Trees And The Contentious Beauty of Moving Minds

June 2022

Up in the heart of northern Minnesota, within the Chippewa National Forest, lives an old growth forest that’s home to some of the state’s oldest and largest trees. It’s way the hell out in the middle of nowhere but definitely worth seeing.

Up in the heart of northern Minnesota, within the Chippewa National Forest, lives an old growth forest that’s home to some of the state’s oldest and largest trees. Being present up there, off the beaten path, is to see massive red and white pine towering above an untouched tract of land that’s bristling with a peaceful tranquility. It’s been named the Lost 40 Scientific and Natural Area (SNA), and how it came to be, or rather, why it still exists is an interesting campfire story worth knowing.

It was Paul Bunyan’s folly, that much is certain. Back in the late 1800s, when the mass butchering of trees was occurring below the 49th parallel, Paul had sent out a posse of surveyors to map out areas where profit could still be wrenched from the land. Now, you could call it a moment of serendipity, or one of complete negligence, but those lumbering wood cutters mistakenly recorded 144 acres as lake instead of forest. Though, it’s not clear whether the little henchmen should take all the blame. Paul was probably just itchin’ to be gettin’ to Cali-forn-eye-aye to take a swing at those legendary redwoods and sequoias and didn’t want to dawdle verifying the work of minions. Whatever the case, it’s thanks to foibles like this we still have a small percentage of virgin forests left in the country.

The Lost 40 in 1 mile, DNR sign.

The Lost 40 is home to some of Minnesota's oldest and largest trees.Chippewa National Forest

Old trees are a beautiful thing—large ones especially—for they stand as magnificent pillars to an unspoiled past. Their immense trunks and high-rise canopy appeal to visions of how the countryside would have looked like before people. Experiencing old forests and the local wildlife therein provides an inspiration for environmentalism and an advocacy for preserving what remaining resources we have left. Ancient forests remind us too that it’s only when after we loose something precious do we begin to appreciate what was lost. And so, the Lost 40 is one of Minnesota’s most cherished and recognized roadside attractions by travelogues like Atlas Obscura, Only In Your State, and Roadside America.

Undisturbed forests are amazing beyond words and anyone with even half a mind of curiosity would think it absolutely fantastic to recreate the essence of these pristine vistas. Let’s think of future generations for once, clear off a section of land somewhere out in Minnesota’s lake country and plant pine trees, and only pine trees, weeding out anything else that tried to grow. Then, in 200 years declare the site a National Park, The 100-acre Wood, where magnificent conifers would stand upon on a soft pine needle floor that would stretch as far as the eye could see. Damn, that would be magical. But no one has that kind of gumption, so we’re left picking through the table scraps of days gone by.

A giant white pine tree at the Lost 40 SNA.

Immense trunks stand rooted to a soft, pine needle floor.Chippewa National Forest

The Lost 40 is a long ways to go just to see some stupid trees, but let me tell you, it’s definitely worth the drive. Meandering underneath these quiet giants is a footpath that lets visitors get up and personal with these immense columns of bark and wood. Pause next to one and listen. The place is so far out in the middle of nowhere that all you hear is the sound of leaves sashaying in the treetops above. The soft murmer makes you wish everyone had access to the relaxing lull of the backwoods.

Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.Rachel Carson, conservationist

And just like every forest, the deceased can be seen keeled over, stiff as a board. Perhaps it was old age, a bout of termites, or a strong gust of wind, but their heavy trunks finally cracked under the pull of gravity. Some of these geezers were centuries old and weighed thousands of pounds. The deep echo of timber crashing down must have been terrific. That is, if they make any sound at all.

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before

There’s a well-known thought experiment that goes something like, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” The question is ubiquitous. It’s been asked so many times throughout the Age of Reason that no man, woman, or child hasn’t felt the investigative urge to ransack their intellectual depths in the search of some original or thoughtful bit of insight to share. Indeed, the query seems amusing enough. However, the question is also like a stick of dynamite just waiting to be lit.

The conversational topic belongs quarantined among society’s most toxic of subjects, like politics and religion, and should never be discussed in the presence of good company for the debate is so drenched in piss and vinegar that it hardly fails to produce raised voices, flared nostrils, and open hand slaps. Chairs are overturned and drunken brawls erupt from the scientific and metaphysical perspectives pulling social discourse in opposite directions.

Leaves fluttering in the gentle breeze.

The sound of leaves sashaying in the treetops above creates a soft murmer that makes you wish everyone had access to the relaxing lull of the backwoods.Chippewa National Forest

Proponents of “Yes, a tree falling does make a sound” think the riddle is nonsensical, comical even, as the physical laws of nature are real, measurable, and reproducible. It doesn’t take a boy genius to understand sound as a pressure wave traversing through the atmosphere at varying degrees of frequency. Those of us with a hankering for science might just as easily answer the question with another question, If an eptesicus fuscus were to yell profanity, would it make a sound? How about a dog whistle?

