“To sustain an environment suitable for man, we must fight on a thousand battlegrounds. Despite all of our wealth and knowledge, we cannot create a redwood forest, a wild river, or a gleaming seashore.” Lyndon B. Johnson
Some inspiring things were said—and done—in the 1960s, when I was a kid first becoming aware of the world behind the end of my nose. On TV and in National Geographic, I saw pictures of the Cuyahoga River on fire, piles of dead fish lying belly up on the shores of Lake Erie, people poisoned by mercury, smokestacks belching pollution. Battles were fought over banning the pesticide DDT, removing lead from gasoline, setting standards for clean air and water and food. More battles were fought to preserve wild places, keep them from being exploited by extractive industries, and to save native plants and animals from extinction.
Those battles and the landmark legislation that resulted have been around for fifty-plus years and for the most part, have done good. No more rivers on fire. Bald eagles and other bird species pulled back from the brink. Acid rain reduced. The hole in the ozone layer is closing back up.
And yet. And YET! The forces of darkness are corroding environmental protections at this very moment. Is it acceptable to slip backwards? To accept a world where resources are extracted for maximum profit, humans are treated as slaves, garbage patches whirl in the oceans, and climate patterns shift? Is it acceptable to create a world where only rich people have access to clean water and air, high ground, unpoisoned food and good health? Et cetera…I am not even aware of all the insane things happening.
Here is what I know:
~History does repeat itself unless lessons from the past are learned.
~Humans in general and Americans in particular are capable of rising above greed and selfishness to work toward a greater good.
~Wealth and knowledge aren’t everything. Clean and adequate air, water, food, wild spaces and sharing our world with the earth’s other inhabitants may be considered to be pretty damn important too.
I am paying attention, and I know others are too. My confidence in our political system is at an all-time low, but it’s the system we have. I am writing to my elected officials to protest the erosion of environmental laws and demand more to be done to protect the liveability of the planet for humans and other life forms. The battles never end.
As 2020 kicked off, the internet was full of articles about resolutions and pledges, speculation about what the new decade will bring, etc. This website about climate action caught my attention and I read on to see what kinds of changes people are making. Pretty basic stuff, it turns out. I’ve been pondering this for awhile. One the one hand, some commentators would have us believe that no effort made by an individual can make a bit of difference—the problems are just too big, and need to be addressed by governments and the international community. On the other hand, some say that individual change taken in aggregate can turn the tide. Listening to others, especially in an age where digital media makes it possible for every yelping voice to be heard, is confusing. So my response is to unplug and go off for a good think.
What I think is that you have to be able to live with yourself. I imagine coming to the end of my life and being able to look back. Can I live with the decisions I made about how to conduct my affairs? In turn, this makes me think about what matters, what I care about, and what I can choose. From childhood, I watched the adults in my life partially sustain our family by the work of their hands, by gardening, preserving, dairying, butchering, building houses and barns, drilling wells. I learned a lot of things from observing and assisting, but the basic lesson was that we are connected to our food, water, shelter and these things take tending. It’s easy to take prosperity for granted, but everything comes from somewhere. And goes somewhere. My rural grandparents were frugal but not joyless, competent without being cocky, and understood the importance of being good neighbors.
How could I not be influenced by them?
So I wondered about making a list of sustainable practices people are adopting, and seeing where I fall. I can’t afford to do big things like buy an electric car or put solar panels on the house, but maybe the little things add up.
It turned out to be a long boring list. So long that you wouldn’t want to read it. (Skip the rest of this paragraph if you want.) I’ve been taking my own bags to the grocery store for at least 20 years, living in a small house which means I have less stuff and use less energy, walking to work which means driving way less than average. My last airline flight was in 2015 and was such a horrible experience that I can hardly consider flying anywhere. My diet is as seasonal, organic and local as I can make it. I’m not ready to go vegan, but the small amount of meat I consume is locally and sustainably produced. I garden, I compost, I recycle, etc. Being over 50 and female means that I am invisible to society, so can eschew fashion. My clothing is comfortable, durable, and worn till worn out. I live by the old motto, “Use it up, wear it out, make do or do without.”
