Friday, October 17, 2014

Celestial Symphonies

I hear the wind among the trees  
Playing the celestial symphonies; 
I see the branches downward bent, 
Like keys of some great instrument. 
  ~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
~ William Cowper, The Yardley oak, 1791
 click here for more images from Thomas Pakenham's book, Meetings with Remarkable Trees

Three centuries he grows, and three he stays, 
Supreme in state, and in three more decays. 
   ~ Dryden 

Three hundred years growing 
Three hundred years living 
Three hundred years dying. 
   ~ the life of an oak, according to an old saying

Similar harrowing scenes have been played out too many times, in too many places. This haunting version portrays the folly of man with heartbreaking poignance.  Thanks to facebook friend Got Grange for sending the link to this video of clearing for road construction, original shot in 1996, my way.

**this post is updated below the video


When I decided to post the video above I looked on the internet for a photograph of an oak and found this one, from the Ide Adobe State Historic Park in the Sacramento Valley of California.  I decided not to use it, since the video is about England, even though it is a magnificent specimen.  It's spectacular, actually, I love the way it looms over the building.  Of course generally I write about trees dying from absorbing air pollution - not logging - and since that picture was taken in 1996, I very much doubted that tree could still be in good health.  So I looked it up.

Surprise, surprise.  The entire crown simply collapsed this year - talk about a bizarre and sudden tipping point! Following are the excerpts from a local newspaper story dated July 13.  Notice how obviously rotted the wood has become.
At approximately 9:15 a.m., Sunday, July 13, the oak tree that shaded the adobe structure in the center of the historic area of the park lost a majority of its limbs, causing significant damage to the adobe and several of the other buildings in the park. 

It was fortunate that no one was injured during the incident. 

The 350 year-old oak tree has provided shade to visitors of the park for many generations and was around long before the adobe building was first built in the 1850's. 

The state made several efforts throughout the years in an attempt to keep the tree as part of the park's history. It included regular inspections, cabling of the limbs, and trimming as needed.  This morning, the tree faced catastrophic failure when it suddenly lost almost all of its branches

The first branch to fall landed on the roof of the adobe causing a portion of the structure to collapse. When other branches fell, they caused damage to the smokehouse, workshop and the pump house. 

Currently, park's staff are working on securing the site and removing the debris. 
Additional resources will need to be utilized to remove the branch still resting on top of the adobe building in order to minimize damage. 

It is unclear as to what caused the tree failure and what it will take to repair the damaged buildings. 

Park staff will reevaluate the situations and determine what it will take to make the buildings serviceable again. 

The historic section of the park will remain closed until further notice. 

[One of two comments on the story reads:]

Me think the Daily News Staff should run a series of articles about "never trust a Oak Tree". Had several that size in Fall River Mills that were rotten from the roots up into the branches...


  1. "What madness is this?" Exactly. We deserve the horrible fate we have coming. Terribly sad we're taking so many plants and other animals with us.

  2. That WAS quite the magnificent tree! Of course they would be "unclear as to what caused the tree failure." In other places, e.g. just west of my home, "causal" factors are much more overt.

    Two days ago, my neighbor, a thoroughly repugnant and disgusting creature (biker and full-time drunk), decided that a 50+ foot tall and quite stately elm tree on "his" property was blocking too much sun in his little "courtyard" (a small area between the house and the garage where, in the summer, he sets-up an inflatable "kiddie pool," and no "kids") as well as infringing on his "buzz" with leaves "cluttering" his yard this time of year. The tree was not in any way diseased or distressed but he had it cut down anyway! The real(?) "hoot" is the company doing the work was called "Eco Tree Service." I wonder how "ecological" they think cutting down healthy trees is. So now he has just a stump about 1-1.5 feet high, almost 5 ft across, and nothing to absorb water in an otherwise low area of his yard. It will be interesting next summer, too, as his "courtyard" gets little to no breeze (enclosed on 3 sides) and LOTS of sun now. Perhaps I'll get "lucky" and next summer's heat will obviate his presence.

  3. Clearly, the oak trees have aligned themselves with ISIS and need to be dealt with accordingly as a terrorist threat to all this nation holds dear.

  4. Didn't you write that MAYBE 30 ppb of ozone was safe for our trees and perennials? If we're lucky we might get lower standards but only 60-70 ppb.
    There's not enough science!


