Wednesday, September 29, 2010

And Eastern Forests Would Never Be the Same

The American Chestnut was once the dominant tree in eastern forests from Mississippi to New York City.  Taller and straighter than its European and Asian relatives--the genus from which it branched after American split off of Europe and started its long collision course with Africa--it provided a sweet nut, too, in reliably sweet droves that had farm and city folk alike marveling at its bounty.  In the early twentieth century entire Appalachian communities like the ones my grandparents grew up in based much of their livelihoods on the wood, bark, and chestnuts.

Then in 1904 in New York City, some chestnuts there looked sick, and started dying.  Tree diseases were no mystery to the forestry of the time, so they sprayed the trees with lime and copper sulfate and waited for recovery.

Recovery did not come.  Within 35 years, the dominant tree of Appalachia was gone; only a few hundred hardy stragglers now remain.  It is estimated that humans watched helplessly while 3 to 4 billion trees died, more than the number of people who existed on earth at that time.

The culprit was a run-of-the-mill fungus, well, run-of-the-mill for chestnut trees in China.  For years scientists feared that a native disease had suddenly gone deadly--and some folktales suggested that the "chestnut blight" was God's punishment for recent sins of mankind.  But the spores were discovered in the living, thriving bark of the Chinese and Japanese chestnut varieties, trees which had been imported to America for their ornamental properties.  The great naturalist Thomas Jefferson even had some growing at Monticello. 

The Chinese and Japanese trees had genetic resistance to the fungus, which had chosen the genus Castenea as its exclusive feeding ground.  American Chestnut, Castenea dentata, now diverged from its Asian cousins by tens of millions of years of isolation, had none, and died in droves at the first assault.  Exotic invasive species to this day wreak havoc on all continents:  Australia has erected a country-spanning rabbit-proof fence to keep at bay the rabbits, imported for a good hunt, that regularly decimate native outback grasses.  Here in the Appalachians, the stiltgrass, mullen, velcro-like burdoch, ornamental bittersweet, and kudzu choke out native plant life and colonize acres of forest for their own.  It is nature being nature, but it is also a potently destructive tipping of the balance-scales that human travel has directly enabled.  And no story has so high a death toll, so grave an alteration of an entire ecosystem, as that of the American Chestnut.

To say that humans watched helpless is not entirely correct.  We watched this icon of the forest fall with dismay, and ardor to act could certainly be mustered.  Unfortunately, it was often misguided, appearing a hubris to the better scientific understanding of our day.  Pennsylvania declared an all out war on the chestnut blight, using a method tried-and-true for diseases which did not spread on the wind by thousands of microscopic spores:  quarantine.  They vowed to cut down every sick chestnut in every square inch of the eastern half of their state, and create a several-hundred mile buffer zone besides in which no chestnut tree would stand to transfer its germs to any western neighbors.  The resulting political battled resembled the way in which scientific subtlety is often trounced for political will today:  the admonishment by leading scientists that such a plan would not work was belied as the dour guesses of men too smart for their own good.  Talking in impossibilities is un-American, they said.  You are only guessing, and one man can guess as well as any other.  But one who has studied something is usually able to form a better guess than one who has not--and although considerable public funding and labor went underway, the quarantine was never finished, and never began to appear successful.  At worst, it may have sealed the fate of the chestnut:  for those few trees that might have possessed better natural resistance, might have made up the naturally-selected hardy survivors of the species, were cut as indiscriminately as the rest.

These days, you can walk a forest dominated by oaks, hickory, and maple, and occasionally see a small sprout on the forest floor.  It reminds one of an oak, with evenly toothed leaves, pointed at each end as white oaks are distinguished from red.  It is a chestnut sapling; does it represent rebirth and renewed hope for the once-majestic species?

American chestnut sapling, located on Hawksbill Moutain trail in Shenandoah National Park.

Alas, it does not, because there are not enough tall trees left to have made this sapling the result of cross pollination.  It is likely a last attempt from a still-living root mass to rise once again, and it will grow to teenage years, and the chestnut blight which has been patiently waiting in dormant phase on the bark of a nearby oak or hickory will gleefully attack once again.  Is there hope that eventually the fungus, deprived by its own fecundity of its food source, will eventually die away, so human-planted chestnuts might tower once again?  There is always hope, but the evidence so far suggests no such thing.  The blight can stay dormant but alive for decades.

There are groups of people who do not want to let the chestnut go.  It was quite a valuable tree, after all:  tall, straight hardwood with an attractive grain, bark full of the tannic acid once used to make leather, and it does grow faster than many other eastern hardwoods.  And the chestnuts themselves, of course.  The American Chestnut Foundation has, for half a century, been crossing American with Chinese chestnuts, hoping according to mendelian genetics to pass Chinese resistance into trees that are otherwise American in characteristics.  If successful they would reintroduce hybrids, 15th/16th American and 1/16th Chinese, into the wild, though now they will have to clear away native oaks to do it.  Even a small corner of the biotech world has jumped to the chestnut's rescue--though I cannot become comfortable with the idea of reintroducing a species which contains man-made genetic material, nor the time and money that must go into trying a variety of genes injected in a variety of places and then waiting a decade to see how the resulting treelet fares.  Probably these trees would become farm trees only, enabling chestnut wood and chestnut fruit to enter the marketplace once again. In truth the dream of returning the mighty chestnut stands to Appalachia will probably not be accomplished by human hands.