So if I want to do more than I am currently doing with the resources I have, I have to dig deeper. Instead of making lists, I’ve been applying a spatial thought process to my activities. Rather than think about production and consumption as a straight line, I imagine circles. It’s the good old First Law of Thermodynamics that states “Energy is neither created nor destroyed.” Energy cycles around, transforming from one kind into another.
Think about compost. I throw food scraps and garden waste into a bin. Microorganisms and invertebrates show up from the environment and transform the energy stored in the plant matter into energy to fuel their lives. The byproducts of that transformation are now available for me to put back on the garden to grow new vegetables to fuel my life. Some of the energy stored in the vegetables goes to my chickens, and their byproducts (in the form of good manure) go into the compost. Circular, more or less.
The idea is to keep healthy and useful stuff in circulation as much as possible. Some products, like single use plastics (how I detest those clamshell containers for produce) are difficult to reuse or recycle. I have a collection of yogurt containers which I reuse to freeze food, scoop grains, and for various functions in the studio. But when the pile of containers became unmanageable, I revolted. For $50 I obtained a yogurt maker and figured out how to make yogurt that tasted better than what I could buy. Then I had milk cartons, but they are reusable and recycleable, and there were far fewer of them. Same thing happened when I got tired of recycling sparkling water containers—I found a device that puts carbonation into a bottle and I return the CO2 tank for a refill after several months of bubbles.
Not only is solving these small challenges practical, the pursuit keeps me busy and entertained. No need to spend a lot of time on social media because I need distraction. No need to consume much other media either. But I do worry about the digital transformation. Data may live in a virtual cloud, but that is powered by electrically-powered servers humming away somewhere. We may have gone paperless, but information accessed on phones and tablets still consumes energy, rare earths and metals used to manufacture phones and tablets. You don’t get something from nothing. It’s all connected, and as long as we live in this galaxy we can’t escape the laws of thermodynamics.
The good old Second Law states that “Closed systems tend toward entropy.” If I have a favorite, it’s this one. My house gets messier unless I infuse energy into it to fight the inevitable chaos.
We humans have a dilemma as we relate to the laws of thermodynamics. How do we transform a finite amount of energy (and a finite planet) into the best possible outcome to reduce entropy and chaos so that Earth remains habitable for humans and others? Coming to consensus—if we are able—will probably go on past my lifetime, but I’m willing to be surprised if it happens sooner. In the meantime, we can all start where we are and make small changes to make our material lives simpler by thinking circular. And be able to live with ourselves.
I have more to say on this, but I’m a slow thinker. My mind is like a compost pile and my brain is full of microorganisms chewing away on inputs and thoughts. It takes awhile for all of it to ferment into words and actions.
I don’t like clear cuts. As a forestry technician, I’ve done my time in cut-over forests, and have witnessed the immediate aftermath of industrial logging. Anyone who cares about intact ecosystems can’t help but be disturbed by the stumps and remains of mature trees, the torn soil and sunburned forest floor plants exposed by the removal of the canopy. Abandoned pieces of steel cable are left behind, and used oil filters from the massive equipment, and plastic bottles from the logger’s lunches. These vast “harvested” acreages may be replanted with preferred species such as Douglas-fir, or left to regenerate on their own—forest practice laws of the past were not especially strict. It has been a couple decades now since the heyday of clear cutting, and trees have come back to soften the harsh lines across the landscape and cover the bare slopes. In fact, if you didn’t know what you were looking at, you might not realize that these mountains had received such heavy-handed treatment.
Thirty, forty, and fifty year old tree plantations resemble young forests but lack the complexity of an unmanaged landscape. Natural processes continue, and plant and animal communities use the habitat that is available to them. Rain and snow fall, wind blows, summer dries the soil. Needles and other plant detritus gather on the ground and replenish the soil. I know this, see it happening. But I am a landscape snob, and will choose wild roadless country if I have a choice.
My snobbery became evident to me when I ventured out after being housebound with illness for several weeks. Without the energy or stamina for the backcountry, I was content to drive on the road that loggers had built up to the top of Amabilis Mountain. I was thrilled to see any trees and find myself above the insidious frozen fog that filled the lowland valleys. And since it was December, I knew I was lucky to be able to travel up the mountain as far as I did, the truck’s tires crunching through a thin crust of snow.
