A Nineteenth Century Warning on the
Need of Forests for a Civilization to Exist
Helena Blavatsky and a Forester
A 2016 Editorial Note:
The two texts below show the importance
of trees for the climate of nations and on a
global scale, and the centrality of the ecological
issues in the theosophical view of the world.
Although the original titles of the articles refer
to India, their authors examine the worldwide
problem of forests, with examples involving
Brazil and many other countries, including France,
Russia, Austria, Sweden, Norway and United States.
Both articles are reproduced from “The
Theosophist”, November 1879 edition. Blavatsky’s
commentary will be found on pp. 42-43: the article by
“Forester” on pp. 52-54. We add a few explanatory
notes. Some paragraphs have been divided
into smaller ones, in order to make the reading easier.
(Carlos Cardoso Aveline)
“We need only glance at the pages of
history to see that the ruin and ultimate
extinction of national power follow the extirpation
of forests as surely as night follows day. Nature
has provided the means for human development;
and her laws can never be violated without disaster.”
(Helena P. Blavatsky)
1. The Ruin of India
Helena P. Blavatsky
While every patriot Hindu bewails the decadence of his country, few realize the real cause. It is neither in foreign rule, excessive taxation, nor crude and exhaustive husbandry, so much as in the destruction of its forests. The stripping of the hills and drainage-slopes of their vegetation is a positive crime against the nation, and will decimate the population more effectually than could the sword of any foreign conqueror.
This question of forest-conservancy has been thoroughly studied in Western countries under the lash of a dire necessity. In spite of the opposition of ignorant and selfish obstructionists , nation after nation has taken the first steps towards restoring the woods and jungles which had been ruthlessly extirpated, before meteorology and chemistry became developed, and political economy was raised to the dignity of a science. In America, where our observations have been chiefly made, the wanton destruction of forests has been appalling. Whole districts have been denuded of large timber, through the agency of fire, merely to obtain cleared land for tillage. The 90,000 miles of railway and 80,000 of telegraph lines have caused the denudation of vast tracts, to procure their supplies of ties and poles. Not a moment’s thought was given to the ulterior consequences, until, recently, the advancement of statistical science rudely awoke American publicists from their careless apathy.
We need only glance at the pages of history to see that the ruin and ultimate extinction of national power follow the extirpation of forests as surely as night follows day. Nature has provided the means for human development; and her laws can never be violated without disaster.
A great native patriot wrote us, some months ago, “this poor nation is slowly dying for lack of food-grains”. This is, alas! too true; and he who would learn one great secret why food-grains fail, poverty increases, water courses dry up, and famine and disease ravage the land in many parts, should read the communication of “Forester”, in this number, to give place to which we gladly laid by other matter already in type.
Our love for our adopted country moves us to give this subject of forest-conservancy much consideration in these columns from time to time. Our trip Northward last April, through 2,000 miles of scorched fields, through whose quivering air the dazzled eye was only refreshed here and there with the sight of a green tree, was a most painful experience. It required no poet’s fancy, but only the trained forecast of the statistician, to see in this treeless, sun-parched waste the presage of doom, unless the necessary steps were at once taken to aid lavish Nature to re-clothe the mountain tops with vegetation.
2. The Indian Forest Question
Your monthly journal professes to seek the welfare of the country and the people – I trust, therefore, that you will give space therein to the following few remarks upon the influences of trees and forests, and the disastrous effects arising from the denudation of hill and mountain slopes. Your journal will probably reach, amongst others, the hands of native Karbaries of Native States who will, perhaps, under your advocacy, be led to consider the subject deserving of far more attention than has yet been given to it.
The Bombay Government are fully aware of the gravity and importance of the subject, and the Bombay Gazette has lately remarked in its editorial columns upon the pressing importance of the forest question connected with this country, and enlarged upon the benefits conferred upon agriculture in the plains and level lands of a country by the presence of forest vegetation upon its hill and mountain slopes, and also regarding the manner in which the growth of forests tends to influence rainfall. Regarding the past heavy monsoon and the rain which fell in torrents, I would ask my readers to consider how much of this precious water, which is sent by Nature to give fertility to the soil, to cause the germination of seeds, to irrigate crops, and in short to give life and health to vegetation for the food and benefit of man and beast, was permitted to escape and run off the land unutilised, and to return to the ocean by the many rivers, streams and water-courses intersecting the country, simply because the hills and drainage slopes surrounding us lack the power of stopping the downward flow of water and of causing it to lodge in the earth?
