another point to this post—I drew a parallel between the forest and the complex structure of one’s personal reputation. It takes a lifetime to build, and moments to ruin.

Reputation is arguably the most valuable asset we have. It’s the words we are known by—honest, classy, forthright, generous, capable, brilliant—and it takes a very long time to cultivate. Building a reputation means we have made the choice, time and again, to take time and care with our work, or to speak uncomfortable truth, or to remain silent when remaining silent is especially hard to do. We’ve made tough choices, gone out of our way to “do the right thing,” sacrificed our time, effort, and resources, and so on. The sort of adjectives most of us would prefer to be described with do not come easily.

Just like the forest, reputation is complex, multi-layered, and beautiful. It took a lot of time and energy to get that way, yet it exists in delicate balance. It can recover from small insults. One man with an axe can mar it, but will have difficulty destroying it. A timber company, on the other hand—especially one who cares for nothing other than profit—can ruin it in just a few weeks. That timber company can make sure that forest is, for all practical purposes, never the same again. The delicate structure of one’s personal reputation is just as vulnerable, now more than ever.

These days we have an army of loggers who stand ready to turn the delicate, complex entity of personal reputation into a pile of poorly-made pallets. The name of this army of loggers: The Internet. Their weapons: blogs, discussion forums, and social media. And some individuals, it seems, delight in the process, just as the loggers seemed to delight in the destruction of our pretty little embracing trees. These folks will go after anyone who disagrees with them or vexes them in any way.

Sometimes there’s an economic reason for it—simple attempt to discredit a competitor. I’ve seen that happen many times with book writers, an arena with which I am familiar. Very often, when an author’s work or reputation is attacked, the attacker proves to be a competing author. I won’t discuss the absurdity of the notion of “competing authors” here, though that might be a good topic for a future post.

At least the timber company has to own up to its depredation. If the loggers accidentally cut down trees on private land without paying for them, for example, they will be held accountable. But the internet is largely anonymous, and one person with an axe to grind may summon a hundred sock-puppets (accounts started by the same person) to increase the damage done and make it appear legitimate. It’s getting to be like the wild, wild West out here.

In such an environment, why would anyone risk the army of masked, anonymous loggers chopping at his carefully-cultivated reputation by doing something as ill-advised as bitching about a bad review? Why would one choose to take the easy path and purchase reviews, engage in reviewing circles, or speak negatively about his competitors? Why give in to the temptation to rant and whine in public? Why not stay classy? If you make a minor slip-up, you might get one man with an axe. But if you stray grievously, the loggers will pounce and you’ll be left with a pile of pallet-wood. And the forest might not re-grow in your lifetime.

Here are some hints for making your reputation logger-resistant:

  1. DON’T POST ANYTHING on the internet in the heat of the moment. Walk away, think it over, come back and read it again before you hit “send.” When cooler heads prevail, you’ll banish the offending posts to your drafts folder.
  2. Learn from those who have gone before. Google “author meltdown” if you want examples of how to put the logger-army on speed-dial. Total, clear-cut devastation in a matter of days—guaranteed!
  1. Realize that, as valuable as it may be to you, your opinion is not required for the earth to keep spinning on its axis. It’s ok (and a good idea) to keep it to yourself sometimes.

I cannot protect the forest, as I do not own it and have no power to decide its fate. Regrettably, I have little faith in our political system. But I can use whatever power I have to protect my reputation. It has taken a lifetime to build, and I don’t want the bulldozers going out of their way to destroy every bit of beauty I have cultivated.

PS: Stay the heck out of my drafts folder.

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