Monday, October 1, 2012

The Final Puff

"And still another inquiry remains...whether leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; or whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff."

~ Herman Melville
It would appear my expectation that ultimately, we will burn every last tree - as relentlessly as we continue to murder every last whale - is coming true sooner than I thought.  A story describes how Britain has "turned back the clock" and plans to convert coal burning facilities to wood.  Could that be because there are just so many dead trees around, so why not?  I see mountains of logs everywhere I go, piled up on municipal lots and in backyards, where enterprising woodsmen (probably otherwise unemployed) are splitting them into firewood.
Another preposterous article of news propaganda has emerged, proclaiming our moribund forests are thriving, titled not too temerariously, "Bright Leaves Mean Big Business for Recovering Vermont".  Once again, absurdly, this latest version is illustrated with leaves that are bruised and scorched from exposure to toxic levels of tropospheric ozone, seen below:
The caption for a second photograph actually describes the trees as rusty, as indeed they are...but they shouldn't be!

Amazingly, I discovered on a quick trip home (to watch first daughter compete at Devon) that things are looking a bit rusty in New Jersey too.  The article made me so frustrated, I rushed outdoors yesterday to take some pictures before I return to the Cape.
From a distance you could almost think that the transition to fall colors has commenced.
Unfortunately some of the golden color comes from the inner needles of pines, which are supposed to stay green.
This change in color is a prelude to falling off, which they're not normally inclined to do to this extent.  The tree below will have almost none left, just a few on the tips, when all the yellowing needles have fallen off by winter.
Below is another typical example.  It looks like it might be turning golden.
Upon closer inspection, the leaves are mottled with decay.
This dogwood looks like it is turning a pleasing vivid red.
The leaves however are speckled and the edges have marginal leaf burn.
The brown speckling and burnt tips are not normal.
This is an average maple.
Brown spots adorn its leaves.

It did not even have the strength to excise its seeds - they just died, still attached to the branches.

Just as a reminder, might I say that this photo was uploaded in 2009?  Go ahead - google fall leaves and then go outside, look at what is there now, and compare.
Most of these pictures are from Willowwood Arboretum.
Because of the enormous variety of plantings from sources around the world, it's a good place to demonstrate that decline is not confined to any particular type of tree - not just oaks, nor just maples, just pines, nor just hemlocks - succumbing to one or the other insect, disease or fungus.  Instead, EVERY SINGLE SPECIES has the same symptoms of damaged foliage, to an amazingly similar degree - and that includes shrubs, perennials, vines, groundcovers and annual flowering ornamentals in pots as well as trees, regardless of adaptation to their original climate. 

The nursery was locked so I could only photograph with a zoom from a distance.

However, it's clear that despite being watered, these potted plants exhibit the IDENTICAL damage as those growing in the ground.  There is only one common attribute shared by all these disparate plants, grown in a variety of habitat - and that is the composition of the air.

Pine seedlings have needles turning yellow.

Shrubs have curled, speckled, chlorotic leaves.

These gigantic leaves are folded over despite the fact they are a tropical, heat-loving variety, and are growing in watered pots.

The cotinus displays a common pattern that indicates beyond any refutation that the leaves are damaged by air pollution, and not turning early from natural seasonal change.  The younger leaves at the top of the branch are in much better shape than the older leaves that have been exposed to ozone for a longer period of time.

This differential can be observed on all sorts of plants, from trees to weeds to berry bushes.

As the leaves photosynthesize they absorb ozone and it injures the stomates.  This interveinal chlorosis leads to necrosis.

As the process continues internal damage occurs.

By the time leaves look like this, cumulative damage means that root systems have been affected.

This coleus is another example - the new leaves have normal color while the older ones are necrotic.  Coleus is a tender annual.  If cold temperatures were responsible for the change (and it hasn't been cold!) all of the leaves would be equally discolored.

In the garden, flowers that are susceptible to any hint of frost are still blooming.

This poor pine tree hasn't got much time left to it.
September 30, 2012
The thinness is part of an accelerating trend, not the result of one dry summer.  Below is the tree in 2009, a year after decline began in earnest, and beneath it, the tree last February - before the record breaking temperatures this summer.

Below are trees from yesterday, September 30, having lost leaves prematurely.  Trees naturally have vast reserves of energy to tide them over periods of drought or other stress.  One hot season isn't enough to lay waste to mature trees.