I was on the hunt for a Christmas tree, another subject of my snobbery. Over the years, I have come to prefer a true fir for its shape and scent. And for memory. I suspect that my image of the ideal Christmas tree came not from real life (we always had Doug-fir saplings from the back forty till Mom bought an imitation tree), but from this storybook illustration of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale The Fir Tree:
Illustrations influenced me much more than I knew at the time. My imagination scarcely knew boundaries, and once I learned to read I avidly devoured books and stories. Most children’s books were illustrated then, and I absorbed the pictures as much as the words. I was visual and artistically inclined. This was the art that was available to me.
So I long for a true fir in the house if I can get one. And noble fir is the first choice. It is grown in the Pacific Northwest as a high-end Christmas tree, and its price is a good indication of its desirability. I have purchased noble firs in the past, but the more I learn about my surroundings, the more I enjoy the hunt for a wild one.
Noble fir is native to the Northwest, and has a small range. It grows between 2500 and 5000 feet in elevation from Stevens Pass in the Cascades to near Crater Lake in Oregon. It hybridizes with its close relative, Shasta red fir in southern Oregon and northern California. It also occurs in the Willapa Hills of southwest Washington. Stephen Arno writes in Northwest Trees (Mountaineers Books, 2007) that noble fir occurs along and west of the Cascade crest, but not east. I know for a fact that it grows several miles east of Snoqualmie Pass, and provide photographic evidence above. (The ones with bluish foliage and straight pale trunks are nobles.)
The Scottish naturalist David Douglas first described noble fir in the late 1820s, and named it Abies nobilis, admiring it greatly for its elegance of form. When it was discovered that another explorer had named a fir noble, this one’s name was changed to Abies procera, meaning “extending to great height.” Of the forty species of Abies in the world, noble fir grows the tallest, up to 280 feet. Unlike other firs, noble is shade-intolerant, preferring to start life in open places and sunlight. Such as clear cuts.
As I ascended Amabilis Mountain I saw Douglas-firs, western hemlocks, western red cedars, and the ubiquitous Pacific silver fir, Abies amabilis (lovely fir). I drove through old clearcuts and small stands of untouched forest. There was snow and ice on the road as I climbed, and I engaged the four wheel drive. Soon I saw a few bluish uniformly whorled firs growing on cutbanks and the edge of the canopy. Then I emerged into bright sunlight and a big clear cut. Young noble firs reached for the sky next to Douglas-firs doing the same. These trees were forty or fifty feet tall, and probably forty years old, meaning that the old growth would have been cut in the late 1970s. I might be a snob about clear cuts, but I was truly impressed by the growth and vigor of these trees.
I parked and got out, my boots crunching in the snow. Because it is nearly winter solstice, the angle of the sun made for deep shade under the trees. I wandered in the dimness looking up into branches. The trees were too tall for Christmas trees, and the saplings in the shade were too scrawny. I headed back toward the road and sun, where I found clumps of noble firs grown from seeds borne on the wind. These were the right height and almost bushy enough. I chose one, thanked it, and soon had it sawn down.
Perhaps it is snobbery and vanity to kill a tree just so I can bring it in the house for a couple weeks. Perhaps it is a pagan custom that makes winter a little more tolerable. Especially this year as I’ve been so ill and cooped inside. Perhaps I don’t need to justify or explain. What I have been doing is running the word amabilis through my mind. Amabilis Mountain, silver fir, amiable. Amabilis really means lovable, the Latin root amare. Love.
I do love this world—the mountains and trees and flowers and animals, rivers, deserts, oceans. I also love the broken and shattered parts, the parts that haven’t been treated well. I have seen for myself that sometimes the world can fix itself if left alone, and maybe gently helped. Humanity is harder to love. Parts of it are also broken and shattered and not treated well. Maybe that is what I need to remember, what I have learned from the mountains and trees—that humanity is lovable, even when torn up and left for dead. Something always wants to grow back and just needs time, rain and sun. Maybe a little help. Maybe love is never a waste of time.
