Sunday, February 6, 2011

Something Wicked This Way Comes

No, no - not Mike Roddy!  He was host extraordinaire while I was in California for the demonstration against the Koch brothers.  I planned the trip with extra days before and after, to leave plenty of time to hike in the desert, a new experience for me.  A long-time resident of the area, Mike was full of entertaining anecdotes and history, and an aficionado of obscure pleasant pursuits.  One of the first places he took me to visit was Joshua Tree National Park, where he was greeted with gratitude at the Park's Ranger Headquarters for his life-time membership.  Not enough people appreciate the park.
I have to confess, I was one of them - I didn't expect to be overly impressed.  My notion of a proper tree has always been the sort with massive branches like powerful muscles, that can be climbed upon, or support a hidden treehouse or swing...and create expansive shade and habitat...and is overwhelmingly, almost immortally enormous, PLUS must have multiple shaped leaves that turn various brilliant colors in fall.  Thus, to witness the extraordinary beauty I discovered there, even though it is quite different, was a humbling and exhilarating experience, one I will forever treasure.  So, I apologize in advance for too many pictures, which was sort of inevitable, because I love rocks almost as much as I love trees - and besides the fascinating plantlife and spectacular views of faroff snowcapped mountains, there were endlessly absorbing compositions of weathered monzogranite boulders to admire.
Those are ancient plutonic intrusions that contrast with the other formations they burst through; and their rough gritty surface provides excellent traction, making the peaks a destination for climbing enthusiasts.

 Youngest daughter Maxine came down from UC Santa Cruz to join us, with her boyfriend Aaron, for the weekend - which made me exceedingly happy.
Joshua Trees grow for centuries, like this specimen photographed by the couple looking so diminutive at its base.  It's very sad to say that the trees are mere vestiges of their former glory, although it is still possible to imagine how magnificent they were before they commenced their slow journey towards extinction.  I googled to find photos from the past for comparison.  All of those included here that are to be found on the web have the date the picture was taken beneath, which links to the original source.  Any pictures without dates were taken by me, last week.

There is a dramatic difference between healthy trees in even the recent past, and those currently inhabiting a park that is rapidly turning barren.
Mike asked a park ranger how much longer the trees were expected to survive, and she replied bitterly that by fifty years from now they will have migrated to higher elevations and be wholly absent from the park that bears their name.  I should think that is an overly optimistic prediction on two counts.  At the rate they are shrinking and toppling, it will be more like five years than fifty to finish the job.
Furthermore, the notion that trees will escape higher temperature and less precipitation to find a more hospitable location with the appropriate growing conditions, pollinators, soil, weather and other complicated ecosystem services is laughable.  Mike next asked whether air pollution played a role.  "Oh, absolutely," she replied, visibly angry, "Joshua Tree has the worst air quality of all the parks in the national system...the pollution blows over from Los Angeles," she added disgustedly.  Here's what their website says about air quality in the Park (anything quoted in this post will be posted in violet, because blogger formatting tends to go berserk when I try to indent or italicize):
Air Quality
On a clear day visitors to Joshua Tree National Park can see the Mexican border from the mile-high vantage point of Keys View. More often, visitors can barely discern the tip of 10,000-foot-high Mount San Jacinto, about 50 miles away.
The haze that obscures these vistas is the result of smog that blows into the park from surrounding urban areas. Growth in the Coachella Valley, the current real estate boom in the hi-desert, and construction of power plants nearby, all impact air quality in the park. But Los Angeles basin, with a population over 12 million, is the major contributor of ozone and other pollutants that reach the park.
Polluted air contains particulate matter that drops out nitrates onto the soil. Desert plants that have adapted to survive in nitrogen-poor soils must now compete with non-native grasses and other exotic plant species that thrive with the added fertilizer.
Although the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has mandated that the skies above our national parks be subject to the most stringent level of protection, Joshua Tree National Park consistently exceeds the 120 ppb ozone concentration levels set by the EPA for human health at it’s monitoring station located in the northwestern part of the park. An additional monitoring station was recently installed at Cottonwood Spring to determine if the southern part of the park is also out of compliance with air-quality standards.
The park is also working with the University of California at Riverside to determine how soil nutrients, carbon cycling, and the nitrogen supply are affected by air pollution in the park. Native plants such as Rhus trilobataare sensitive to high ozone levels and other animal species are likely to be affected as well as humans.
The Park Services, if you look at their websites, seem to be far more openly cognizant of the severe, existential threat from ozone to plants - as well as animals and humans - than, say, the EPA, the US Dept. of Ag, or (especially) the Forest Service.  Maybe it's because no one in authority gives any credence to the Park Service, so they can get away with telling something closer to the truth.  It's really quite extraordinary how suddenly the trees appear to have deteriorated.  Just within the last decade, they looked robust, and now they are uniformly scrawny.  This mirrors the recently accelerating decline of the mixed hardwood and coniferous forests on the East Coast.