Unfortunately, none of these examples is unusual to see right now.
I took all of the pictures for this post in about an hour.
It isn't necessary to look hard, at all, to find dying trees.  Anyone can do it!  Following is the mendacious calumny "reported" by The Boston Globe, followed by the letter I sent to the reporter stenographer who parroted it (cc'd to the editor of The Boston Globe who was probably rubbing his hands with glee, counting the advertising revenue)...along with pictures of rusty landscapes, and close-ups of the current condition of leaves.
ROCHESTER, Vt. — For Doon Hinderyckx, the owner of Green Mountain Bikes, it is hard to remember how last year’s fall foliage looked.
Along with the rest of the Rochester community, he was too busy working to repair the devastation caused by Tropical Storm Irene.
“Everyone was in so much shock last year,” Hinderyckx said. “They didn’t notice the colors.”  [note:  there weren't many to notice!]
As New England settles into autumn, “leaf-peepers” around the region are readying for what promises to be a stellar season for foliage, a blitz of bright hues expected to result from even-keeled summer weather and recent cold spells.
And nowhere is the start of leaf-turning more welcome than in central Vermont, where flood damage after Irene last year brought tourism to a trickle.  In layman’s terms: “It looks really, really good,” said Paul Schaberg, research plant physiologist with the US Forest Service.
Tom Olson, director of the New England Maple Museum in Pittsford, Vt., took a similarly straightforward attitude to the fall’s prospects for tourism.
“It can’t be any worse than last year,” Olson said, recalling tourists who were deterred from the region after they learned that major roads were closed after stretches of pavement were washed away.
Now, it’s clear the region is thrilled at another season and a chance to shrug off the devastation of the previous year.
Of course, Vermont isn’t the only New England state set to blossom in bright colors this fall. Maine and New Hampshire foliage reports show that the northern regions of both states have already reached peak leaf-turning.
Further south, trees have not year reached their leafy climax. This week, in Rochester, hillsides looked as if they had been sprinkled with powdered rust. Give it a week, maybe two, locals said, and the mountains would be ablaze with the oranges and reds that draw hordes of leaf-peepers to the region.
Olson said a few chilly nights had “got the leaves moving” — not only were there yellows and oranges, but he saw more speckled reds than he would usually see this time of year.
“Sometimes you see just the yellows and you say, ‘Gee whiz, this isn’t too much,’” Olson said. “But then you throw in some reds, and it’s like, ‘Wow!’
Hinderyckx said he’s looking forward to “a long, lingering, warm fall” — and even more, the tourists good weather will bring.
Angela Owen, an employee at Sandy’s Books and Bakery in the center of town, said she’s already seen a steady flow of visitors looking to gaze at leaves and also gawk at at road construction and houses felled by the floodwaters.
“We’ll really get to enjoy it this year,” Own said. “There’s a lot of hope out here.”
As for her foliage forecast?
“I heard that it might be a little earlier this year,” she said, coy about making any hard-and-fast predictions for the unpredictable leaves. “But this is all just hearsay from people in town.”
Local predictions on impending leaf-turning are known for incorporating more than a touch of legend and divination — even for the scientist.
“Even though we understand the science, there’s a level of uncertainty that’s kind of frustrating — but it’s also kind of cool,” said Schaberg, who conducts research on the how and why of leaf-turning. “It adds to the adventure.”
Scientists are still trying to learn more about what exactly makes the leaves change colors. The yellows are a product of photosynthesis — as days get shorter, green chlorophylls that use the sun to make food begin to break down, causing bright green to fade to yellow.
But what causes those shocking reds?
“These leaves are destined to die and they’re all going to fall off the tree. Why would the tree bother to use resources to build a new pigment?” Schaberg said.
The US Forest Service is trying to answer that. They have conducted tests showing that red leaves are harder to pull off branches than yellow or orange leaves. Increased vascular strength might suggest those leaves are helping ferry some extra nutrients back into the tree before the leaf dies and falls off.
“It’s a small investment up front for a bigger gain in the long run,” Schaberg said.
Even though the leaves were still short of their peak, Jane and Mark Allen, 54 and 55, were impressed by the yellowing leaves they found in Waitsfield, Vt. this week.
“It’s definitely not like this in England,” said Mark Allen, who hails from a suburb of Birmingham in the United Kingdom.
Jeanette McClinton, 62, said she knew she was a little early for the brightest hues but she’d come to Vermont from Ontario for a quilting tour.
“Next week, probably, the leaves will be perfect,” she said.
Here's my letter (why do I bother?  I do not know...).  It's the usual - scroll past it if you've read it before.
Dear Ms. Powers,

I have attempted without success to post the following to your article.  If you cannot post it as a comment I would like to submit it as a Letter to the Editor.
An excellent book called "An Appalachian Tragedy", published by several scientists in the nineties, illustrated persuasively that air pollution is killing trees from Georgia to Maine, and was promptly forgotten.  That was before it became apparent that the scenes of forest death the authors described are no longer localized, and satellite advances have demonstrated that emissions are traveling around the world causing universal decline.
Even though I'm not a qualified scientist, since just about everyone else has been neglecting this topic, this past spring I wrote a book about the damage being done to vegetation, particularly trees, from ozone.  The entire book, which has many links to research, is available as a free download from dropbox, and as a hard copy from Amazon.  I also post photographs and current articles on a regular blog at Wit's End (links at the end of this comment).
Most people have heard of the collapse of coral reefs and the implications this has for life in the oceans and ultimately on the land as well.
Very few people however are aware that forests are dying from pollution at a rapidly accelerating rate.  Eventually climate change will destroy most trees but meanwhile, ozone is the more imminent threat.  It is possible that we have reached a tipping point but since they're not all quite dead yet, I like to think we could buy some time if people wake up to what is occurring right in front of them and decide that the myriad services we receive from trees are more important than a consumer culture, however beguiling that may be.
In the past few weeks, this and several other stories have appeared in the northeast US media, claiming the autumn leaves will be glorious this year…even though they're not.  Of course, the press is repeating what tourist-dollar hungry business wants them to say, but also, no one wants to admit that all the trees are dying - and a lack of normal bright, vibrant fall color is a strong indicator of that.  People seem to have forgotten that leaves didn't used to have spots on them like those in the picture at the top of this article, not did the landscape look like they had been sprinkled with rust!  They were brilliant, clear scarlet, oranges and gold.
The persistent background level of tropospheric ozone - the invisible part of smog from fuel emissions - is inexorably rising.  It's toxic to just about everything, but especially plants.  Leaves are damaged when they absorb it, and cannot photosynthesize.
They look speckled, stippled, bronzed and burnt.  By the end of the growing season - now - many of them have shriveled up and turned brown.  The ground is littered with them already.
Anyone can verify this by looking at the condition of actual trees, and seeing them as they are, not how we expect them to be.  In addition to injured foliage and yellowing pine needles, their bark is full of holes, splitting, falling off and oozing, covered with lethal cankers and rampant lichen - all indicators of decline.
Internal injury occurs in vegetation even before visible symptoms appear on leaves.  Roots shrink, making trees more liable to blow over in storms, and more vulnerable to drought.  Compromised immunities allow for intensified attacks from fungus, insects and disease, which are what is usually blamed.
All this is denied by virtually every professional forester, because it poses an intractable problem.  The only way to fix it is to stop creating precursors - reactive nitrogen - that our entire industrial civilization is based upon, from agriculture to transport to electrical power.  No geongineering or techno fix will be sufficient to stop the loss of the earth's forests.
Aside from losing all the benefits of forests - fruit and nuts, shade and lumber, beauty and wildlife habitat - we cannot survive without them absorbing CO2 and producing oxygen.  The fact that our forests - and our survival - is at risk is a hidden threat on a parallel with that of ocean acidification and the collapse of the coral reefs.  Decades of studies, including controlled fumigation experiments, have shown that we are also losing significant percentages of annual agricultural yield and quality to air pollution.
I am always hopeful that someone with expertise will undertake to outline the enormous dimensions of this trend.
Thank you so much for your attention.


