Friday, April 27, 2012

Expect Us!

ABC News from Australia has featured a video so harshly blunt about the dismal prospects for the fate of trees, I wouldn't expect to see it compete for a time slot on an American channel against Dancing With the Stars anytime soon.  The discussion revolves around the horrifying fact that all sorts of tree species are rapidly dying around the world.  Featured in the interviews is Craig Allen of the USGS.  He is well-known as a proponent of the notion that trees are dying primarily because of drought from climate change.  Rather than refute this narrow interpretation yet again, I'd rather refer anyone who becomes thoroughly terrified after watching that presentation to download the pdf of Pillage, Plunder & Pollute, LLC (A Global Glut of Invisible Trace Gases is Destroying Life on Earth) and check in particular Section V, p. 48 - Sharks that Smell Blood in the Water - Insects, Disease, and Fungus - oh my! and Section IX, p. 85 - Professor Plum in the Library with the Rope - Is it Drought?  Following are screenshots from Australian trees, but they could just as well depict identical conditions in many if not most places:

I'm not going to go into much more detail about the underlying culprit causing trees to succumb to various biotic attacks, because the entire purpose in writing the aforementioned PP&P "treetise" is so that I won't feel obliged to rehash each facet of the debate every single time I post on Wit's End...although it's more than a little frustrating that Allen persists in his obsession with drought.  I did write to him more than once over two years ago, to point out that even trees decidedly NOT in unprecedented drought conditions, including young saplings meant for transplant that are being watered in landscape nurseries, are dying just as fast as wild trees in forests.  Not to mention that for those areas that are experiencing drought, controlled chamber fumigation experiments have proven that exposure to ozone shrivels root systems even before there is (now ubiquitous) visible injury to foliage, making trees more likely to lose vigor in dry conditions.

The cankers they examine - harbingers of inevitably lethal fungus - have been proliferating where I live in New Jersey, including on irrigated trees, since 2008.  A fungus has been the ostensible cause of death for over one million live oaks in California.  Splitting bark from fungus can be readily located from a casual survey on trees from the Ozarks to Maine, regardless of precipitation.  In spite of my pleas neither Allen nor his colleagues appeared even vaguely curious enough to investigate empirical, easily verifiable evidence that doesn't fit their pre-conceived bias.  He did apparently register something I have been stressing ever since this blog began because he repeated, almost verbatim:

"There may be insects and fungal pests that emerge at that point in time, but underlying it is the physiological stress on the trees that compromises their defences. You could think of it actually sort of like HIV in humans. HIV doesn't directly kill people, but by compromising our immune systems, it makes us vulnerable to secondary ah, you know, viruses and other things that can kill us. It's similar in trees."  Sound familiar??  That was getting much, much closer to the unspeakable truth, and if Craig will just take another itty bitty baby step just one further and wonder WHAT trees all share in common that could be compromising them EVERYWHERE (hint:  it's the composition of the atmosphere!!) then I will bequeath him my blog.

I can't embed the video from that site but with a click here it will pop right up with the transcript.

They also observe a failure to fruit, and seed bank decline - again, well established reactions to tropospheric ozone as recorded in published scientific literature over decades of research, amply summarized by both the EPA and USDA.  At least the Australian professor admits there's a missing element:

"Prof Giles Hardy:
The canker problem is probably the most severe thing that's happening in our forests at the moment. We've never seen it causing these levels of deaths, and now it is. So something has changed...we don't fully understand what's driving these declines, but in some areas we're losing a hundred per cent of the trees."

And then to top it off, the "man who loves trees" almost as much as he loves himself had yet another stupid anthropocentric article in the HuffPo, to which I commented after this quote from him:

"They sweep air pollution out of the air in our cities and suburbs and clean water through their complex root system."

That's great, Jim Robbins. What happens to those trees that are absorbing our pollution through their leaves and roots? Ozone gives people cancer and other fatal diseases. It does even much worse things to trees. It rots their roots making them more vulnerable to drought and wind, and rots their interiors making branches break. Ozone and acid rain make them lose their natural resistance to insects, disease and fungus. Pollution lowers their production of nuts, seeds, and fruits so they can't reproduce. If you really care about trees so much, why not talk about that?

He of course blames warmer winters for bark beetles:  "They are dying all around us in the American West. I came to realize what climate change can do to trees when bark beetles, their season lengthened by unusually warm winters, attacked trees on my 15 acres of pine forest in Montana," conveniently ignoring the fact that the first ever proven case of trees dying from bark beetle infestation, thanks to a compromised immunity from exposure to ozone, was from back in the 1950's in the extraordinarily polluted hills above Los Angeles, where it NEVER approaches extended winter freeze.

What I had really intended to share in this post, before I got distracted into that foray with the endless, inescapable "tree expert" folderol, is this next film that charmed me with my two favorite themes for photography - the exquisite perfection of nature's tenacity and diversity, and the tantalizingly extravagant decay of symbols of civilization.  This wonderful cinematography depicts the remarkable resurgence of habitat and wildlife in the midst of the radioactive ruins of Chernobyl, since it was abandoned by humans after the nuclear plant meltdown.

It's got gratifying scenes of water re-flooding the parched wetlands, thanks to the industrious beavers that build dams across drainage canals, and rampant vegetation reclaiming the rusting, crumpled skeletons of homes, barns, schools and factories, where the former human inhabitants have been supplanted by surging populations of wolves and peregrine falcons, moose and bison.  What could be a more welcome reassurance to someone who fears that life on earth may not survive the wanton destruction and pollution of homo sapiens sapiens?