Compare the height of these trees to the car on the ground.  I didn't see anything remotely near that size, anywhere!

Ah well, the rocks will remain, in all their complex orchestration.
Like the constellations in the sky, and unlike the countless millions of delicately balanced species on earth, there is little we humans can do to disturb them.  This notion gives me comfort.
Mongabay listed the world's top ten most threatened forests.   #7 was a large chunk of California, and pollution is included as part of the reason:

7.  California Floristic Province 

The only non-tropical forest on the list, California's Floristic Province is home to the world's largest tree—not to mention the largest living organism—the sequoia. Down to 10% of its original habitat, the forest was historically logged, but is today largely threatened by commercial farming. In addition urban sprawl, pollution, and roads also impact the remaining coastal forest.

We wandered around until dusk.
The setting sun reflected on the rocks, turning them golden.  See the tiny person up there?
With little time left till dark, we clambered up a high formation to take in the breathtaking view.
I was shocked to find huge dead trees at the top, where you wouldn't have expected them to be able to take root.
What tremendous tenacity, and how horrible that for all their fortitude, they are being strangled by toxic gases.
It was getting dark and suddenly cool, with a breeze, so we scurried back down.
One of the most disturbing aspects of the desert today is that, in addition to the loss of mature trees and shrubs, I could find virtually NO young plants.
Nothing is propagating, or if it is, it doesn't last long.
Sunday we were up with the birds to go to Palm Springs for the protest, passing miles of trees killed by wild fires.
They are trying to regenerate, tufts of green emerge from the roots.  Apparently, too much nitrogen pollution leads non-native plants to colonize and then, when there is a drought, they die off leaving behind highly flammable material.
We first had a delicious brunch with Maxine and Aaron.
Heading to Rancho Mirage we passed acres of windfarms.  It turns out in this story from the Boston Globe that yet another brother, William Koch, likes to throw his money around to keep the US addicted to fossil fuels, in his case by opposing wind farms in Massachusetts.
It was gratifying to find that David Koch was so agitated by our protest in Rancho Mirage that he felt compelled to depart from the billionaire's conference and observe the arrests at the demonstration from the rooftop of his exclusive resort.  Here's the latest from the LA Times on how the Koch brothers are  using their billions to control American politics.
Jeez, his granddaughter wife looks supremely bored.  I wonder if she is always bored with such an old guy?  Probably, she would rather be shopping than hanging around with a bunch of tedious, overweight, balding capitalist geezers plotting the overthrow of democracy.  Or maybe, she's thinking of the rabble below, "let them eat cake?"  Well, enough of the monstrous, putrid Kochs and their airhead, designer-clad sycophants - and on to the rest of the trip, with much more hiking in the desert.
But first, after the protest, we came across more than one empty plot in Palm Springs with truly atrocious palm trees.
A passerby told me they ran out of water.
I suppose that's possible.
However, the grass looks green.
I would have to investigate to be certain what killed these venerable trees, and I didn't have time.
In any event, it was a very solemn wake.
We stopped briefly at this establishment for a unique desert "date shake" to fortify us for a trek along a semi-secret path.
The absentee owner of the property likely has no idea that a neighbor has created an extensive trail, marked by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pink marble stones culled from the sandy soils.
It's astonishing how much work he must have put into it, because it is a very long hike.
I know, there are going to be too many pictures, but only a fraction of the many I took!
I'm going to post most of them without commenting, and instead add excerpts from recent articles and other publications.
There are fallen Joshua trees to be seen in every direction.
And in this location, there are many yucca plants that have seen better days.
There are also many twisted, bare junipers.  A few of them have enough leaves to indicate they should all be completely covered with green.
Like this one...
Lower to the ground, there are cacti, most of which are desiccated.
And sometimes there is nothing more to be seen than a terrific rock outcropping...because I like them!
As we walked further in, we began to see quite substantial trees that were uniformly dead.  Mike thought they might be pinyon pine, although I saw a picture of a similar silhouette, and it was labeled as an ironwood tree.  Either way or both, wildlife will be missing an essential part of their diets.
Both of these tree species, like the skeletal remains of a plant below, are adapted to live in the harshest conditions, sprouting miraculously out of rock.  All I can say is, something very nasty must be occurring in our modern world to kill them off.
This research just published - "Wide spread crown condition decline, food web disruption, and amplified tree mortality with increased climate-change-caused drought" - is rather astonishing because it is based on data from the International Co-operative Programme on Assessment and Monitoring of Air Pollution Effects on Forests (ICP), a very extensive, decades-long effort centered in Germany...and yet never includes the critical fact that ozone increases the damage done by drought!
As it happens, the ICP just published their 2010 Executive Report, "The Condition of Forests in Europe," which is a highly confusing document, at least to me.  They appear to be saying that forests are in retreat, but without imparting any of the inevitable repercussions that must imply.
from the Introduction:

Throughout this 25-year period, the European Union and ICP-Forests have actively collaborated in a range of ways. The ICP-Forests Experts have worked together to develop and adapt the methodologies and objectives of the programme in order to provide the policy relevant information required at the European level, while the European Commission has co-financed the forest monitoring since 1986.
Funding is currently available through the project ‘Further Development and Implementation of an EU-level Forest Monitoring System (FutMon)’ under LIFE +, ending in December 2010.
After that deadline, the EC co-financing of forest monitoring will stop. For that reason, forest monitoring in Europe is under threat and urgently requires a new means of support as it provides the basis for forest policy information in Europe.
A listing in the Contents:

2. Forest condition shows little change .......p. 6
Nearly two-thirds of the plots showed no significant change in tree crown condition over the past ten years. Forest condition deteriorated on 24% of the continuously assessed plots, with only 15% of the plots showing any improvement. Trends differ between the main tree species. European and sessile oak were the most frequently damaged species. Defoliation reacts to many different stress factors. The transnational survey based on more than 7000 plots is a valuable early warning system for environmental change.

So, apparently, we have a trend of more deterioration rather than less...and they've run out of funding.

In 2009, 20.2% of all trees assessed had a needle or leaf loss of more than 25 % and were thus classified as either damaged or dead (Fig. 2-1). This represents no change relative to 2008. Of the main tree species, European and sessile oak had the highest levels of damaged and dead trees, at 31.8 %.
Are they counting fallen trees?
Defoliation increased on 24.4 % of plots monitored and decreased, indicating an improvement in crown condition, on only 14.9 %. 

Well, this would seem to justify some alarm!
Owing to new data submission and validation routines, this report includes data up to and including 2007 only.
As far as this goes, not at all reassuring, since the past three years have seen the most extreme decline.

Long-term trends show more deterioration than improvement.
Does anyone writing this report else understand where this interpretation leads?  You really have to dig around to find and isolate this statement in its enormity.
Nitrogen inputs remain a driving force for change in biodiversity and forest condition.
Atmospheric deposition has been the specific focus of the programme since its inception. Current evaluations show decreasing sulphur inputs on about 50% of around 150 intensive monitoring plots since 1998, which is a result of clean air policies under the LRTAP Convention and EU legislation. However, critical limits in the soil water are still substantially exceeded on a quarter of the plots and indicate a potential threat to forest vegetation. Earlier studies conducted under the programme have shown that the risk of storm damage is higher on acidic soils.

This sounds like exactly what the Park Service determined about the desert ecosystem.
The UK Guardian reports that "Mass tree deaths prompt fears of Amazon 'climate tipping point'".  Now we're talking!  They are still oblivious to the contribution of ozone, however, and in particular, the predisposition of trees to suffer more from drought after having been exposed to ozone.  When will they ever learn?
Billions of trees died in the record drought that struck the Amazon in 2010, raising fears that the vast forest is on the verge of a tipping point, where it will stop absorbing greenhouse gas emissions and instead increase them.