Gail Zawacki
Oldwick, NJ

Below is a magnificent maple on the outskirts of the park.  The trees around it have lost their leaves prematurely.
It has low branches that would be perfect for climbing.  I would have to stand on that lower branch and stretch to reach the next one up - it's much larger than it looks in a picture.
This is how its leaves are turning.
The Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research has released a study, "Severe Economic Loss for European Forest Land Expected by 2100".
This represents such a colossal waste of time and effort that it's almost tempting to feel like the deniers are right when they say climate change science is a hoax, designed to line the pockets of researchers.
But not because climate change is a fraud!  Rather, because these scientists don't take even glancing notice of the fact that forests are dying off from pollution, so all their model predictions - using data from over 6,000 forest plots! - are WORTHLESS.
The ecosystem is collapsing right now - so projecting a shift in species ranges to 2100 is a wasted exercise, and asking whether planting drought-resistant species without taking ozone into account is futile.

From the study:

By 2100 the climate change is expected to reduce the economic value of forest land by 14 to 50 %, which equates to a potential damage of several hundred billion Euros unless effective countermeasures are taken. This is the conclusion of the first pan-European study on the economic effects of climate change on forest land...
Is planting drought-adapted species a viable alternative?
Unless the climatic impact is compensated with countermeasures, Europe will have to cope with forests of less economic value and with less contribution to climate change mitigation than today's more productive forests. At a minimum, adaptive management actions may be necessary, but even the introduction of more productive species from outside Europe such as Douglas Fir, Atlas Cedar, Pine or Eucalyptus species might have to be considered.
In the Swiss Plateau and the Pre-Alps, mainly oak species from Central and Southern Europe as well as beech are expected to replace Norway spruce and Silver fir, if any of these scenarios will come true. This might affect the timber industry, which, since many decades, heavily depends on spruce and fir. Forest owners in Switzerland have to expect that their revenue will decrease unless effective countermeasures are implemented.
Data from more than 6000 forest plots all over Europe analyzed
The international team of scientists estimated the economic impact of projected climate change for a wide range of temperature increases (between 1.4 and 5.8°C, on average, until 2100). In addition, they used a database of 6129 forest plots, regularly distributed across Europe on a 16x16 km grid covering about 2.06 mio km2 of forest land and a high-resolution model that predicts presence or absence of 32 tree species under different climate scenarios in Europe.
But then, they're not alone in their delusions.  Two Swedish scientists have published research indicating that forest recovery has not preceded as expected following a wind storm in 2005, which they attribute to...wind. Yes, through some esoteric method, a wind storm continues to somehow pervasively suppress growth - even beyond the area with "visible structural damage"!   THAT sounds like pure magic to me but hey...they do say, more research is needed.
In January 2005, the storm Gudrun hit Sweden. It has been estimated to have caused an overall economic damage of 2.4 billion euros in Swedish forestry alone. But has there been more damage to the forest than was clearly visible? A recently published study by Seidl and Blennow shows that Gudrun caused not only immediate damage corresponding to 110% of the average annual harvest in Sweden from only 16% of the country’s forest area but also pervasive effects in terms of growth reduction.
In recent decades, the frequency and severity of natural disturbances by e.g., strong winds and insect outbreaks has increased considerably in many forest ecosystems around the world. Future climate change is expected to further intensify disturbance regimes, which makes addressing disturbances in ecosystem management a top priority.
As a prerequisite a broader understanding of disturbance impacts and ecosystem responses is needed. With regard to the effects of strong winds – the most detrimental disturbance agent in central and northern Europe – monitoring and management has focused on structural damage, i.e., tree mortality from uprooting and stem breakage. Effects on the functioning of trees surviving the storm (e.g., their productivity and allocation) have been rarely accounted for to date.
Seidl and Blennow show that growth reduction following the storm was significant and pervasive in a 6.79 million hectare forest landscape. Wind-related growth reduction in Norway spruce forests surviving the storm exceeded 10% in the worst hit regions. At the landscape scale, wind-related growth reduction amounted to 3.0 million m3 in the three years following Gudrun. It thus exceeds the annual long-term average storm damage from uprooting and stem breakage in Sweden and is in the same order of magnitude as the volume damaged by spruce bark beetles after Gudrun.
Seidl and Blennow conclude that the impact of strong winds on forest ecosystems is not limited to the immediately visible area of structural damage, and call for a broader consideration of disturbance effects on ecosystem structure and functioning in the context of forest management and climate change mitigation.
It may cheer readers to learn that occasionally, justice is served.  Googling the epigrammatic Melville quote at the top of this post brought me to a ruling from August in the matter of US v. David L. Place, a convicted smuggler who conducted a brisk trade in illegal sperm whale teeth and narwal tusks from Nantucket Island.
Following a long investigation by NOAA agents after decades of infractions, he was charged with numerous criminal counts.  In rejecting his appeal - which was largely based on arcanely Clintonian parsings of the meaning of "law" and "knowledge" - Circuit Judge Ojetta Rogeriee Thompson (an Obama appointee!) wrote in her conclusion:
"After ruminating on the whale's possible extinction, Melville's Ishmael eventually 'account[ed] the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality.' The United States and most other countries, however, have made a contrary judgment and decided to use what legal tools they can to eliminate the international market for whale parts so the species may survive and flourish.  Place was charged, fairly tried, and properly convicted for knowingly flouting these laws and the regulations implementing them. Rejecting his arguments on appeal for the reasons set forth above, we now affirm these convictions in full."
A Wit's End reader kindly sent me a link to a PBS production called "Into the Deep:  America, Whaling and the World", from which all the whaling screen shots in this post were taken.  There is no option to embed it, but if you are prepared to settle in for a couple of hours, you can watch it on Hulu by clicking here.  (I'm told if you complete a free registration you can watch it without ads.)  It would be two hours well spent.
By 1846, 70,000 people were making a living directly off of whale oil.  There were 20,000 men employed on ships every year, and by 1853, 8,000 whales per year were being slaughtered.  It is estimated that 250,000 sperm whales alone were killed during the heyday of 19th century whaling.  Horrifying as that total is, it is described as a drop in the bucket compared to industrial whaling conducted since, during the 20th century, with high-speed motorized boats and mechanized weaponry.
The documentary is a recounting of the history of whaling, and the significance of whale oil to Nantucket Island, to the country, and to the global rush towards modern industrialization.  Woven into this history is the parable of Moby Dick, and the experiences that led Melville to write it.  Both - the history of whaling and the novel - remain as allegories for our benighted species as we continue our ferocious gouging of the earth.  Melville wrote of the whales:
"Had these Leviathans been but a flock of simple sheep, pursued over the pasture by three fierce wolves, they could not possibly have evinced such excessive dismay. But this occasional timidity is characteristic of almost all herding creatures. Though banding together in tens of thousands, the lion-maned buffaloes of the West have fled before a solitary horseman. Witness, too, all human beings, how when herded together in the sheepfold of a theatre’s pit, they will, at the slightest alarm of fire, rush helter-skelter for the outlets, crowding, trampling, jamming, and remorselessly dashing each other to death. Best, therefore, withhold any amazement at the strangely gallied whales before us, for there is no folly of the beast of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men."
Melville himself knew first hand the complexities and rigors of whaling, the romance of exotic travel, the camaraderie of sailors terrified by the unknown, and the beguiling vastness of an ocean surrounded by an infinite flat horizon, teeming with mysterious life in its depths.  He was inspired to write Moby Dick by the true and gruesome tale of The Essex, a Nantucket whaler which was rammed and sunk by a furious bull whale in 1820, the stranded survivors resorting to cannibalism.
One of the interesting parallels seen in the trajectory of the whaling industry reflected today is the loss of the early promise of democracy, a failed experiment swallowed by growth and prosperity.  The glimmerings of equality in the early days of the American Revolution and the nascent commerce on Nantucket Island were smothered by greed, rapid expansion, and the consequent distancing of the upper class from the workers - a widening disparity of income and freedom that has intensified today beyond the wildest imaginings of earlier wealthy counterparts.