Looking at the forest of oak and maple that I only stories inform me are a paltry imitation of the past--I'm not sure we should try.  I grew up in a forest with no chestnut tree, the oaks and yellow poplar are the biggest species I remember.  I do live and work where the chestnut once defined life--but life has moved on now, and what happened is not personal to me.  I am two generations removed.

Yet the other day I was hiking and found a specimen of Castenea dentata large enough to bear fruit.  I saw the strangest spiky green balls on the ground, and I looked up, and there it was:  leaves I was accustomed to viewing with excitement on saplings I nonetheless knew were doomed, adorning a tree of middling height.  It was not a healthy tree, the crown was a spire of dead wood, the leaf-covered branches were short and close to the trunk, which was mottled and peeling.  But it was a tree, not a sprout, and I was mesmerized, confronted with a tiny glimpse of what the forest of my grandparents' time, the forest they tell me of with such reverence, must have been like.

Tree-sized American Chestnut, looking into canopy.  The green balls encase the nut inside; they are quite spiney to the touch.  Toothed leaves grow close to the trunk, one indication that the tree is infected with the chestnut blight.  CCC Dynamite Cabin trail, Shenandoah National Park.

You can't find yourself suddenly face-to-face with a species that is for all intents and purposes nearly extinct, and not feel mesmerized.  Not feel put on trial, not feel compelled to answer the question, how can we do better?  How can we learn from the inadvertent mistakes of the past?  Our understanding of forestry and forest management is much improved from the days of the Pennsylvania quarantine, yet the onslaught of exotic invasive species continues.  The Frasier fir and eastern hemlock both have their devastating bugs from Asia, but treatment has been found for the hemlocks, at least, that can keep a gene pool alive.  The emerald ash borer spreads slowly southward, perhaps there is hope that with education its transfer can be delayed until a suitable control can be found. Biological control in the form of a fungus has done relatively well at halting the gypsy moth's century-long oak ravaging spree.  There is a native fungus that makes the chestnut blight sick, as well--it isn't currently enough to stop the blight, but it might, with time, help tip the balance scales back in favor of a partial chestnut recovery.  There remain challenges, but hope as well.  I am certain that learning from the past is absolutely possible.

Sources:  American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree, Susan Freiknel.

The American Chestnut Foundation,

Photos are taken by author, permission to redistribute them but not the text of this blog entry is granted.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Natural World Awareness Test

How much do you know about the world around you--the natural world, the larger world, not the world of your life as a socialized human?  How much are you aware?

Do you know from your own observation ( not from looking it up at the US naval observatory you physics-types) what time sunrise and sunset are happening right now?  To about ten minutes?

What stage is the moon right now?

Roughly when will it rise tonight?  In what part of the sky will it be?

Do you know how to find any stars and constellations?  Do you know which constellations are visible in your area this time of year, and which are not?  At 2am as well as 9pm? (If you think that corresponds with what zodiac sign is currently leading the horoscopes, you are wrong.  Also, if you ever refer to "astronomy" as "astrology", you lose.  Don't pass GO, don't collect 200 dollars.)

Can you identify at least ten species of tree in your area?  At least twenty?  Fifty? In winter without the leaves to help you?

For all North American residents:  can you at least distinguish an oak from other trees?

For all North American residents:  at the very least a PINE tree from other trees?

In places that have a winter:  Do you know where insects and bugs go in winter?

Do you know how trees and plants make other trees and plants?

Do you know what kind of large mammals actually do and don't exist in your forest?

Do you know what to do if you encounter one?

Can you distinguish hawks, falcons, eagles, and vultures from each other when viewed in flight?  (ooh, tricky.)

North American residents:  is it a raven, or a crow?  (ooh, tricky again.)

Do you know what types of clouds indicate that a front is coming?  Do you know what a front is, and how it affects the weather outside?

Do you know how to dilineate venemous snakes from non-venemous ones?

Frogs from toads?

Butterflies from moths?

Do you know what to do if you are stuck outside in a thunderstorm?

Monday, September 27, 2010

Starting on the Backlog

Now that things have settled down, I finally have time to catch up on my backlog of intended entries, so you're getting a barrage at once from my paper journal.  (Yes, I have a paper journal.)

My long absence has been due to pursing a job opportunity I could not logically pass up in the middle of a very short-term job opportunity I really love, and then, more recently, partying pretty much every night, which is very unlike me.

So this is from a couple of days ago:

Today I started my morning by wading into a cool mountain river.  Then I had breakfast at a diner that turned out to be rather nice--though admittedly the topic of conversation was my exasperating co-worked and housemate (the one who inspired my last entry, in fact.)