The dense forests of the Amazon soak up more than one-quarter of the world's atmospheric carbon, making it a critically important buffer against global warming. But if the Amazon switches from a carbon sink to a carbon source that prompts further droughts and mass tree deaths, such a feedback loop could cause runaway climate change, with disastrous consequences.
"Put starkly, current emissions pathways risk playing Russian roulette with the world's largest forest," said tropical forest expert Simon Lewis, at the University of Leeds, and who led the research published today in the journal Science. Lewis was careful to note that significant scientific uncertainties remain and that the 2010 and 2005 drought – thought then to be of once-a-century severity – might yet be explained by natural climate variation.
"We can't just wait and see because there is no going back," he said. "We won't know we have passed the point where the Amazon turns from a sink to a source until afterwards, when it will be too late."
Alex Bowen, from the London School of Economics and Political Science's Grantham research institute on climate change, said huge emissions of carbon from the Amazon would make it even harder to keep global greenhouse gases at a low enough level to avoid dangerous climate change. "It therefore makes it even more important for there to be strong and urgent reductions in man-made emissions."
The revelation of mass tree deaths in the Amazon is a major blow to efforts to reduce the destruction of the world's forests by loggers, one of the biggest sources of global carbon emissions. The use of satellite imagery by Brazilian law enforcement teams has drastically cut deforestation rates and replanting in Asia had slowed the net loss.  Financial deals to protect forests were one of the few areas on which some progress was made at the 2010 UN climate talks in Cancún.
The 2010 Amazonian drought led to the declaration of states-of-emergencies and the lowest ever level of the major tributary, the Rio Negro. Lewis, with colleagues in Brazil, examined satellite-derived rainfall measurements and found that the 2010 drought was even worse than the very severe 2005 drought, affecting a 60% wider area and with an even harsher dry season.
On the ground, the researchers have 126 one-hectare plots spread across the Amazon, in which every single tree is tagged and monitored. After 2005, they counted how many trees had died and worked out how much carbon would be pumped into the atmosphere as the wood rotted. In addition, the reduced growth of the water-stressed trees means the forest failed to absorb the 1.5bn tonnes of carbon that it would in a normal year.
Applying the same principles to the 2010 drought, they estimated that 8.5 billion tonnes of CO2 will be released - more than the entire 7.7bn tonnes emitted in 2009 by China, the biggest polluting nation in the world. This estimate does not include forest fires, which release carbon and increase in dry years.
"The Amazon is such a big area that even a small shift [in conditions] there can have a global impact," said Lewis.
Lewis said that two such severe droughts in the Amazon within five years was highly unusual, but that a natural variation in climate over decade-long periods cannot yet be ruled out. The driving factor of the annual weather patterns is the warmth of the sea in the Atlantic. He said increasing droughts in the Amazon are found in some climate models, including the sophisticated model used by the Hadley centre.
This means the 2005 and 2010 droughts are consistent with the idea that global warming will cause more droughts in future, emit more carbon, and potentially lead to runaway climate change. "The greenhouse gases we have already emitted may mean there are several more droughts in the pipeline," he said.
Lewis said that the 2010 drought killed "in the low billions of trees", in addition to the roughly 4 billion trees that die on average in a normal year across the Amazon. The researchers are now trying to raise £500,000 in emergency funding to revisit the plots in the Amazon and gather further data.
Brazilian scientist Paulo Brando, from the Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazônia (Amazon Environmental Research Institute), and co-leader of the research said: "We will not know exactly how many trees were killed until we can complete forest measurements on the ground. It could be that many of the drought-susceptible trees were killed off in 2005. Or the first drought may have weakened a large number of trees so increasing the number dying in 2010."
Brando added: "Our results should be seen as an initial estimate. The emissions estimates do not include those from forest fires, which spread over extensive areas of the Amazon during hot and dry years and release large amounts of carbon."
The rest isn't about trees, but just for fun, let's peruse their list of other "climate change tipping points"...because, why not?