Like the real-life Essex, the fictional voyage of the Pequod did not end well for the hapless crew and the vengeful Captain, who so ruthlessly pursued and exploited the hapless whales.  I fear the same fate awaits humanity in its relentless urge to pillage, plunder and pollute every corner of the earth.

"Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago."

For the London Review of Books, Emily Witt penned a review of the book by Donovan Hohn, which is titled "Moby-Duck:  The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys Lost at Sea".  Although I think his sententious characterization of tree-sitters betrays a shallow understanding of their deep and complex motivations (having participated in direct action, I can promise you, nobody risks arrest, injury and even death to "preserve symbols") by comparing them with people whose guilty consciences can be assuaged by purchasing plastic Coca-Cola bottles labeled with the Möbius loop, it's still a remarkable journey he undertook.  His "American Comedy of Progress" is a memorably laconic aphorism, even though lumping Leopold and Carson in with people who hew merely to the chimera of "proper disposal" is a terrible misrepresentation of their profound expositions on ecology.  But then what can you expect from someone who maligns environmentalism as "Nature Worship" and, pathetically, remains convinced that a picture of a place is as good as being there...even after he's been there?
To make it easier to read, I won't put the essay in italics or quotes.  Everything that follows is by Emily Witt:

Properly Disposed
   ~ Emily Witt

Two decades ago a container ship travelling from Hong Kong to Tacoma, Washington, hit a winter storm and several shipping containers were washed overboard into the North Pacific. Among the lost cargo were 28,800 plastic bath toys: red beavers, green frogs, blue turtles and yellow ducks. A year later, hundreds of the things began washing up on the islands around Sitka, Alaska, and amateur beachcombers practising the imperfect science of driftology started mapping the path of the toys as they floated the oceanic currents. Newspapers picked up the story. Eric Carle, the writer and illustrator of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, wrote a children’s book about the ducks. And 13 years after the spill, by way of a pupil’s essay, the story drifted towards Donovan Hohn, then a teacher in Manhattan.
Hohn quit his job to follow the ducks. His quest to trace the toys threads together a book – with a title and many conceits drawn from Melville – about globalisation, environmental havoc, climate change, fatherhood and the sea. What happens to our garbage in the ocean turns out to be upsetting. Most marine debris today is plastic, and most of it never sinks. Decades-old drift-nets float around, suffocating the occasional coral reef or sea mammal and forming ‘killer drift-net balls’. Wild shores look like city dumps.
In one swath of the Pacific the water contains 46 times as much plastic as plankton. And albatrosses, ‘though less threatened than when feathered hats were in fashion’, accumulate plastic bottle caps and cigarette lighters in their guts. Hohn says he’s not an environmentalist, swashbuckler or scientist, that he never expected to navigate the Northwest Passage on a research vessel or concern himself with the bioaccumulation of toxins in the food chain. The result is a comprehensive book about how we’ve filled the seas with plastic by a man who writes as if he’s been swept up, like one of the spilled toys, in a gyre.
Hohn meets Curtis Ebbesmeyer, a retired oceanographer from Seattle who edits Beachcombers’ Alert!, a quarterly newsletter that collects reports of flotsam from around the world and tries to map oceanic currents by connecting these discoveries to notorious shipping spills. Most of the toys follow an endless orbit until, eventually, they break down into tiny particles of plastic matter. Some of them have been carried south into the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a system of currents that circles clockwise around Hawaii; at ‘the gyre’s becalmed heart’ is a plastic purgatory known as the Great North Pacific Garbage Patch.
Others have been carried east on the Alaskan current or west into the counter-clockwise orbit of the North Pacific Subpolar Gyre, and have then drifted to the Aleutian Islands, the Alaska Panhandle and Siberia. On the evidence of one dubious sighting of a plastic duck on the coast of Maine, Ebbesmeyer thinks that some of the toys might even have been carried north into the Bering Sea, then northeast embedded in ice through the Arctic and finally south again into the North Atlantic.
In Alaska, where the animals first made landfall, Hohn travels with Chris Pallister, a lawyer recently separated from his wife, down on his luck, who has made it his mission to clean up a remote outpost called Gore Point. Situated on the windward shore of an isthmus, Gore Point is ‘one of the wildest places left on the American coastline and one of the last places on the planet you’d expect to have a garbage problem’. But it has become ‘a kind of postmodern midden heap’, with thousands of tons of ocean-borne trash reaching a hundred yards back into the trees. Here, 15 years after the spill, Hohn finds his first plastic animal. It’s a beaver, once a ‘lurid, maraschino red’ like a ‘mammalian interloper from somebody’s acid trip’, bleached by the waves to a pale ghost of its former self.
