Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Dying of the Trees

Long, long ago, before the 1970s, thousands of people would make a springtime pilgrimage to the Catoctin woods of Maryland to enjoy the flowering dogwood trees.  Today, the tourists no longer come, because 79 percent of the dogwoods are dead, and the rest are dying.  A mystery fungus created a rapidly spreading blight, which penetrated the bark and blocked the flow of water and nutrients.  It killed new dogwood seedlings.  The experts were puzzled.  Could the trees have been weakened by acid rain, smog, increased UV radiation, or a changing climate?

The dogwood die-off captured the attention of Maryland resident Charles Little, a conservationist and writer.  It inspired him to spend three years visiting 13 states, observe dying trees, interview experts, and read papers and reports.  Then he wrote The Dying of the Trees.  It was a heartbreaking project, because everything he learned was grim, and worsening.

On one trip, he visited Hub Vogelmann, in the Green Mountains of Vermont, a region downwind from the industrial Midwest.  Three-quarters of the spruce trees were dead, and there was no evidence of insects or disease.  In tree ring studies, vanadium, arsenic, and barium began appearing in the wood around 1920.  Following World War II, the wood also contained copper, lead, zinc, and cadmium.  Aluminum is commonly found in forest soils, but acid rain breaks down aluminum silicates, enabling the metal to be absorbed by plants.  It kills the roots.  Vogelmann was sharply criticized for suggesting that the problem was related to acid rain, an emerging issue by 1979.

Acid rain was killing forests in Germany and Eastern Europe.  It was killing the sugar maples in New England, Ontario, and Quebec.  In the Appalachian region of Quebec, 91 percent of the maples were in decline by 1988.  The rain was ten times more acidic than normal.  It was leaching the phosphorus, potassium, and magnesium out of the soil — essential nutrients.  In some places, the livers and kidneys of moose and deer contained so much cadmium that the Canadian government issued health warnings.  In glaring defiance of the evidence, the U.S. Forest Service reported that the maples were healthy and improving.

Little visited Rock Creek, near Beckley, West Virginia.  It was home to a remnant of the mesophytic forest, bits of which are spread across several states.  This ecosystem may be 100 million years old.  It was never submerged by rising seas, or erased by glaciers.  It was the mother forest for the trees now living in eastern North America. 

Sadly, mature trees at Rock Creek, in full foliage, were falling over, their trunks hollowed out by rot.  Fungi, supercharged by excess nitrogen, were now able to penetrate the bark.  Trees were producing up to 80 percent fewer seeds.  John Flynn was among the pioneers in reporting the acid rain story to the national media.  He was harshly criticized by both industry and the U.S. Forest Service.

Once, on a visit to England, Little met an elderly sailor who had visited Oregon as a young man.  The immense virgin forests had amazed him.  Little did not tell the old fellow that those ancient forests were mostly gone now, and that industry was eager to destroy the ten percent that remained.  It took the Brits a thousand years to exterminate their ancient forest.  Americans largely did it in one generation, thanks to better technology and mass hysteria.

The vast white pine forests that once stretched from Maine to Minnesota never recovered.  Deciduous trees took their place.  Ancient forests are not renewable resources.  “In clear-cutting such forests, then, we not only kill the trees that are cut, but we annihilate the possibility of such trees for all time.”  Forests are incredibly complex ecosystems, and logging disrupts a state of balance that took eons to develop.  Many wildlife species cannot survive on cutover lands.  A monoculture tree plantation is not a forest, and is more vulnerable to cold, drought, pests, and diseases.

Little visited Colorado, where many forests were brown and dead.  The original forest was exterminated about 100 years ago.  The second growth that replaced it was a different mix of species, mostly shade-tolerant, which were more vulnerable to spruce budworms.  These trees were densely packed together, thanks to a strategy of fire suppression — promptly extinguishing every wildfire.  The dense growth was attractive to budworms, which weakened the trees.  Then the bark beetles were able to finish them off.  Dead forests loaded with fuel invite fire.

Native Americans controlled fuel buildup with periodic low-level burns, but this is impossible today, because of the massive accumulations of fuel.  There is no undo button for a century of mistakes.  The government cannot afford to thin overgrown forests and remove the excess fuel from many millions of acres, so the stage is set for catastrophic fires.  There will come a day when the cost and availability of oil makes modern high-tech firefighting impossible.

Forests often die in slow motion.  A speedy decline might take 25 years, and be invisible to casual observers.  Forest death increased in the twentieth century, following the extermination of ancient forests.  It worsened after World War II, as pollution levels increased.  Climate change is likely to cause additional harm.

A vital lesson in this book is to never automatically believe anything.  Master the art of critical thinking, and always question authority.  Our culture is out of its mind, and many of its deeply held beliefs are bull excrement.  Each generation innocently passes this load of excrement to the next, because it’s all they know.

Here’s my favorite passage: “A hand will be raised at the back of the room.  ‘But what can we do?’ the petitioner will ask.  Do?  What can we do?  What a question that is when we scarcely understand what we have already done!”

In a series of stories, Little’s book informs readers that industrial civilization and healthy forests do not mix.  But it barely scratches the surface of the harms caused by the logging industry, or the many other industries.  When I proudly received my golden meal ticket from the university, I was dumber than a box of rocks.  I was well trained to spend the rest of my days striving for respect and status by shopping the planet to pieces.

Today, as the clock is running out on industrial civilization, it’s essential to better understand what we have already done.  We won’t discover every fatal defect, because our way of life is overloaded with them, but the ones that we can see are more likely to be addressed.  We are on a dead end path.  We would be wise to outgrow our habits and illusions, and remember how to live.

Little recommends the obvious — sharply reverse population growth, end the extermination of forests, plant billions of trees, and stop industrial pollution.  He cautions readers that we’re well beyond the point where the damage can be repaired.  Our task today is damage control — learning, growing, teaching, and mindfully reducing the harm we cause each day.  The book does not conclude with the traditional slop bucket of magical thinking.  His straight talk is refreshing.

Little, Charles E., The Dying of the Trees, Viking, New York, 1995.

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