Scientists know from the geological record that the Earth's climate can change rapidly. They have identified a number of potential tipping points where relatively small amounts of global warming caused by human activities could cause large changes in climate. Some tipping points, like the losses to the Amazon forests, involve positive feedback loops and could lead to runaway climate change.
Arctic ice cap: The white ice cap is good at reflecting the Sun's warming light back into space. But when it melts, the dark ocean uncovered absorbs this heat. This leads to more melting, and so on.
Tundra: The high north is warming particularly fast, melting the permafrost that has locked up vast amounts of carbon in soils for thousands of years. Bacteria digesting the unfrozen soils generate methane, a potent greenhouse gas, leading to more warming.
Gas hydrates: Also involving methane, this tipping point involves huge reservoirs of methane frozen on or just below the ocean floor. The methane-water crystals are close to their melting point and highly unstable. A huge release could be triggered by a little warming.
West Antarctic ice sheet: Some scientists think this enormous ice sheet, much of which is below sea level, is vulnerable to small amounts of warming. If it all eventually melted, sea level would rise by six metres.
Wasn't that a great tour of tipping points - none of which are included in even the worst-case scenarios analyzed by the IPCC!?  Luckily, just in time (snark), the UN has declared 2011 as the Year of the Forest.  According to an article titled "The History and Frightening Future of Forests,"
The United Nations has declared 2011 the International Year of Forests, an interestingly ambiguous title that can be read as either celebratory or cautionary. Our review of recent forest-related research is similarly mixed: It seems that for every paper that warns forests are at risk from climate change, another suggests that, if well-managed, they could help mitigate its impact.
Playing the role of victim and savior simultaneously is a lot to ask, but then forests have always played a dual role in the lives of man. In literature and folklore, they represent both the terror of the wild (they’re the traditional refuge of trolls, elves and demons) and the restorative qualities of the natural world (as in so many of Shakespeare’s comedies). Snow White calls the forest home, but so does Bigfoot.
The word “forest” apparently originated as a judicial term. In his 1992 book Forests: The Shadow of Civilization, Robert Pogue Harrison of Stanford University links the English word to the Latin foris, meaning outside or excluded. The term referred to land that was placed off-limits by royal decree, where it could not be “cultivated, exploited or encroached upon.”
Forest law was introduced into Britain in the 11th century by William the Conqueror, who was apparently also William the Conservationist. It was codified sufficiently by 1592 for the delightfully named jurist John Manwood to write a treatise on the topic. In it, he calls a forest a place where “wild beasts and fowls rest and abide” for the king’s “delight and pleasure.” Disappointingly, there is nary a mention of carbon capture.
In biological terms, the world’s oldest forest is located in upstate New York, near the small town of Gilboa. At least, that’s what Binghamton University biologist William Stein reported in 2007 in the journal Nature. Three years earlier, he and his team discovered a 6-foot-long portion of a fossilized tree trunk dating back approximately 380 million years, which places it among the first generation of towering timbers. As Scientific American noted, “The rise of forests with trees like the Gilboa caused the removal of carbon dioxide from the air and temperatures to drop, creating climates like those experienced today.”
Showing a disturbing lack of gratitude, humans have been determinedly destroying woodland at an alarming rate. According to a recent United Nations report, “Deforestation and forest degradation, through agricultural expansion, conversion to pastureland, infrastructure development, destructive logging, fires etc., account for nearly 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions – more than the entire global transportation sector and second only to the energy sector.”
...A 2007 study in the journal Ecology Letters reported tree growth in both Panama and Malaysia, as measured by trunk diameter, hasdecreased by 25 percent over the past two decades. The apparent culprit, according to Wake Forest University ecologist Kenneth Feeley, is warmer weather combined with less rain. 
That’s precisely the opposite of what climate change optimists had hoped, and if the phenomenon is found to be widespread, conservation efforts will have to be increased to take smaller tree size into account. When it comes to trunks and carbon storage, size definitely matters.
So, typically, no mention of the impact of pollution on tree growth...but why only comedies?
What of Macbeth?  When the Third Apparition - a "Child crowned, with a tree in his hand" - accosts him, the would-be king is reassured by these words which exhort him to:

"Be lion-mettled, proud; and take no care
Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are:
Macbeth shall never vanquish'd be until
Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill
Shall come against him."
Relieved of his fears of retribution, Macbeth rejoices:
"That will never be.
Who can impress the forest, bid the tree
Unfix his earth-bound root? Sweet bodements! good!
Rebellious dead, rise never till the wood
Of Birnam rise, and our high-placed Macbeth
Shall live the lease of nature, pay his breath
To time and mortal custom..."
Just as Macbeth is serene in the conviction that, despite his evil actions in the future, the forest of Birnham Wood will continue to behave in predicable ways based on evidence of past performance, so do we blithely assume that we can disrupt the natural order on a massive scale without consequence.  WRONG.
Humans have been burning fuel at a tremendous scale since the Industrial Revolution.  In addition to unleashing vast amounts of CO2 - which is fast destabilizing the weather and creating extreme flooding, snowfall, sheet, permafrost and glacier melt, wildfires, and ocean acidification - our activities have also created the separate - but related - and even more urgent existential threat:  rising levels of background ozone.
Not exactly the topic of conversation at the dinner table or around the office water cooler  (yet!) ozone in the troposphere is toxic to plants, and decimating vegetation around the world.  Trees that are damaged from cumulative exposure year after year are dying at a rapidly accelerating rate, and crop yield losses are measured in the billions of dollars annually.  Scientific research has demonstrated that ozone increases the harm done by insects, disease, fungus, and weather events, including drought and wind.
There's really only one way to stop this march towards mass starvation, and that is for Obama to declare a state of emergency (oh wait...he already has!) and ration the use of fuel.  It should be restricted to only the most essential purposes as we transition to clean energy sources.  If that means unplugging the Christmas lights, riding a bike, and not flying for vacation...isn't that better than extinction?
We can't survive without food...or trees.
I have seen pictures of the park in spring, when the wildflowers bloom.
It was too early to expect that, but I did come across this plant, buzzing with bees...and foliage with damaged stomates in the classic symptoms of exposure to ozone.
Did anyone notice in the quote above, that Joshua Tree Park regularly exceeds EPA regulations for ozone levels no higher than 120 ppb?  Hoho, that is so out of date!  Right now they are quibbling around 60 - 70 ppb for peaks...and we are fast approaching that for constant background.
Look!  It's the same nitrate-guzzling, pestilential lichen smothering all the trees in New Jersey!
This desert creosote shrub is missing quite a bit of leaf cover, those remaining are yellowed, and the branches have cracking, peeling bark.  Whoops.
A debate is raging in England, because the Woodland Trust has proposed selling off the national forests, for somebody's profit.  This is but another example of so-called environmental groups being co-opted by industry.  Another would be MIT accepting money from Koch for cancer research that is tainted, because it is restricted to developing high-tech, expensive, high-profit surgical and pharmaceutical treatment without a hint about investigating the causes from industrial pollution...but never mind, back to trees...One fellow, a blogger after my own heart, is mincing no words:

Leaders of Britain's main green groups have "collectively betrayed" the public and damaged their reputations by not supporting the grassroots campaign to halt the sale of England's forests, says the environmentalist Jonathon Porritt.
The former head of Friends of the Earth accuses his former organisation, along with the RSPBWWF, the Wildlife Trusts, Greenpeace, Ramblers, the Woodland Trust, the National Trust and others of uttering only a "few cautious words of warning". This is in stark contrast, he says, to the general public, who are almost unanimously against the sale.
Some of the groups, he writes in a post on his blog, are silent because they are being manipulated by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra); others stand to gain from the sales and do not want to upset the government; and others have failed to grasp the political significance of the potential sale of the forests.
Porritt accuses the Woodland Trust – which David Cameron named in parliament as a potential beneficiary of the sale – of acting out of self-interest.  Of the WWF, he says: "There have been no statements, no mobilisation of its massive membership, no recognition that this is an absolutely critical issue for the future wellbeing of conservation in the UK. Nothing.

"This represents a massive failure of collective leadership. It demonstrates how completely out of touch our environmental groups have become with the people that they purport to speak on behalf of.
"And they've made themselves look foolish and irrelevant as one of the largest grassroots protests this country has seen for a long time grows and grows without them – indeed, despite them."
Polls show that 84% of the public is opposed to the sell-off and more than 460,000 people have so far signed a petition calling on the government to abandon the disposal.

Following is a mini photo essay on the condition of the cholla cactus, also known as a teddy bear cholla, because it looks so fluffy and fuzzy - but also as a jumping cholla, because the spines will attack anything in close proximity.  Life is full of paradox!
These first have bright white, sparkly new growth.

I looked all over for a nice one to photograph, because I think they are so gorgeous - the plant above was the best I could find, and it's fairly small.
More often, they looked like these.

Below is a close up of the first scene, from 1994.