I’d had my head down most of the day, walking back and forth looking for a new trail location. The old trail is located in the floodplain of Johnson Creek, which was likely not much of a problem when the trail was first built prior to the 1930s. But the thing with creeks is that they like to move around, being the dynamic flowing things that they are. A static trail and a moving creek sometimes converge and there are two choices: let the creek eat the trail, or move the trail. We decided to move the trail. The fisheries and soils guys were supportive, the botanist and archaeologist had no concerns. I’d spent time out here, thrashing through the brush, kicking at the soil, visualizing the line that would bring the trail nearer to the toe of the slope and away from the stream. I hung orange plastic flagging to mark the route. Now we were finally building the reroutes and I was reassessing the ground after the brush had been cleared.
This trail was one of the first ones I worked on when I came to this trail crew in 1991. I remember learning to saw with an old Stihl 038, a loud and heavy model. I was half-afraid of it and gathered my courage every time I jerked it into life to cut a log. The logs I cut then have mostly rotted away now. I remember cutting brush and installing log water bars, panting in the sun then flopping in the shade to catch breath. Lots of memories of walking and working on this trail. The forest stayed the same for years—mixed conifer overstory of Douglas-fir and grand fir, with some ponderosa and lodgepole pines mixed in. The occasional western larch dotted the slopes. Coming up underneath were western hemlocks, more grand firs, and even a few Engelmann spruces. Tall black cottonwoods were interspersed along the creek, making a cool rustling shade on hot days. There were a few snags scattered here and there, trees that died and stood until they fell.
Then the forest began to change. Spruce budworm is a small gray native moth whose population irrupts in cycles. When conifer buds open in the spring, caterpillars from overwintered eggs are presented with a buffet of fresh succulent foliage. Starting around 2004 the defoliation was noticeable, spreading across the landscape in waves. Budworms prefer Douglas-fir and true firs, but I also saw them chewing on spruce, hemlock, and once in awhile a white pine. Small trees in the understory were killed outright. Mature trees died from the top down. The ones that survived were left with spike tops and stunted branches. The infestation lasted nearly a decade.
Then there were some hot dry summers. Fire visited the Johnson Creek drainage in 2017, but didn’t affect the trail. When I returned earlier this year, I was a little surprised—shocked—at how much the forest had changed. There are now many standing dead trees where once there was solid timber, and these have come down in patches of tangled logs. It’s now possible to look up at slopes that were once blocked from view. The stand has opened up, making the place feel completely different.
When I raised my head from trail locating and cutting brush, I saw them. Two beautiful white pine trees, mature and healthy. This is an unusual sight at any time because western white pine has also had a history of change. Pinus monticola is closely related to eastern white pine, sugar pine and white bark pine, having soft fine needles in bunches of five, and long curved cones. It once grew profusely in the Idaho Panhandle and western Montana, as well as Washington and British Columbia. The wood was considered the best for kitchen matches and is still used for lumber and millwork. White pine blister rust, a fungal disease arrived in eastern North America in 1906 when European white pines were imported for a reforestation project. The disease came to the west coast in 1921 in a shipment of nursery stock from France. Quarantines were put in place and heroic efforts were made to contain and control the spread of the fungus, to no avail. White pine blister rust spread through coniferous forests, leaving stands of silver snags in its wake. Some white pines are partially resistant, surviving by allowing an infected top or branch to turn bright red and die.
The ones I found appeared to have no signs of blister rust, with healthy full crowns well down their trunks and clusters of cones held high in the top branches. They came through the budworm infestation and the droughts. This is not what I expected to see. Could they be resistant to the disease? If so, could the mortality of other tree species open up space for their progeny? Could this someday be a whole stand of white pines?
These days I find myself looking at the forest I ways I never would have thought possible when I attended forestry school in the 1980s. I’ve had to question and unlearn much of what I was taught. Observation in the field does not align with generalizations from books and pronouncements from experts. Every year it seems the misalignment becomes a little more skewed. Every year scientists discover more about how trees live in community with each other, their environment, and other organisms. John Muir was right when he said that when you tug on one thing in the universe you find it hitched to everything else.