    1. 40 ppb is accepted by scientists as being the threshold of tolerance for vegetation. So no, the lower standards wouldn't be sufficiently protective of vegetation even if they are 1. enacted and 2. complied with (which they won't be, it's impossible because the precursors are often emitted outside the area of nonattainment). Left a comment at climate news (sigh) ...There is a glaring omission in this article which is the effect of ozone on vegetation. Plants are even more sensitive than people when they absorb pollution. In addition to direct damage such as slower growth, shrunken roots, injured foliage and reduced nutritive quality in crops, the most pernicious effect is a radically increased susceptibility to opportunistic biotic attacks. Insects, diseases and fungus are now epidemics on every species of tree and shrub around the world, causing mass dieoffs. While the implications lead directly to a collapse of the biosphere, this should be of intense interest to climate scientists and activists because a significant loss of a major CO2 sink will greatly accelerate global warming.

  5. Gail - thanks for another wonderfully crafted post. I especially liked the metaphor of this big oak "suddenly" collapsing to that of our entire habitat - we're just so good at ignoring what we don't want (or refuse) to see! It will be quite the 'surprise' when suddenly one day that will come too soon, everything just seizes up on the economic front, while diseases and natural disasters plague us from another vector and resources dwindle to not enough to go around, the glaciers and poles continue to melt (so sea level rise quietly and unseen rises continuously), and our pollution comes back to choke us out of existence.


    1. Thanks Tom - I always appreciate reading your thoughtful comments here or NBL or sprinkled around the doomosphere!

  6. Perhaps someone here knows the answer to this RealClimate Unforced Variation Oct. 2014 question:

    "What is the collective noun for a group of doomers?

    Comment by Chris Reynolds — 17 Oct 2014 @ 12:02 PM"

    My choice would be 'realists'. But that would be too easy.


    1. Hehehe, Catman, thanks, I left this comment (in moderation):

      Chris Reynolds asks, “What is the collective noun for a group of doomers?”

      I’m not sure - Cassandras, perhaps? (remembering of course that Cassandra was right) - but in any event. we now have an online repository for all related subjects of interest to doomers, where new terminology is welcome…as are any links to add to the stacks whether art, music, fiction, documentary films, or scientific reports.

      This presents an excellent opportunity for a public acknowledgment (with no small measure of irony) to Gavin for first coining (as far as I know) in an earlier RealClimate thread the plural version, which gives the Apocalypsi Library at the End of the World its resonant name.

      Thanks Gavin!

      - See more at:

  7. I admired your comments in the EcoShock forum regarding Guy McPherson.
    I also admired your Doom For Dummies page.
    For your enjoyment:

  8. Robin Datta sent me a link to an engraving of the Yardley Oak and I wrote him: Beautiful! This is the way trees die naturally, there is a gradual breaking of individual branches, and spurts of regrowth - they can continue to live for a very long time even when the trunk is completely hollow. The one that fell in California all at once was freakish...

  9. I cannot find any contemporary photos or references to the Yardley Oak (aka Cowper's Oak) but there are photos from perhaps as late as the 1940's, almost 200 years after described in the poem as being essentially standing dead, heh.


    1914 painting:

    The full poem ^^, below are two excerpts:

    Time made thee what thou wast, king of the woods.
    And Time hath made thee what thou art, a cave
    For owls to roost in. Once thy spreading boughs
    O'erhung the champaign, and the numerous flock
    That grazed it stood beneath that ample cope
    Uncrowded, yet safe-sheltered from the storm.
    No flock frequents thee now; thou hast outlived
    Thy popularity, and art become
    (Unless verse rescue thee awhile) a thing
    Forgotten as the foliage of thy youth.

    ...Thus to Time
    The task was left to whittle thee away
    With his sly scythe, whose ever-nibbling edge
    Noiseless, an atom and an atom more
    Disjoining from the rest, has unobserved
    Achieved a labour, which had far and wide,
    (By man performed) made all the forest ring.

  10. same old sameold

    As Planet Warms, Scientists Predict Changes For Autumn Leaf Season

    (I can't prove I'm not a robot.)

    1. Sorry about the stupid blogger comment issues.

      Ha, I have to admit I kinda snapped when I read that in the BBC version earlier this month and got into a rather vitriolic exchange with Howie Neufeld over it. Hell, here's the correspondence for the record:

      Since I last wrote you gentlemen in 2009, the damage from air pollution to trees has grown ever more apparent around the world, and more and more studies have emerged about the pernicious effects in the role ozone plays in increasing the opportunistic attacks from biotic pathogens. Insects, fungus and disease are now epidemics on every species of vegetation you can think of on earth and they are not all invasive species.