The restoration of vegetation to our hills would work a magical transformation in this respect. The so-called “worthless scrub and brushwood” which first appear under forest conservation on the sides of denuded hills, play a most important part in regulating the off-flow and storage of water, and the consequent natural irrigation of the country; each bush offers an obstruction to the downward flow of water, stopping it for a while, and inducing some portion of it to filtrate into the ground, conducted by its roots through the holes and tunnels they have excavated and worked, into hidden reservoirs below. When the scrub and brushwood have developed into “timber and forests” and undergrowth is suppressed by tall trees, then other vegetable agents come into play, in controlling the surface and sub-soil drainage of water, and in forming natural surface and subterranean reservoirs.
The first question has of late years been attracting considerable attention all over the world. Able, interesting and instructive letters by correspondents have, from time to time, appeared in our local papers on “the influences and uses of forests”. In America, as well as on the Continent of Europe, the subject has been ably treated by scientific men who have made it their study. In the Bombay Gazette of the 31st March last, I was informed that M. Barbié, a French savant, has recently presented to the French Society of Agriculture a long paper, which contains a résumé of the timber supply now existing in various parts of the world; and from a Blue Book it is gratifying to learn that our own Government at home has been in no way backward in gathering information on this very important subject. So long ago as 1874, Lord Derby, then Foreign Secretary, addressed a Circular to H. M.’s representatives abroad, embodying a series of questions as to foreign timber, including timber used for ship-building, and railway purposes, for furniture, fancy articles, firewood, latticewood, shingles for roofs &c.: also as to timber, from which valuable barks, gums, dyes, &c., are derived. Among others, question No. 13 asked, “Have any observations been made or conclusions arrived at as to the climatic influence of forests, or the effect of their clearance on the rainfall, floods, &c.?” Reports were received from Austria, Hungary, Brazil, France, Hesse, Darmstadt and Baden; Russia, Saxony, Sweden and Norway; Switzerland, the United States, and Wurttemberg; Cuba and Honduras. A few of these I will now proceed to give. Mr. Percy French, for Austro-Hungary, replied to the above question as follows:
“The expropriation or diminution of the forests in parts of Austria, and more especially in Hungary, has been followed by effects of a serious and baneful nature, such as long seasons of drought and a permanency of tremendous winds, which come from the Carpathians, sweeping the whole of the plains of Hungary; filling the air with unceasing clouds of dust, and considerably increasing the development of pulmonary disease, especially in the towns which are now totally unprotected; among these may be mentioned Pesth, Presburg and Vienna, which are perfectly intolerable in spring, summer and autumn on this account. Ample information on this point will be found in the stereographic and meteorological returns.”
Here in the Deccan is experienced much of the same effects, resulting from the destruction of forests and trees, during a great part of the monsoon months. Fierce winds from the West and S. W. sweep over the country, driving away the vapour-laden clouds at a rapid rate high over the thirsty plains, without permitting them to discharge their precious moisture to benefit cultivation and to make the soil yield its due increase; while in the dry season equally fierce but hot winds from the opposite direction rush over the land, and assist the untempered rays of a tropical sun in completing the work of evaporation and soil exhaustion.
From Rio, Mr. Victor Drummond reported, “There is no doubt that the destruction of forests has a great influence on the climate, both in causing a decrease in the rainfall and an increase in the heat, and a consequent diminution of healthy atmosphere; and these have been particularly remarked at Rio Janeiro, where formerly the climate was very good and healthy, where the tropical heat was supportable, and where no yellow fever was known.”
In proof of these remarks, I will give an extract translated from a speech made at the International Congress at Vienna in 1873, by Senhor José de Saldanha da Gama , who was one of the Brazilian delegates there. He says:
“The woods of Brazil now furnish comparatively so little to what they used, that to fill the reservoirs of Rio Janeiro, a town of 300,000 inhabitants, the Brazilian Government was obliged to bring water from the mountains at a long distance off, and at a considerable cost. Is it absurd to suppose that this drying up of certain water-sources, and the small quantity to be found in others, is entirely owing to the destruction of a great part of the woods surrounding Rio de Janeiro? I believe not. Their influence on the climate is also clearly proved. In the time when the vegetation was healthy and vigorous, the atmosphere was much softer, and much purer in the three months after December, and which, although naturally hot, were certainly much cooler than they are now. There were then constant storms every evening in summer; thunder was heard, and the rain fell during two or three hours without exception every day. The air became fresh, light, transparent, and agreeable. Then we enjoyed a pleasanter climate and could support without an effort the tropical heat, without fearing epidemics, which at that time were unknown. Little by little, and by the destruction of the forests, the storms so healthy in the bad season, lost their remarkable regularity; the heat increased in the same proportion, the climate became less favorable to health during the three summer months, and those in affluent circumstances, retired from Rio till the end of April.”
The same influence, owing to the destruction of forests, is noticed in other parts of Brazil along the coast.