Hohn avoids romantic ideas about nature, so the incongruity of his find inspires greater awe than the wilderness around him. He says more than once that the scenery of Alaska, Hawaii or the Arctic is no more impressive first-hand than when mediated by painting, photography or literature. Nature writers’ hyperbole led him ‘to expect too much’. The trash heap, on the other hand, ‘sounded like a kind of wonder, akin to the Mammoth Caves or Stonehenge or the Mesa Verde cliff dwellings, except that the Gore Point midden heap was the collaborative work of both nature and man, an unforeseen marvel that the ocean had wrought with the raw material we’d provided it’, and which will soon be added to when the Alaskan coast is visited by massive quantities of debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami.
Because it’s a marvel, some beachcombers object to the clean-up, and point out that the operation’s corporate sponsors include BP and cruise companies. Hohn agrees: he worries that a focus on nature’s purity enables what could be called greenwashing and that the Sisyphean task of bagging trash replaces more meaningful action. He sends his plastic beaver for chemical analysis and learns that it would take centuries to biodegrade and that toxins cling to the plastic, a process known as adsorption. The beaver was coated in 12 different polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, carcinogens banned in the US since 1979. ‘Some stories,’ Hohn writes, ‘only a mass spectrometer can tell.’
He next goes south to the subtropical gyre aboard the Alguita, ‘a kind of floating eco-friendly utopian experiment’ that trawls the waters around Hawaii with a sieve to determine the ratio of plastic particles to plankton. The boat is captained by Charles Moore, who ‘resembles the pioneers of oceanography, among the last of the natural sciences to professionalise for the simple reason that wealthy, swashbuckling, yacht-owning amateurs were often the only ones who could afford ship time at sea’.
Although Hohn doesn’t find any toys here, the trip gives a sense of the scale of the plastic problem. Moore calculates that there has been an eightfold increase in the concentration of plastic particles since 1999 in the water of the Eastern Garbage Patch, off the coast of California. Hohn visits a local marvel, a plastic beach at the southernmost point of Hawaii Island, where he sifts multicoloured sand through his hands.
Hohn’s reverence for the polluted landscape grows as he goes along, as does his scepticism about the ways environmentalists have typically tried to win us over to their cause. ‘If I’m a taxpayer in Kansas,’ he asks a cetologist, ‘shouldn’t I be more concerned about investing in alternative energy, or reducing CO2 emissions from power plants, than about the suffering of whales?’ The cetologist starts to cry.
But Hohn’s discomfort in the outdoors, his anti-explorer exploring and his insistently urban posture begin to coalesce into an argument: our ideas about nature are too magical, and as long as our environmental consciousness is tied to the idea of breathtaking scenery or David Attenborough’s ramblings about charismatic fauna, we will be satisfied with the preservation of beautiful symbols. Activists chain themselves to trees while Coca-Cola appeases guilty consciences by printing some arrows in a Möbius loop on the label of a plastic bottle.
‘Like all religions,’ Hohn writes, ‘American nature worship has since its inception undergone a series of schisms and reformations and inquisitions, prophecies of the Transcendentalists ossifying into sentimentalities and platitudes, only to give way to new prophecies (the Book of Muir, the Book of Teddy, the Book of Leopold, the Book of Carson, the Book of Hardin, the Books of Brower, Berry, Wilson, Dillard, Lopez, McKibben, Pollan).’ Americans have ‘come to equate beautification with salvation’.
We believe in the importance of picking up a stray beer can on a beach. Instead of questioning the notion of disposable packaging, we insist on its ‘proper disposal’. Hohn’s ideas are more or less in tune with those of Edward Abbey: in his 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, a Vietnam vet called Hayduke wages guerrilla war on landscape-blighting public works projects but defiantly drops litter along the highways he hates. A few decades later it’s the polluter-sponsored beach-cleaning campaigns that bother Hohn. The lesson’s the same.
After the Eastern Garbage Patch, Hohn turns his attention to the toys themselves. ‘We are not meant to know where our possessions come from, we American consumers, or from what ingredients and by what mysterious processes they were spun and by whom.’ Marx is conspicuously absent from the discussion, but it isn’t difficult to tell what Hohn means when he writes of toys that ‘the real problem isn’t that childhood has been commercialised but that our economy has been infantilised’: not knowing how the ducks are produced, how they are carried across the ocean or what is meant by ‘made in China’ rankles him. So does the fact that the busy city wharves that Melville described are now covered in Astroturf and playgrounds while shipping containers arrive at industrial ports in unseen urban peripheries.
Hohn travels to Hong Kong for a toy manufacturing convention, then crosses to the mainland to visit the Po Sing factory in the Pearl River Delta Economic Zone city of Dongguan, where the animals were made. It’s the post-Christmas lull, but Hohn finds the workers busy making plastic handles for the Dr Brown baby-bottle brushes he has by the sink at home. When they give him a handle as a gift, ‘it’s as though some breach in my universe has been repaired, as if the arc between two oppositely charged poles has been jumped by an invisible surge. The air stills, the room grows quiet, even intensely ceremonial.’ The workers stare at him, baffled.