      Every fall the leaves have less color, and instead of becoming beautiful they are burnt shriveled and brown, and fall off early. Anybody who can't see this is blind.

      Thus I was appalled to see Dr. Neufeld quoted in the attached article without once mentioning the inexorably increasing background of tropospheric ozone, which is what led Lisa Jackson to propose stricter standards specifically to safeguard plants. Of course she was rebuffed by the Obama administration, because it's quite clear that in order to lower the concentration in the atmosphere, drastically less fuel would have to be burnt.

      I expect politicians to be corrupt but it's hard to avoid the conclusion that academics are as well when they refuse to discuss something as patently obvious as air pollution is the underlying issue that is killing trees and reducing agricultural yield and quality. Already the knock-off effects are apparent on disappearing wildlife from monarch butterflies to moose.

      Shame on you, Dr. Neufeld for refusing to alert the media and the public to this existential threat. Perhaps you should read "An Appalachian Tragedy"?


      He wrote back:

      Gail - I normally would not respond to such an email, with the ad hominum attacks, but the record needs to be set straight here. First, Dr. Booker has passed away, so please remove him from your listserve. Second, in no way do I dismiss the impact of ozone on trees. In fact, I just finished serving as a consultant on the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee for the U.S. EPA in which our recommendation to the EPA was to make the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for ozone STRICTER, because the new evidence we reviewed from the past five years suggests continued impacts on trees and other vegetation, as well as on ecosystem functioning, and the current ozone standard was insufficient to protect vegetation.
      Second, it is not true that each year the leaves have less color and are falling off brown. This year looks to be a spectacular for fall foliage color, at least here in the southern Appalachians. There are the various diseases lurking about, such as birch blight, but that happens irrespective of the ozone levels. Third, ozone in the southern Appalachians is now lower than it has been in the past 25 years, and especially missing are the dangerous high concentrations (at least in this region). We see much less foliar injury in the field now than in the past as a result. This is most likely a direct result of the 90% decrease in NOx emissions in this region, which are highly correlated with the drop in ozone. And I have published a science essay on my academic fall color page concerning the potential impacts of climate change on fall colors in which I mentioned that ozone could reduce fall colors (by reducing sugar levels in the leaves, and sugars stimulate red fall leaf color). That information didn't make it into the BBC article due to space limitations. But an editor's decision on what to include and what not, is never cause to impugn someone's reputation or intent.
      Fourth, I did read Appalachian Tragedy, and you should read the review of it by the late Dr. David Karnosky, who showed how facts were misused, made up, and miss-attributed in that book. The real tragedy there is that it was published at all.
      Dr. Howard S. Neufeld

    2. here's the rest - too long for one comment:

      So I wrote back:

      According to the attached film with Dr. Karnosky, ozone increases the attacks from insects, disease and fungus. Dr. Kubisk calls them the "sharks that smell blood in the water".

      I am aware of the EPA's call for stricter standards, but the reason they aren't forthcoming and aren't going to be is that scientists who know about ozone - like Dr. Jack Fishman who wrote "Global Alert" and gave the attached lecture titled with the rhetorical question "Tropospheric Ozone - Are We Creating a Toxic Atmosphere" - stop short of telling people exactly how dire and imminent the threat is...exactly as climate scientists ignore the rapid amplifying feedbacks and potential for methane hydrate escape. This fosters the dangerous fantasy that we have time - decades even - to reduce emissions, consumption and population growth.

      You and your colleagues are not only letting humanity down, you are letting down all the countless other species that face certain extinction due to pollution and climate change.

      So I stand by my words, "shame on you". You and others who study ozone are the only credible voices and you are not using them. Dr. Fishman is constructing butterfly gardens for children, and you are working with a useless political process in a handcuffed agency. I hope you can sleep at night once it becomes unavoidable even to you that the forests are rapidly dying before our eyes and pollution is killing them, sure as smoking cigarettes causes cancer.


      Gail Zawacki

    3. aaaand the last...

      He replied (and I didn't bother to answer - the new ozone rules, even if implemented, aren't going to improve the situation, and he completely misread my point about the EPA, which wasn't that the scientists there are corrupt but rather, that they are hampered by a political situation that won't allow them to do their job).