Standing at the debate’s other pedestal are admirers of epistemology, smoking-jacket highbrows who use semantics as a crutch to hobble around the question so they may avoid having to answer it directly. Here, the conundrum lies in whether something can exist without it being experienced by our senses since our entire perception of the world is based solely on our interaction with it. The sights, sounds, and smells of the human experience are contingent upon our accessibility of them, and without these electrical signals received by the brain from our various senses the attitudes, beliefs, and opinions that compose our understanding of reality wouldn’t amount to jack shit.

But taking this stance —that sound is a human construct—turns what little relevance the question has in the modern world into an anthropocentric Gong Show . The mental gymnastics only work if Man brushes aside the fallacies of human exceptionalism and continues to use himself as the measure of all things, as if the entire breadth of Nature isn’t worth a damn unless Man is there to observe it. Thus we conclude, “No, the tree does not make a sound.”

Footpath at the Lost 40 SNA.

Ancient forests remind us too that it’s only when after we loose something precious do we begin to appreciate what was lost.Chippewa National Forest

The difference of opinion draws an acute line between people of all shapes and sizes, especially in those with short tempers. But before anyone runs home to collect their brass knuckles, we need to address a more pertinent question first, Who cares? Seriously now, does anyone really care about the auricular aspects of Nature? No. Nobody gives a Hershey squirt for the trees or what sounds they make. What people care about is the mental boxing match that follows. It’s the argument itself, the rhetoric, the self-righteous convictions that spur us up from our comfy armchairs and into the persuasive act of changing another person’s mind. That is the only reason why the question still exists.

The Most Favorable Outcome To Moving Minds

When our abilities to reason and draw conclusions procreate, we give birth our beloved attitudes, beliefs, and opinions. These little miracles are quite precious and hold an unfathomable value to us because it was we who created them. They are a part of us. We coddle them, nurture them, and watch them grow up. We put them on life-support systems when they become fragile or weak. Simply put, they are our pride and joy.

We get worrisome and stricken with panic, however, when our little darlings come into contact with the contradictory attitudes, beliefs, and opinions of others. But what then? In the vicinity of larger convictions, do we abandon our intellectual offspring to foster the views of another? How repulsive would that be? We cannot just dismiss our impressions of the world after we’ve cared for and nourished them for so long. Our self-identity would perish without them. The most righteous course of action compels us to learn the methods of persuasion in order to change the minds of others, to make them see the world like we do, to think like we do, and to act like we do.

Footpath at the Lost 40 SNA.

A quiet footpath lets visitors get up and close to these immense columns of bark and wood.Chippewa National Forest

Whether we think of it as an art, an area of study, or some fantastic gift bestowed unto us by nature, persuasion can be viewed as a psychological game resembling Tetris whereby our opponent’s arguments are like blocks that must be rearranged and turned around in such a way that we can clear them from consideration. We must examine and explore every talking point and counterpoint of the debate so intimately that we are able to conjure up convincing arguments from either side of the dispute. Obviously, it follows that we choose whatever side complements our pre-constructed notions of the world, but that should go without saying.

Mastering persuasion can take years to accomplish, but numerous strategies will help you emerge victorious with two fists in the air. For starters, be careful with facts. Machine gun arguments that use facts as ammunition often backfire, because for all careful reasoning that goes in a person’s head people are much more persuaded by the ideas they themselves have discovered rather than by those which have come into the minds of others. So get to know your opponent. The better you know them the easier it will be to dumb down your argument and spoon feed it to them without their knowing. So, learn to pull off sneak attacks and slither in through the backdoor of their understanding.

Speak in a low-keyed, gentle manner. Fake empathy if need be. Over-represent the facts if you can. If you have any prestige or previous experience related to the argument, embellish it. Place booby traps in your line of reasoning for your opponent to fall into. If your viewpoint has been accepted by others in the past, bring that up. Use thoughtful sentences. Clever words can build effectual connections between the knowledge being presented and the ears of even the poorest of listeners. Blur fact and fiction. Wield eloquence. Prettify your shortcomings. Convince the opposition that the only reason for their cognitive error was because they did not have all the information—essentially, blame someone else for their arriving at the wrong conclusion. Humor them if necessary. And, most importantly, appeal to their emotions. All of these devices will transform your listener into a more receptive audience for your preferred points of view.

Tree leaves surrounded by bokeh.

The Lost 40 is a long way to drive just to see some stupid trees but let me tell you, it's definitely worth the drive.Chippewa National Forest

Like all things in life, the likelihood of emerging triumphantly from debates is almost entirely based on the amount of effort we put into the work. But if we’re only to understand one thing from all this it’s that a well conceived argument is an attempt to find in its form, in its eloquence, and in every aspect of its manner a condition for which the exchange of reason is so illuminating and so convincing that our opponent’s counter serenade becomes as pleasing to the ears as a walloped whoopee cushion. This, at least, is the most favorable outcome to the challenge of moving minds.