Then he reaches the machine in the factory that produces plastic ducks. The manager presents him with a special treat, the original die-cast mould for the ducks that fell into the sea. Hohn places a duck he’s brought with him into its concavity. It fits. ‘For a moment I half-expect some sort of cosmic magic to occur,’ he writes. ‘Instead, I just stand there muttering, idiotically, “Wow . . . Wow,” while behind me Po Sing’s perplexed managers look on and beside me an antiquated extrusion blow-moulding machine operated by a youthful proletarian drips out new ducks one by one: psssht, clamp; psssht, clamp; psssht, clamp.’ Just as nature is no more impressive than nature photography, Hohn’s visit to the factory doesn’t bring much more insight than looking at a picture of the factory would have provided. The meeting of producer and consumer shatters no illusions, and the workers’ lives remain unknowable. Rather than travelling into the future, to a world dominated by China, he feels he’s visited ‘some Twilight Zone version of America’s economic past’.
After crossing the Pacific in a cargo ship and investigating the underwater storms known as mesoscale eddies, Hohn makes a final journey to the Arctic Circle aboard an icebreaker. He earns his passage by volunteering to throw another sort of flotsam into the sea: old-fashioned glass bottles with messages in them, used by scientists to map currents. Although climate change has shrunk Arctic pack ice so that it is now easier for ships to traverse the Northwest Passage, the journey isn’t without the occasional icy impasse. They ‘might as soon attempt to transit the Gowanus Expressway’, Hohn writes of one attempt to penetrate an ice sheet.
The traffic-jammed freeway takes its name from the Gowanus Canal, and the comparison is apt. Once lined with factories, the canal is now a symbol of post-industrial decay that cuts a malodorous channel through Brooklyn. The factories that make goods for New Yorkers are now in China or elsewhere. Their manufacturing gone, Americans commit themselves to cleaning up their waterways. Just before passing into the Arctic, Hohn sees a minke whale; reading this I recalled an episode a few years ago, when a disoriented juvenile minke whale was spotted splashing about the mouth of the Gowanus. ‘Frolicking Visitor Delights Hearts, Then Dies’ was the headline in the New York Times.
Moby-Dick and Moby-Duck both dwell on the Pacific Ocean and the problem of its abundance. Moby-Dick reconfigured the Pacific as an American West that would never be won, where ‘the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.’ Moby-Duck tries to rescue the Pacific from its usual role as a metaphor for all there is on Earth that man will never be able to pave over. In The Crying of Lot 49, Pynchon wrote of ‘some unvoiced idea that no matter what you did to its edges the true Pacific stayed inviolate and integrated or assumed the ugliness at any edge into some more general truth.’ Hohn flips the notion: the edges will be cleaned up, and the ugliness concentrated in the garbage patches of the oceanic gyres. He focuses on the plastic duck, buoyant as Queequeg’s coffin in the immensity, not to emphasise the smallness of humans and their petty endeavours, but so that one might try to think of the Pacific as no more inviolate than a bathtub.
Hohn never suggests that plastic pollution is the worst threat facing the oceans: ‘that honour goes to global warming, or ocean acidification, or overfishing or agricultural runoff’. But plastic pollution could be curtailed. Nobody can deny that we produce plastic for purposes that don’t require it, from cradles that keep our fruit from bruising to tampon applicators that could just as well be cardboard. ‘As numerous conservationists have told me, compared with other environmental problems this one should be easy to solve,’ Hohn writes. ‘And yet we show no sign of solving it.’
Hohn apologetically returns to a familiar plea – this is the wilderness; isn’t it pretty; let’s save it by not buying so much useless crap and throwing it away – but he longs for people to find a different perspective on the situation, because the old strategies for urging change in consumer habits don’t seem to be imparting a sufficient sense of urgency. Plastic pollution is not just an American problem, but the US generates more waste than any other country, even if most of it is ‘properly disposed’. When Rwanda bans plastic bags, it’s a curiosity. But if the world’s biggest economies followed its lead, they might substantially change the plastic load of the oceans. It’s easier, though, to propose futuristic solutions: recycling, or biodegradable plastic bags made from vegetable oils.
Hohn calls this ‘the American Comedy of Progress – the cherished notion that with time, technology, entrepreneurialism and, if need be, activism, all problems can be solved.’ In debates about everything from energy to transport to overpopulation, the myth of progress – solar-powered cars, carbon-neutral planes, genetically engineered rice, desalinated water and plastic-eating organisms – has won. The myth has always privileged economic growth, and it has sustained the hopes of the world’s largest producers of garbage. As an Italian visitor once said to me, after I’d showed her how to fold back the plastic tab on the lid of her coffee cup so that it snapped into place: ‘Americans! You invent these little things, and then you throw them away.’