Here's a close up of that best one I could locate, and below, a more common sight.
I believe, this is desert mistletoe.  I wish I had more time there to get to know all the different plants.
Even more I wish I had seen the desert when it was flourishing...Oh well!  We had a fabulous lunch at an obscure Mexican restaurant.  I got a pile of the most scrumptious shrimp ceviche, with sliced avocado - for $3.50!
That prepared us for a long drive across smoggy LA eight-lane freeways to the northwest Topanga State Park, the world's largest wildland within city borders, boasting 36 miles of trails.
This is actually a cluster of California live oak.  Later on our return, we investigated under the canopy.
It was lovely to see flowers, even if just a few, having so recently fled the snow and ice at home.
There was nobody else at all to be seen, on a warm, sunny afternoon...except us!
Of course it wasn't difficult to find leaves that were stippled.
These blossoms had the habit of a peony, but unlike any I have ever seen.  Perhaps it is a wild version, or an escaped garden plant that has reverted.
And it wasn't difficult to find standing dead trees.
Behind this log is a shriveled prickly pear cactus that was once, no doubt, rather impressive.
Many of the live oak have few or no leaves.
This one fell over.
It isn't apparent what poor shape this tree is in until closer inspection.
The leaves are misshapen, and discolored.
From the inside looking out, it is clear many have fallen off.  The dried litter crunches underfoot.
Here's that first copse.  I hadn't suspected, until I dove under the crown on a whim, how large the trunks would be.
Like many trees is dry climates, they grow very slowly, and so one this massive must be quite old.
Here is its neighbor.
I was captivated by the light filtering through, and the graceful sweep of the branches.
The lower portion exhibits a white discoloration that has the chemtrail folks all worked up.  We saw it everywhere, it is quite bizarre, I have to admit.  It could be from excretions of minerals.  No one knows.
Even stranger, is this fruit.
Close by was an older version.
But here is an acorn!  I can't find anything to explain what a fruit is doing growing on an oak that makes acorns.  I brought it home with me and cut it open.  It smells vaguely like an apple and appears to have tiny seeds in the center.
Likely it shall have to remain a mystery.
I have stayed away from documenting the eucalyptus because normally they tend to shed bark in long strips.  Holes however are no more a healthy indicator than for any other tree.
I was lucky to find them blooming, the smell is so bracing and pervasive, I reveled in it.
They are shedding far more than normally, however.
Looking aloft, the underwood is perilously exposed.
The next example further along the trail is completely dead.
A clump of willows was leafing out, with the most brilliant green.
An odd fungal growth adorned the twigs.
It's sending out new shoots, but the older branches are badly cracked.
On my last morning in California, Mike brought me to the Santa Monica Farmer's Market.  I was a bit reluctant to go, because I knew I would want to buy produce and then have to lug it home on the plane, which is exactly what happened.  I could not resist baby red artichokes, which I had never seen before, plus delectable walnut oil,  sweet dried dates and savory black olives...and gifts from Mike - pesto and aged goat cheddar.  In the context of so many predictions of an impending world food crises, as listed by Joe Romm at Climate Progress, such abundance made for serious cognitive dissonance.
Just beyond this street, where you can get a glimpse of the ocean, the roads are closed to traffic...
and there are several blocks lined with produce stands, each a more dazzling cornucopia than the one preceding.
There were mountains of melons, citrus fruits, plump blueberries, and bakeries with luscious breads.
I really can't think of anything that wasn't there, except perhaps sweet corn.
They had bison jerky, and fresh shucked oysters that tempted me almost to miss my flight home!
There were many oriental greens I didn't recognize...but hey - let's segue into a fun list - the 25 top countries whose governments are most likely to be crushed by rising food prices, based on the following criteria (Tunisia and Egypt were both on the list):

Nominal GDP per capita in USD at market exchange rates.

The share of food in total household consumption.

Net food exports as a percentage of GDP.
And in case you think that the rich aren't thinking ahead, Business Insider also had this handy guide, "12 Places to Go If the World Goes to Hell!"
Reports continue to emerge that wildlife populations are plunging, which is something to be expected as vegetation dies back and there is much less food available.  One of the saddest tales isn't another one of the mass deaths that have been headlined of late, but an inventory conducted annually of British birds, which concludes,
Populations of wild birds in the UK are falling dramatically with even slight recent recoveries apparently stalled, government figures showed today.
Only seabird populations remain comfortably above 1970 levels, while farmland bird numbers continue to plunge from a brief mid-1970s peak to half those of 40 years ago.
Habitat changes responsible for fewer nesting sites and food shortages were blamed last summer for sharp English farmbird losses but the reasons for the decline in woodland birds are less clear, according to the RSPB.
However research led by the British Trust for Ornithology has suggested agricultural intensification has also hit birds favouring wet grassland and moorland. Less vegetation cover and scrub, overgrazing by deer, more drainage of nearby farmland and changing winter climate may all be factors in the woodland bird decline.
Some farmland birds, such as the grey partridge, turtle dove, starling, tree sparrow, corn bunting and yellow wagtail have declined by over 70% over the period of official monitoring based on annual surveys of breeding sites and other data relating to 121 species. But wood pigeon and jackdaw populations have doubled and stock dove and greenfinch numbers risen by 50%.
Among woodland birds, huge falls have been recorded for wood warbler, willow tit, tree pipit, lesser spotted woodpecker, blackbird, dunnock, song thrush and tawny owl, among others. Yet black cap, great spotted woodpecker, green woodpecker, nuthatch and long-tailed tit are thriving.
Overall figures for water and wetland birds, where comparative figures have existed only since the mid-1970s, have been more stable, although here too there are successes and failures. Species that are used to slow flowing and standing water have increased by 73%, while the index for those preferring wet grassland has fallen by 56% and those favouring fast-flowing water is 17% down. Reedbed birds – including reed warbler and reed bunting – have shown a general recovery until recently.
Seabirds such as the guillemot remain relatively abundant, but kittiwakes and arctic skuas are in decline, the figures show.
Wintering wildfowl and wader populations remain well above mid-1970 levels but have fallen from 1990s peaks. European white-fronted goose, mallard, pochard, pintail, scaup, oystercatcher, redshank and ringed plover are among those in decline, but there are more than tenfold increases in Svalbard light-bellied Brent goose and gadwall and a six-fold rise in black-tailed godwit.