Paying attention to the woods and finding the unexpected leads me to question everything else. What else shall I unlearn? I’m not immune to the news of the day, and spent an irrational portion of my brain energy thinking about how to reconcile my life in an industrialized capitalist nation with the changes that are occurring. I’ve done a lot of reading about eco-grief, climate denial, how the problem is so big that individual actions are meaningless, how the clock is ticking, how climate change leads to social upheaval, etc., etc. It leaves me in an uncomfortable sticky place of confusion and regret. How can I continue to participate in a system that devalues people and the planet? I’m not entirely convinced that individual actions are meaningless—if enough individuals act in a similar mindful fashion, then movement occurs. Besides, I want to be able to live with myself, knowing that I have caused as little harm as possible. This is purely selfish. I want to think of myself as a good person who cares about the world she passes through.
Choosing to simplify and refrain becomes interesting. The opportunity to unlearn the habits of a lifetime is a challenge in living a good life while consuming less. Instead of reaching for a plastic bag in the kitchen, what are my options? If I had not got tired of plastic containers piling up, I never would have figured out how to make yogurt at home, thereby sidestepping weekly plastic quart containers. How long will a canvas grocery bag last? 20 years and still going. What happens when I put brown paper and cardboard into the compost? They decompose. Can I arrange my day so that walking is possible instead of driving? Often. How do I grow a garden in unpredictable weather and seasons? I’m still figuring that out. This is not about austerity and deprivation, although I do live with resource and physical space constraints.
I accept that all organisms exist within parameters. When all the conifers are defoliated, the spruce budworm population crashes. When other trees block the light, young white pines won’t grow. When the rains don’t come and the sun beats down, the forest is vulnerable to fire. We can observe these occurrences with our own senses. Cause and effect are hitched to everything else in the universe and our human limitations may prevent us from seeing, understanding, and controlling consequences. My own hunch is that it’s better to keep it simple, accept that there are things I will never understand, and be willing to question my assumptions about the way the world is.
By unlearning what I think I know, all of a sudden there is more space for discovering what is. And that’s kind of exciting.
A warm day in July, 1969. I should be outside playing, but I’m in the house where the shades are drawn against the summer sun. The air is still and a bit stuffy. I’m drowsy, stretched out on the floor while reporters on the black and white TV are talking. I’ve been waiting for this day because history is being made—men are landing on the moon! I’ve followed all the NASA missions leading up to this one. A child of the Space Age, I watch rocket launches on TV while waiting for the school bus. On the playground, we repeat what we’ve heard: “ Five, four, three, two, one…ignition! We have lift-off!” Which is the signal to take off running, as if we can achieve our own liftoff.
Born in 1960, I never knew a world before space exploration. It was part of my growing up; a bright spot in the midst of a Cold War that I barely understood. The events of the day were far away, but transmitted on the nightly news—body counts from Vietnam Nam, footage of helicopters in jungles; war in the Middle East; riots in southern towns where police turned fire hoses and tear gas onto crowds; protesters on campuses; assassinations of political leaders; pollution and damaged ecosystems. There was plenty of bad news and scary stuff, but also a sense that the world was changing. The space program was a good—what we learned from going to the moon could make things better here on earth. There was a sense of optimism.
My first piggy bank was not a pig, but a plastic replica of a space capsule. I could slide my pennies through a slot in the top, and they made a satisfying rattle when I shook the bank. I knew the names of the astronauts, and read about space in the National Geographic (OK, I looked at the pictures and read the captions). As the Apollo 11 mission approached, I acquired a kit to build a model of the lunar lander. Because of the space program, I had decided that I wanted to be a scientist, probably a biologist. And I wanted to witness the moon landing as it happened.
The television coverage was incredibly boring. There was a lot of waiting. A lot of idle talk among the reporters. The astronauts were in orbit around the moon, and there was a tense radio silence when they were on the far side. I recently listened to a series of BBC podcasts narrated by Kevin Fong called “13 Minutes to the Moon” which brought the sounds and memories back across the decades. When radio contact was re-established, I felt the same elation that I had as a kid. I was touched to hear Michael Collins speak about the time he stayed in orbit while his colleagues went to the surface. That hot afternoon in 1969, I heard the words “The Eagle has landed.” I heard the cheering in Houston. They did it! I was thrilled. There was a lot more waiting before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would come out of the lunar module to walk around. In fact, my parents refused to let me stay up to watch. So what if it was two o’clock in the morning, I argued. This was a historic moment and I wanted to witness it. They did not relent. I would just have to watch the next day when it was replayed. It’s possible I still haven’t completely forgiven them. I did watch the next day, knowing that the big moment had passed. I was relieved and amazed when the astronauts made it home. What an awesome achievement!