[end of review by Emily Witt]
Herman Melville's great novel was met with indifference at the time of publication in 1851, and never achieved any acclamation during his lifetime.  It's nice to know that to labor in obscurity puts me in the most excellent company!

                                                      "There Leviathan,
Hugest of living creatures, in the deep
Stretch'd like a promontory sleeps or swims,
And seems a moving land; and at his gills
Draws in, and at his breath spouts out a sea."

                                                               Paradise Lost

from the frontispiece of Moby Dick, by Herman Melville, who lived the life


  1. Yes, just drove the 89 highway through VT, and it's rusty!

  2. Watching our trees die at alarming rates from atmospheric pollution caused by chemtrails, antennae radiation, and HAARP Geo-engineering, one
    wonders cui bono, who benefits from this destruction.

    Well, thanks to Gail, we now know that one beneficiary is Drux Group Plc, the U.K.'s biggest coal-fired, energy generator who plans to burn wood instead. By 2017, Drux's annual fuel consumption will require the harvesting of 3 million acres. At an average 450 trees per acre, this runs to well over one billion trees.

  3. Heh, Plovering you should check out Bobby1's blog about trees and radiation. He's got some new videos on this post:

  4. Here in the middle of the continent it is marginally less dire. I've seen a few very local spots that have a reasonable approximation of fall color. The rub is that as soon as the leaves hit a bright yellow or red they start crisping at the edge and soon fall off. Color survives a few days. What reaches the ground does not make a pile of leaves, it just goes to dust. So there will never be a complete vista of color, the brightest spots are brown or bare before all the dull green starts a change.

    Reading this blog I get to see what our forests will look like in a month or two. When I started reading here two years ago it seemed NJ was possibly six months ahead of my backyard. Now it's much closer. Still there's a lag, not much.

  5. Thanks for this impressive analysis. I especially like your use of Melville!

    Nuclear radiation is central to the death of the trees, this is reposted from Bobby1's blog.



    by Sara Shannon

    Winter, 1998

    Walter Russell, a visionary artist and scientist, predicted in his book Atomic Suicide? published in 1957 that due to man-made radioactivity we would experience a loss of oxygen in the air that we breathe. In a similar way to the predictions of Andrei Sakharov in the 1950′s, Walter Russell’s foresight is now coming true. Our current oxygen resources are low. The percentage of oxygen in the air is down to about 19 percent. (BioTech News 1997) The expected amount is 21 percent oxygen. Some experts say that we may have originally evolved in an atmosphere of 38 percent oxygen. But now, due to the loss of forests and ocean plankton, our two sources of oxygen production, measurements of oxygen as low as 12 percent and 15 percent have been made in heavily industrialized areas. This oxygen-depleted condition is a contributing cause of the generalized lack of well-being that many are experiencing. And it does not look good for the future. We need oxygen to live!

    Trees and green plants provide about half, and plankton provide the other half of our oxygen. Phytoplankton, which are the base of the marine food chain, is declining. Various studies confirm this: plankton in parts of the Antarctic Ocean is declining up to 12 percent. (S. Weiler. Testimony to Senate Commerce Committee, November 15, 1991)

    Trees absorb radioactive carbon-14 in place of stable forms of carbon and in this way they are gradually killed. The book, The Petkau Effect, by Ralph Graeub tells how radioactivity has harmed trees and forests: “It is assumed that the decisive physiological damage resulting in current forest death must have begun during the 1950′s. This is depicted in a reduction in density and width of tree rings, and in reduced growth, which is true in the Northern Hemisphere and in the Himalayas…. Neither aging, location, nor climate can be considered as the possible sole cause of damage…. The growth ring of a tree shows exactly what effects the tree has experienced, both in terms of time and seriousness…. During the 1950′s and 1960′s, there must have been a global wave of air pollution which caused the initial damage.”

    The author speculates that it could not be just the usual chemicals which are so damaging the trees. And he explains that these trees are mainly within the 30th to 60th parallels of northern latitude. “This zone contains the most nuclear power plants — over 300 — and almost all nuclear reprocessing centers. Also, the vast majority of nuclear weapons tests occurred in this area.”

  6. Thanks for the link to Sara Shannon's blog, I will follow up on that. It's very intriguing. Having said that, nuclear radiation as the primary driver for global forest decline doesn't quite fit the facts as I understand them. For one thing, by far the bulk of atmospheric nuclear testing occurred prior to the 1963 partial test ban was adopted. And yet, the visible impacts to annual foliage didn't become prevalent until 2009, which since then have rapidly become almost ubiquitous. The constant background level of zone, by contrast to nuclear fallout, has been inexorably increasing, particularly since the rise of Asian precursor emissions.

    Transport of precursors and Increasing levels of ozone have been conclusively demonstrated through satellite studies as well as monitoring on the ground. The characteristic damage to leaves has been documented in dozens of studies. There are some pretty good examples in this post:

    along with photos of what happens to potatoes in controlled fumigation experiments. Roots are known to shrink even before damage is registered on leaves or needles, so the fact that trees are dying isn't any surprise, given that it's almost impossible to find a leaf without some sort of injury.

    There could be some synergistic effect nuclear or or other types of radiation - typically ozone is formed, after all, by interactions between reactive nitrogen, volatile organic compounds, and UV radiation. So I am very interested to look into a possible connection. But I would like to see some links to scientific experiments comparing non-radiated plants with radiated plants at different exposures. I'll look for them - if you know of any, please send links.

    And as I pointed out at Bobby1's excellent blog - the precipitous decline in vegetative health predates the Fukushima tsunami and meltdown. So that leaves residuals from nuclear tests and fugitive emissions from power plants as the source. There are so many other toxic chemicals in the environment that are also known to cause autoimmune disorders and cancers, it would be hard to sort them out from radiation. Again, if you have any scientific basis for those assertions, please share them and meanwhile, I read up on what you have already provided.

    thanks for reading,


  7. One place to start might be with Walter Russell’s Atomic Suicide? (1957), he points out that one nuclear facility is worse than many bombs in its effects on our atmosphere.

    The number of nuclear facilities has almost doubled since 1975 (not including military nuclear facilities, etc.)

    Krypton-85 Releases from Nuclear Reprocessing Facilities as a Co-Factor in the Destruction of the Stratospheric Ozone Layer, with Wieland Giebel, Strahlentelex, Vol. 172-173, 1-8, March 3, 1994.