The report from France stated that observations have been made at different times with regard to the climatic influence of forests and to the effect of their clearance, and particular attention was bestowed upon these questions in 1856, after the inundations which took place in France in that year. In 1858 the question was studied by Messrs. Billand, Cautegiral and Jeandel in the Departments of the Meurthe; and M. Becquerel, member of the Academy of Sciences, continued these studies in the basins of the Loire, and of the Seine, in the large forests of Orleans and of Fontainebleau; he, at the same time, studied the influence of forests upon atmospherical phenomena, such as upon the amount of rainfall, storms, &c. The following are some of the conclusions arrived at by M. Becquerel:
(1) That great clearances of wood diminish the number of springs.
(2) That forests while preserving springs regulate their course; and,
(3) That cultivation in a dry and arid soil does away to a certain extent with springs.
These conclusions of M. Becquerel gave rise to controversies, and the Botanical School at Nancy (Ecole Forestiere) was in consequence charged with studying the question and with drawing up reports upon it. These reports are given in extenso in a work entitled “Metorologie Forestiere”. It is stated herein that observations were made in two places, the one wooded and the other devoid of wood, situated in the same latitude and longitude, and at no great distance from one another, and it was found that the rainfall was greater in the wooded than in the agricultural district, that the soil in forests is as well watered by rain as the open country, and that springs are more abundant and regular in their supply of water in a wooded than in an unwooded district; that it has been proved that forests moderate the temperature of climate both in diminishing cold and in modifying heat.
In the Island of Cuba it has been observed that in proportion as the forests, especially in the plains and lower uplands, have been destroyed and cleared away, the rains have diminished and the natural storage of water made impossible.
There can be no doubt then, not only from these reports but also from the examples surrounding us on all sides, and which unfortunately are continually forcing themselves upon our observation, that the destruction of the forests of a country is productive of most disastrous consequences. The climate changes for the worse; the rainfall becomes capricious; the water supply gradually dries up and atmospheric humidity disappears. Thus, while in the Western districts of Poona cold-weather crops are grown, yielding their due increase, being irrigated by dew and the moisture that trees transpire through their leaves, in the Eastern Districts, cold-weather crops are burnt up by dry, hot winds and the absence of dew. Navigable rivers become shallow streams. The Ratnagiri district offers remarkable examples testifying to this fact. The Chiplun creek has so silted that large native craft cannot now come within four miles of Goalkhot bunder , to which place the largest vessels plied a few years ago. The Shastri river affords a strong illustration.
The largest native vessels could, within the past thirty years, ply up to the quay at Sungweshwar, which town is now left high and dry, six miles from the nearest navigable point! Brooks change into torrents during one part of the year and stony tracts during the remainder: the rivers in the Poona districts, especially the streams, that issue from the cross ranges of denuded hills, are examples of this. Lakes dry up and reservoirs are filled with silt. The Wadki tank, a few miles from the Poona city, and the Patus tank, an old work dating from the Peishwa’s time, 30 miles east of Poona, prove the correctness of this statement. The subterranean water-level sinks by gravitation, in the absence of trees and the capillary attraction of their roots. Wells, which formerly held water all the year round, are now to be seen very inconstant in many villages in the Deccan. Landslips are of frequent occurrence: the surface of once fertile valleys, in many parts of the Deccan, is now covered with fallen earth and stone, while in the Konkan it is very common for ryots  to seek remission of rent on the plea that their rice fields have been covered with avalanches of soil brought by heavy rains off unprotected hills. Rivers carry away the stoutest bridges, as the Nira, Girna, Tarla, Moosum and fifty other Deccan rivers have recorded. Dams of irrigation reservoirs are breached, as Koregaon in the Sholapur district and many more can witness.
These are some of the evils which result from the destruction of forests. It will be seen then, how very necessary it is that forest conservation – which, by restoring forest vegetation to the hills and mountains of the country, will mitigate, and in time remove these evils – should he pushed forward with system and vigour. It is possible that temporary inconvenience may be occasioned to a few people by the wholesale protection of hills and drainage-slopes, but when it is considered that the work is for the country’s welfare, and that multitudes will benefit by it, then it must be acknowledged that consideration of individual interest cannot for one moment be allowed to stand in the way of the public good.
(October 21st, 1879.)
 In the 21st century such “ignorant obstructionists” or “eco-skeptics” are not hard to find. Blind followers of the ideology fostered by big oil-money can be counted by the millions. (CCA)
 Professor José de Saldanha da Gama (1839-1905) was a Brazilian Botanist and Zoologist. (CCA)
 “Bunder” is a boat or raft used in the East Indies in the landing of passengers and goods. In this sentence, however, “Goalkhot bunder” means a place. (CCA)
 Ryots: peasant cultivators in India. (CCA)