I never doubted that Americans would be the first on the moon. The Russians were not that far behind, but it seemed to me then that we were determined, willing and able. I trusted good old American know-how and courage. Little did I know about the risks, leaps of faith, and enormous expense. Other than the space program, I never believed in American exceptionalism. What I saw on TV of the war and riots and protests, and what I would later see of Watergate and the energy crisis made me skeptical when politicians used the phrase “greatest nation on earth.” The greates nation on earth would not make so many blunders. Somehow the moon landing transcended politics.
As an adult looking back, I know that the Apollo missions shaped my outlook on the world. I assumed that we would keep making progress in many ways, from scientific benefits to humanity to a more egalitarian society that uses its resources wisely and fairly. I have been disappointed time and again. The first Earth Day came in 1970, less than a year after the moon landing and the image of our blue-green planet hanging in the dark vastness of space became the emblem of a new environmental consciousness. That image still haunts me. I will never see Earth from that vantage point myself, but it is how I picture our world. Small, fragile, indescribably beautiful. Home.
That sense of home and fragility made me an activist before I became a teenager. I wrote to corporations asking them what they were doing to leave a healthier planet for kids like me. I got some condescending letters and shiny brochures in return, but they didn’t address my concerns. I wrote a play about the dangers of pollution and pesticides which my fifth grade class produced. Adolescence then distracted my classmates and my family went through some difficult times. The natural world became a refuge and solace. I studied and read, integrating natural sciences with my inclination toward the arts. All that put me on the path I’ve been on for these many years.
I have more to say about that haunting image of Earth in space, the sense of home and preciousness. There is much in the news about climate change, climate grief, and the unknown that lies in store for humanity. I am glad to see protests again, and glad to hear young people are speaking out. I would have been one of them, but I was thirty years too early. I will find a way to join my voice to theirs.
But today is for remembering a time fifty years ago, when three men went on an incredible adventure and the eyes of the world were on them. Everyone wished them well, hoped for their success and safe return. What would it be like if we could ever be that focused together again? I wonder about that giant leap for all mankind—where would we find ourselves?
“Do you know what’s going on with these trees?” wondered my coworker as we made our way up the trail.
I’d been looking around. Seemed like there were a lot more dead ones than a couple years ago. This observation follows a pattern I’ve been seeing all spring and into summer—lots of dead and dying trees.
There’s always mortality in a forest, always some trees dying and making space for the next generation coming up underneath. A variety of agents kill trees, from events like windstorms and fires to biological causes like insects and fungal disease. The classic attitude to insects and disease sees them as bad, putting an anthropocentric spin on anything that causes loss of value to the human economy. Rotten trees = waste of extractable resource = loss of profit. However, after a few years of walking in the woods and looking around, I came to the conclusion that bugs and mushrooms are part of the forest ecosystem, having evolved with the conifers that host them. Some insects and fungi are specific to only one species of tree. Others are more tolerant of other species, especially when conditions are right.
In the early 2000s, the forests on the east slopes of the Cascades experienced a spruce budworm outbreak that lasted nearly the whole decade. The insects are small gray very plain moths which lays their eggs in the tips of conifer branches in the late summer. The eggs overwinter and hatch when the buds burst in spring to produce succulent needles which the little green caterpillars proceed to devour. The moths are endemic, meaning that they live in the forest all the time. What caused the outbreak, or epidemic, was the abundance of food. One hundred years of fire exclusion allowed shade-tolerant grand firs to proliferate under an overstory of ponderosa pines and Douglas-firs that are adapted to frequent low intensity ground fire. It’s almost as if Nature said “Well, if you won’t let me use fire, I’ll find another way to wipe out some of these extra trees that don’t belong here.” In those years, a hiker could almost hear the millions of tiny caterpillar jaws munching on fir needles. And certainly the millions of tiny pellets of caterpillar feces falling were audible. It sounded like very light rain on a nylon tent at night.