      Gail - You really need to get your act together before you accuse us of working with a "useless" political agency. That useless political agency is why the air is cleaner today than it was 25 years ago. And who started ozone bioindicator gardens to see how plants react to ozone and who gave that job over to the National Park Service so they could get over 200 schools to establish such gardens on their land so they could teach children about the impacts of ozone on plants? My colleague Art Chappelka and I did, over 15 years ago. Susan Sachs, a Park ranger in the Smokies, now teaches hundreds of children a year about the impacts of ozone on plants. We published a manual for how to start a garden (in collaboration with JACK FISHMAN) and others from NASA so even more teachers could do this. So, don't go around saying we're not using our best abilities to get word out about pollution effects.

      I personally resent your attacks on the U.S. EPA. They have excellent scientists working for them, who are attempting to improve the quality of your life. If there is anything hamstringing the EPA, it's Congress. It has been the Clean Air Act, and nothing else, that has resulted in the substantial improvements in air quality that you now have, compared to what it was from after WWII to the mid-1990s. All across the eastern United States, ozone levels are going down. That's the CAA at work.

      You have no basis to say that the stricter standards "aren't forthcoming". The new standards are right on schedule. This December the EPA will issue their recommendation. It then has to go before other Federal agencies and the public for comment. A new standard will most likely become law next year, right on schedule (the entire review process takes 5 years). And it will result in even cleaner air. If I and many others didn't work on the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, the EPA would not be able to implement its new standards. Do not denigrate the thousands of hardworking scientists and policy makers at the EPA for

      As for letting humanity down, that's a laugh. My colleagues and I teach this stuff day in and day out, to hundreds of students. We don't mince words. Population growth is a problem; pollution is too; global climate change is; invasive species are; extinction is a problem. We are all aware of this. And every semester we teach our students about the importance of global change on their lives. We each do what we can. But being hysterical is not one of those things.

      And I sleep just fine.

      Dr. Howard S. Neufeld

    4. "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!" - Upton Beall Sinclair, Jr.

      Embedded in the box of belief and shackled to the script proscribed to, and chosen by, him the world will incessantly appear rosier than it is. Such is the state of far too many allegedly sentient, even sapient, lifeforms. I'm sure he believes he is doing his best to awaken at least some minds and serve the common good. I am also sure that he believes that all, or a preponderance, of those with whom he works are doing likewise. Even seeing outside that box is scary and requires more effort than most are willing to exert. So, thinking outside of the box is utterly UNthinkABLE! Nonetheless, "good on ya', mate" for trying. :) It has recently dawned on me that the acronym "NWO" actually means something beyond "New World Order." The paramount meaning being "No Way Out' which, of course, implies the lesser meaning.

    5. Well, when he told me that the foliage is better this year I gave up. It's horrible.

  11. You may be (probably are) on to something. And you may have (probably do) have good reason to take some shots at scientists. But there may be (probably is) little chance that they will be inclined to hear you and take your observations and conjectures seriously if you are so dismissive of the demons they have to wrestle. Besides, you haven't considered enough possibilities. Ozone may be a problem (yes, but how much of one?). Or part of a problem (what else needs to be considered?). And so on. Unless it's not really your point to find out. Which might make for some good writing and reading and even some nice photos and some clever phrases every now and again. But is that, as the song goes, "all there is"? Couple things. Changing the composition of a gas changes the way it refracts light. We can tell what other planets' atmospheres contain, or what other stars are made of, by examining properties of their light signatures (NASA 101, something even Republicans accept). It stands to reason, then, that an atmosphere with more ozone (why stop there, aren't there other VOCs?) refracts light differently than an atmosphere with less ozone. And light is a basic part of the biophysics of photosythesis. And different species are adapted to maximize their photosynthetic efforts by performing better under certain wavelengths. Now here's where it gets very, very, hard. You will need some real science to put points on the board. You (probably) won't get it the way you're going.

    1. The Howie Neufelds of this world who have made an entire career out of studying ozone while simultaneously tip-toeing around how serious the problem is are a lost cause. You obviously don't even know what VOC's are and how they interact with NOx to form ozone. Your comment is like saying, oh sure that guy smoked 2 packs a day for years but maybe something ELSE gave him lung cancer. At least I hang my real name to my statements.


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