I'm not certain, but a disclaimer says it is only available to view in the US.  Anyone in another country who really wants to see it can order the overpriced DVD.  Or just skip it altogether and instead watch "Expect Us!" below - a movie from Occupy Wall Street that was just released in anticipation of the big strike on May 1, to see if you recognize a certain hat at 2:08 minutes in!

Watch Radioactive Wolves on PBS. See more from Nature.

These three short films are entirely apropos of my sort of mental progression of late.  Since I finished the treetise, the culmination of over three years amassing links to articles, websites, scientific research, and photographs, I feel a faint frisson of liberation.  It seems I must now have said everything I can possibly say about pollution killing trees and other plants...and causing ecosystem collapse and wildfires and landslides and crop failure and famine (far TOO much is more like it - "longish" was how author Charles Little charitably described it, ha).
But having finished at last...or maybe because of the change of season, with the wisteria blooms wafting their intoxicating spicy perfume, and the frantic little bird trapped in the chimney flue that finally escaped to freedom, flying off until his image was swallowed in a cerulean spring sky, and the blackhaw viburnum, although lacking quite the same ethereal luminescence of the disappearing dogwood, is shining with white flowerheads in the woodland, among other small miracles...I've had the unbidden but gladdening notion that it's okay to stop mourning the impending end of industrial civilization and most of all, to stop feeling personally liable for it.  The idea that life should be safe, stable, predictable, and painless is a hallucinatory dream fostered by the comfort of cheaply available fossil fuels, that incomparably potent power representing millions of years of concentrated, irreplaceable energy that has provided both a luxurious cushion and the assurance of our self-destruction.
To acknowledge in full that ultimately, eventually, in some configuration or other the converging catastrophes will overwhelm the past centuries of perpetual momentum blindly chasing ever greater expansion, is to suffer the unmistakable burden of a curse, without any redeeming value in the foreknowledge.  It can't be useful, because there's no way to prepare for a collapse that could be initiated at any time, from any number of instigations; and which will, because it's never happened at this global scale, proceed with a capriciously volatile trajectory and direction.  You can't store enough freeze-dried food to last forever.  You can't for eternity fend off hordes of heavily armed zombies, desperate, with nothing left to lose.
Pre-traumatic stress syndrome has its place and is unavoidable to a point - but then, it's time to recognize the inevitable triumph of the most basic and suicidal of human traits, and accept it.  We're not going to voluntarily slow the growth of our population.  We're not going to reduce our standard of living so that people in poor countries can catch up to the wealthy, or even so that our own grandchildren will have a bowl of gruel to eat.  There is never going to be a source, or conglomerate of sources, of energy equivalent to fossil fuels, not to mention there exist no substitutes for many other non-renewable, essential resources required to perpetuate life as we expect it to be.  And there is no stopping the amplifying feedbacks to climate change, and no predicting what horrifically unmanageable violent weather will be spawned from the initial forcings that are already well beyond recall.
But it is possible perhaps to reconcile the instinctive recoil from this soul-crushing glimpse into the abyss, in spite of the imprint permanently tattooed, with finding joy in living day to day.  The best we can do is cherish every minute of precious life we have got, savor each morsel of food, disseminate love...and be reverent towards any remnant of nature's glorious bounty that remains, even if it's a tragic reminder of the banquet we have squandered.  To the extent this serenity can be achieved, being a Cassandra is not a curse after all, it is a gift.  Carpe diem and all that.
I'm not going to stop blogging, or grieving for trees - and all the creatures that need them for food and habitat.  But if I'm lucky I will do so with a new insouciance.  I'm also not going to stop fighting to thwart the colossal assholes murderers who deliberately manipulate the conduits of information to obscure any prospect that people could see the truth and make an informed decision to transition to a sustainable society.  So I'm headed to New York, where a clutch of noble souls have been taking turns Occupying the Wall Street sidewalk and steps to Federal Hall for the past week, where I'll do my shift.  Presuming all goes well, then I'll meet up with the Environmental Working Group later in the afternoon to see what special tribute to Mother Earth we can concoct for May Day.  Beyond that, it looks like there is to be big push shaping up to promote a national gathering in Philadelphia over July 4, which by then most likely will be hotter than hell, and meanwhile, the efforts of democratic party operatives to co-opt the movement will relentlessly intensify.


  1. Hi Gail,
    you know first hand how hard it is to maintain that sane position you are advocating today. But it is the only solution. When the doctor tells you you have terminal cancer and only one month left, you do not die that same day, you have to go on for a few weeks.
    I find comfort in thinking about you every day. It helps me to continue and I wish you a good week end

  2. Yes, the writing is on the wall, and your writing provides real pleasure because it is so excellent, like those Spring blooms. Too bad truth and clarity are discounted to bankrupt the marketplace.


    (susan anderson)

  3. Keep on pushing, Gail, you're doing a grand job. Some are listening. I have a feeling (hopefully not just optimism bias) that people are actually waking up, at last.

  4. I wonder about the health of the trees around the Chernobyl site. Is there less ozone air pollution and so better tree health? Or is the difference in pollution so little as not to matter? The woods looked better there than around here but that might just be an illusion.


  5. Congratulations on the PP & P document Gail. An excellent summary & a worthy Magnum Opus.
    Your link to the ABC video reminded me of a sad piece of news here in New Zealand - the death of an iconic native tree species, the kauri - This is stated as being due to a fungus but it seems to me as another case of proximate cause masking the real reasons - most likely atmospheric pollution.


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