Notice the steep dip in the most recent data for all but seabirds.  Walking back to the garage, this was my last view of the street - trees that should be green, are mostly or entirely bare, with some shaggy brown leaves remaining.
The following analysis and a link to the original study is at Washington's Blog - I initially came across it, along with the usual doomer observations, at Survival Acres:

Inequality In America Is Worse Than In Egypt, Tunisia Or Yemen

Egyptian, Tunisian and Yemeni protesters all say that inequality is one of the main reasons they're protesting.
However, the U.S. actually has much greater inequality than in any of those countries.
Specifically, the "Gini Coefficient" - the figure economists use to measure inequality - is higher in the U.S.

Gini Coefficients are like golf - the lower the score, the better (i.e. the more equality).
According to the CIA World Fact Book, the U.S. is ranked as the 42nd most unequal country in the world, with a Gini Coefficient of 45.
In contrast:
  • Tunisia is ranked the 62nd most unequal country, with a Gini Coefficient of 40.
  • Yemen is ranked 76th most unequal, with a Gini Coefficient of 37.7.
  • And Egypt is ranked as the 90th most unequal country, with a Gini Coefficient of around 34.4.
And inequality in the U.S. has soared in the last couple of years, since the Gini Coefficient was last calculated, so it is undoubtedly currently much higher.
So why are Egyptians rioting, while the Americans are complacent?
Well, Americans - until recently - have been some of the wealthiest people in the world, with most having plenty of comforts (and/or entertainment) and more than enough to eat.
But another reason is that - as Dan Ariely of Duke University and Michael I. Norton of Harvard Business School demonstrate - Americans consistently underestimate the amount of inequality in our nation.
As William Alden wrote last September:
Americans vastly underestimate the degree of wealth inequality in America, and we believe that the distribution should be far more equitable than it actually is, according to a new study.
Or, as the study's authors put it: "All demographic groups -- even those not usually associated with wealth redistribution such as Republicans and the wealthy -- desired a more equal distribution of wealth than the status quo."
The report ... "Building a Better America -- One Wealth Quintile At A Time" by Dan Ariely of Duke University and Michael I. Norton of Harvard Business School ... shows that across ideological, economic and gender groups, Americans thought the richest 20 percent of our society controlled about 59 percent of the wealth, while the real number is closer to 84 percent.
Last, thanks to a commenter, a couple of short videos about dying trees.  More and more are emerging on Youtube.


  1. Thanks so much for the long an in depth post of that national park in California. It was interesting to see the pictures of the fruit stands as well. The fruit looks extremely healthy and large. That made me think, the soil composition must be also playing a very very large role in the decline of the trees. The vegetables grown would be given soil with the proper nutrients for growth, while the trees aren't so lucky.. and look at the difference between the two. Thanks for the great post. Must have taken a long time to put it all together.


    She's a liar. It is good to see the sale has been halted however.


  3. crystalwolfakacaligrlFebruary 8, 2011 at 11:44 AM

    Thanks for sharing your pics with us and for this very informative post.
    I am shocked about Joshua tree park!
    This is so distressing...its happening so fast and yet people deny it still?
    I just saw last night a judge is blocking a pollution law? It might of been the one we just voted in...?
    Funny this should happen right after all those judges were at Rancho Mirage with the Koch bros???

  4. This is a lovely and informative photo essay, Gail, thanks.

  5. When reading this,I can't get out of my mind the 1954 classic sci-fi movie THEM!Takes place in New Mexico but it was filmed near Palmdale,the dead giveaway is the joshua trees all over the place-they don't grow in NM.What a time capsule for looking at their health almost 60 years ago.

  6. Thanks, Robert, I will have to look that up. Searching for pictures from the past on google provided evidence of how huge and magnificent those trees once were...I will try to find the film too.

  7. I watched the "time capsule" over the weekend.It is really frightening the difference shown in just the few scenes.Large,obviously healthy and robust trees even though it's a black and white classic.heartrending to say the least


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