Unlearning

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.

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Stress Management

“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.