    “An article in a German journal Strahlentelex (March 3, 1994) explains that the nuclear industry is responsible for the ozone hole. The authors, Giebel and Sternglass explains that radioactive gases like krypton-85 from nuclear plants and from the nuclear fuel recycling plants go up to the stratosphere where they create water droplets from the moisture which in turn form ice crystals on the surface of which the destruction of the ozone by the fluorhydrocarbons is greatly accelerated.” (from link in post above)

    A new compilation of the atmospheric 85krypton inventories from 1945 to 2000 and its evaluation in a global transport model.By: Winger, K.; Feichter, J.; Kalinowski, M.B.; Sartorius, H.; Schlosser, C. Journal of Environmental Radioactivity.Mar2005, Vol. 80 Issue 2, p183-215. 33p. Abstract: Abstract: This paper gives the yearly 85Kr emissions of all known reprocessing facilities, which are the main sources of 85Kr in the atmosphere since 1945, for the years 1945 until 2000. According to this inventory 10,600PBq (Peta=1015) of 85Kr have been globally emitted from the year 1945 until the end of 2000. The global atmospheric inventory at the end of the year 2000 amounts to 4800PBq.

    The global health effects of nuclear war
    Published in Current Affairs Bulletin, Vol. 59, No. 7, December 1982, pp. 14-26
    Brian Martin

  8. Another is the book that Aaron mentioned, Ralph Graub’s, The Petkau Effect: The Devasting Effect of Nuclear Radiation on Human Health and the Environment OR The Petkau Effect: Nuclear Radiation, People and Trees

    The following excerpt from The Petkau Effect explains why plants are so much more sensitive to air pollution than animals. Also look at photos of deformed plants from the Pennsylvania Three Mile Island nuclear power plant area in chapter 7. The plant deformities were observed after the nuclear accident there in 1979.

    “The decline of the forests has grown from a disturbing trend to a catastrophe of dramatic proportions. Hardly has one study on the subject been finished than it is surpassed by another bearing worse tidings. Not so long ago, the march of death was confined to certain species in certain locations - today it is a virtually global epidemic. Fruit trees are showing the same symptoms as those of the forest. 30 percent of the fruit trees in the Canton of Thurgovi in Switzerland are destroyed. Now they fear the vineyards will follow.
    “We now have proof of the risk of interrupting the very basis of the life cycle of plants, animals and man - in brief, photosynthesis on Earth is endangered!
    “There is a fundamental difference between plants and animals, and this determines why plants are so much more sensitive to air pollution. We animals need air for its oxygen, to burn our food so as to obtain energy. The plant, however, gets almost all of its nutrition in the form of carbon, which is contained in the air in the form of carbonic acid (C02) and is made available to the plant through the process of photosynthesis. The plant must take in MUCH more air than animals to get enough carbon.
    “The prodigious aeration of the plants explains their tremendous sensitivity to air pollution. The toxic effects of airborn pollutants show up earlier in plants than in the human.
    “Carbon 14 is produced by cosmic rays, bomb tests and nuclear power plants. By 1963, Carbon 14 in the Northern Hemisphere had increased by 100 percent, and by 1984, about one decade later, it had increased another 25 percent. An increase in radioactivity of only one percent eventually translates into a decline in tree growth of about 18 percent. It is interesting to note that a global increase of Carbon 14 - one such as has never before been seen - parallels the slowing growth and the endemic death of trees from Lebanon to the Himalayas.
    “This is why we must give immediate priority to clarifying the influence of radioactivity in our environment.”

  9. Maggie, and Anon, thank you for your contributions. It is going to turn into a fulltime job for me to follow up on all your references, which I appreciate.

    Just for background - when I was pregnant with first daughter, I was like a whale in the summer that 3 Mile Island happened. I could hardly roll out of bed so I just lay there, and listened to my local radio station that was giving constant, minute-by-minute updates. It terrified me to the point that when she was a toddler I dragged her to a rather wild protest at Picatinny Arsenal in NY to demonstrate against Reagan's insane nuclear armageddon Star Wars program.

    The point is, I share many of your well-founded fears about nuclear radiation, and have for decades.

    But, blaming ONE industry is a rather convenient cop-out. It isn't any one industry, it isn't any secretive cabal, it isn't HAARP radiation or a New World Order contrail conspiracy, convenient as all those might be.


    It's US. You and me, our lights and cars, our planes and buying stuff from the other side of the world. It's having too many babies consuming too much stuff.

  10. Terrific post.

    Whales and trees - perfect analogies
    I especially liked the same pine tree imaged in two different years.

  11. "But, blaming ONE industry is a rather convenient cop-out."

    I never blamed one industry. The scientific studies linked to in my posts examine the ways that nuclear radiation enhances the harms done by other industries.

  12. Sorry Anon, I didn't mean to misinterpret. I skimmed through the links at the ccnr. and the chapter of The Petkau Effect but I'm not seeing any controlled studies with plants or trees and radiation. I read through Chapter 7:

    I have (and had) no doubt that nuclear radiation has hideous effects on people on plants. What I question, absent evidence, is whether it has a role in the global decline of forets. The chapter I linked to, for instance, has photos of plants allegedly (and I believe correctly) with genetic mutations as a result of the TMI meltdown. However, that is very localized and more importantly, that is not the sort of widespread damage I have been recording on this blog since 2009, which has been reproduced in countless fumigation experiments with ozone.

    I'm against nuclear power, and nuclear weapons. I think it's too dangerous, because of the meltdowns, the potential for war obviously, and the impossibility of assuring safe storage for waste for thousands of years, an absurd notion.

    It's possible that low-level radiation plays a role in forest decline but it wouldn't surprise me if it is a factor only immediately downwind of large emissions - TMI, Chernobyl and Fukushima.

    Any more links would be appreciated - I haven't read everything yet but I'll keep at it.

    Thanks for your contributions, I really do appreciate it.

  13. Personal responsibility. It's very important. And it's always the other fellow's.

    "forest jihad"
    Al-Qaeda blamed for Europe-wide forest fires
    The Telegraph (UK) 03 Oct 2012

  14. Reader Phil has left the following comment, which got swallowed mysteriously by blogger, so I am posting it myself:

    "Warburg got the Nobel prize for proving cancer resulted from an oxygen starved acid environment.

    The present loss of oxygen in our acidic atmosphere undoubtedly compromises immune systems and
    increases cancer rates.

    One must enhance one's immune system with additional oxygen and avoid all unnatural chemicals."


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