Duck Soup: Seeing Trees in the Forest

A collapse of forest ecosystems is upon us. There is probably no more important news you will hear in your lifetime, but chances are you haven't heard much about it. In the United States the story has been buried, along with information about global warming, by coal and oil companies and their allies. They attempt to muddle the facts and block even modest attempts to fix our serious environmental problems.Before you write me off as a nut-case given to hollering "wolf," I suggest you take a walk in the woods. Find out for yourself what is happening to the plants you depend upon for every breath you take.If you start your walk on top of North Carolina's Mt. Mitchell there isn't any woods to walk in anymore. The spruce forest was wiped out a decade ago by acid precipitation. Perhaps you could try Mt. Rogers, in Western Virginia, where the northern hardwoods are going fast. Then drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway and notice the dying tops of maples and beeches all along your route. Lower still, look at the wrinkled bark of dead dogwoods and the lesions and shelf fungi on locust trees. Even if you have never considered tree health before in your life, you can't miss the symptoms.Count the trees on an acre and tabulate the number which are standing but dead. Normal mortality in a maple forest, for example, should be about 1 percent per year, with about 7 percent standing dead. This makes sense, if you consider that maples may live for one hundred or more years. Most of the trees should exhibit vigorous health. Most of the trees do not.A forester I spoke with in Vermont told me that in vast sections of that state there are no healthy trees at all. We took a short walk and on one tree after another he pointed out the stigmata of decline. He observed that in the past decade the failure of his woods was gradual, but that the change is becoming exponential. He wondered aloud if his trees would last five years.A University of Tennessee researcher who has studied tree decline, tells people that if they want to see the magnificent northern hardwood forests in the Southern Appalachians, they'd better hurry.Even if the trees were in excellent health, the planet is getting warmer fast. Very fast. To survive in a warmer world, species must move north or uphill. Trees move very slowly, since they must mature and produce a crop of seeds when then hopefully sprout in a more favorable location. Each degree of warming means plants must move forty miles north or sixty feet up slope. But parts of northern Ontario have already warmed by three degrees in the last decade, and acid precipitation is most serious at high elevations. The situation is extremely bleak.What can be done? Certainly there are powerful monied interests who recommend we simply study the situation again. The oil and coal companies treat us to an repetitive litany from a handful of well-paid professional doubters. If we follow their lead we will literally study it to death.Republicans in Congress say "Yes, let's study it more," and then cancel funding for the research they claim we need.We don't have to relinquish the future; there is work to be done. We can become a renewable, solar economy instead of a fossil fuel and nuclear dead end, a true service economy instead of a society of mindless consumers.Heat with wood instead of oil or coal. This recycles currently free carbon, whereas fossil fuels release carbon that has been chemically locked out of the atmosphere for thousands of years. Natural gas is the cleanest choice if you can't burn wood. Drive fewer, slower miles. Ride your bike. Use less electricity. Buy local farm products. Tell your family. Tell your neighbor. Tell elected officials.Remember that the money oil companies use to buy political and media influence is coming from you. The only power they have derives from our wallets, and our wallets are still in our hands.It is entirely possible that a worldwide populist movement toward sustainability can succeed. There is no better place to start than here. There is no better time than now.Let us begin.


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