The defoliation swept through valleys and up ridges. Trees turned red as they died from the top down. When the red needles fell, all that remained were the ghostly gray skeletons. As the budworm population exploded, there were so many caterpillars that they began to look beyond their preferred food to any food. The ponderosa pines and western larches escaped, but every other conifer species was affected. I saw defoliated hemlocks and white pines. Many many of the understory trees were killed, and many overstory trees were weakened by years of successive defoliation.
When the budworms ate themselves out of house and home, the population crashed. It looked as if the forest might return to some kind of equilibrium.
But then the Douglas-fir bark beetles moved in. Bark beetles are also endemic, always present at a low level. They have the ability to detect distressed trees. Plants communicate with each other through the release of hormones. A tree can signal to its neighbors that it’s having trouble, and those neighbors can share nutrients through root networks. Insects also communicate with chemical messages, and bark beetles intercept the signals sent by trees. The adults tunnel through the bark and lay eggs in the cambium, that thin layer of living tissue which transports water and nutrients from the foliage to the roots. When the cambium is damaged, the tree is weakened and may die.
Now, add prolonged drought to the equation. Trees that are already stressed have one more difficulty to contend with. Their biological imperative is to reproduce. Desperate trees put all their energy into producing one more crop of seeds before they die—if they can’t survive, perhaps their progeny will. It may look as if a healthy tree is covered with cones, but it’s called a stress crop for a reason. It’s the last ditch effort of an organism that has been pushed to the edge.
So when my coworker asked if I knew what was going on with those trees, I replied “Stress,” and gave a few details about budworms, bark beetles, drought. Then added “Climate change.”
More dead trees means more fuel for the inevitable wildfires that come every summer. Climate change means that they burn hotter and longer, grow bigger and potentially more devastating.
One climate model predicts that places in my familiar landscape will be unable to support trees in fifty years. This boggled my mind, but not for very long.
There’s an old saying that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. That seems to apply here. Humans thought they were doing a good thing by suppressing wildfires to save the forests for all the reasons we want forests. So that we have lumber to build homes for people. So that the animals have homes. So that we have green forests to play in, and green forests for watersheds. But it is now obvious that there were unintended consequences. Much effort is being made toward “restoration” of our forests, to try to correct the ignorance and mistakes of the past. I don’t have much to say about this except to wonder if we are still trying to do good things that will themselves have unintended consequences. Thomas Edison famously said that the first step in intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts. We didn’t do that, therefore any tinkering at this point is probably not intelligent. Especially if it comes from the same mindset that created the original imbalance.
There are many possible responses to stress. Left untreated, stress is a killer. Some of us deny that there’s a problem, some of us self-medicate with the vice of choice, some of us give in to despair, some of us look for rescue from the next technology or charismatic leader. Some of us put all of our energy into one last flush of cones. Some of us ask for help from our neighbors, and dig deep into our roots for whatever resilience we can muster.
There’s a long hot road ahead. There will be less shade cast by trees. Consider this, and pay attention to good intentions.
A couple weeks ago I snapped a nice photo of a purple crocus. I grow them in pots on the windowsill and enjoy blooms in winter. The sun was shining strongly and outside the finch birds were twittering in that way they have when spring is not too far off. It began to seem as if the season might shift a little early.
But then it all changed, as weather is wont to do. Cold air from the Rockies seeped westward, pulled by the warmth of the Pacific Ocean. When moist air hit the cold air, snow fell. And fell and fell. Dry powdery fine snow fell for days and nights. I love snowstorms because the world goes quiet and still. People have to slow down. Our perception of what’s important shifts to the basics. Shelter, warmth, food, water, companionship.
I’ve been shoveling snow, keeping my chickens fed and watered, playing with watercolors in the studio, hanging out with the cats. I’ve sown a few seeds indoors, which really is an act of faith when it’s 15 degrees outside. I’m keeping the bird feeder full of sunflower seeds, and the finch birds are still tweedling along. A group of eight varied thrushes have eaten all the berries from my viburnum hedge.
Valentine’s Day means that the vernal equinox is five weeks away. It may look and feel like winter, but the lengthening days and brighter light mean otherwise. We are tipping toward spring.