I sat on a high stony cliff and watched five turkey vultures land and take off, land and take off from stone pillars.  I went to an evening gathering which featured easy-to-learn folk dances around a camp fire, and happily discovered a rhythm of joy around the flames, amid the singing of the catidids, under the full moon.  When I got back home I stopped first, in the big meadow, to listen to the barred owl calling into the night.

When trying to seize the day, some days are much easier than others.

I have a job now.  A real one, not an Americorps park ranger 12-week stay in Shenandoah National Park (oh, that's what she's doing...)--which unfortunately means I have to leave this actually quite amazing experience early.  Stain my name for future Americorps, and all that.

And I am someone who worries so much about the future:  about my plans, my decisions, about how I relate to the people and places in my life.  I worry so much over every little failure or perceived failure, every little uncertainty that I must attend to and turn into certainty if possible--that I forget to seize the day, and be thankful that I live a privileged enough life that every day is generally worth seizing.  I live a privileged life because of luck of the birth draw, but also because of my choices:  to pursue the things I want, to establish and immerse myself in what I value, to hold on to the people I love, to embrace challenge and learning when it is presented me.

Being here, interpreting a natural resource for visitors, has nourished something that has been inside of me my whole life but has recently only had small occasion to voice.  The child who climbed trees to the tallest branch, who knew at ten the common names of most of the tree types in my neighborhood, who captured and released baby frogs while wading in the pond in the backyard, who counted dragonflies and pressed wildflowers and imagined running away to live off of the land as an adult.  How that closeness to the natural world fills and inspires all of the things I love even now, all of my hopes and challenges. 

I have been looking for a job for months and I finally got one, and it is an exciting one, and the fact that I felt no choice but to be distracted from my time here to pursue it, that irony would say that of course when I decide to go and have a self-bettering-through-service experience is when the jobs come up--that can't matter.  I'm here now, I have stimulated that spring of wonder, inspiration, and joy--and if I wish I could have all of it well then I should have just learned to seize the day before it was gone.

Friday, September 17, 2010

I Am Totally Procrastinating Hardcore

I do not want to tell you about the somewhat ridiculousness of my life the past few weeks.   I fear irony, I fear, so powerfully and utterly, failure, I am scared and frustrated and a little annoyed and oh, so weary all rolled up into one.

I have observed that conservation is a lot about how you are raised.  And I do mean being raised with decent exposure to nature, so that you care about nature because you have happy memories in it but also understand it, don't fear it, and hopefully had many chances for things you observed or experience to trigger your sense of wonder.

The kind of conversation where you feel driven to do things like recycle, turn lights off, turn the heat down, never leave the water running, endeavor not to throw away uneaten food simply because you don't want to finish it--that kind of conservation is also in how you are raised.    I was raised by middle-class environmentalists.  We turned the light off when we left the room.  We didn't leave the water running.  Because we cared about conserving resources so that they might last into perpetuity or so that harmful effects could be minimized, and yes, those were some of the most important values instilled in me at an early age--but also because leaving the lights on and the water running costs money.

The people I've watched not do these things who I've known well enough to converse about it reveal that their childhood was absent such messages, whether for not having the values, or just not worrying about the money.   To me, who cannot encounter a dripping faucet I can't fix and not start to feel very upset, this is extremely infuriorating.

But then I met my Significant Other, who was raised with the same values but was also raised in much less well-off circumstances.  They also didn't leave the lights on, they also never left the water running.  But they wouldn't even turn lights on unless they were sure to use them for a while, and kept buckets ready to collect and utilize running water.  They sure as hell never threw food away, food being pretty hard-earned at times.

Half of our arguments are about me forgetting to turn some light off, or throwing something away that doesn't need to be thrown away, or failing to re-use something that had never occurred to me was possible to re-use.  And I feel bad about it, because he has good reasons, it's all about the values I already have, but I have such a damned hard time remembering sometimes.  I don't think about it, even though I am someone inclined to think about that sort of thing.  I don't think about taking it to the level that he does, and I have tried and tried but I don't know how to make myself notice and realize.

And I get angry, when he reminds me.  I get defensive and upset even though I always admit to myself that I would rather remember and do it that way because it does save some money and is more in line with my conservation values.  Admittedly, he doesn't always remind me in a very patient-person sort of way, this late in the game, but I get angry even though I think he's right, because being reminded of something over and again makes a person irritable.

This is the problem with trying to espouse environmentalism to people who were not raised in a way that makes these sort of things obvious.  I still think conservation is one large piece of doing what is right, because that is one my values, and those values are just as important to me as anyone else's are to them.  I've run out of thought and time right now to tackle what to do about this.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Dare to Want, Dare to Imagine

A quote I like:  "Have we fallen into a mesmerized state that makes us accept as inevitable that which is inferior or detrimental, as though having lost the will or the vision to demand that which is good?"  This was in Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, and was of course referring to the claim that despite how pesticides have bad effects on other creatures there is no alternative if we want to continue to feed people, a claim the book refutes in detail.

I general I do hope to go through life finding the will and the vision to demand the good solutions, and not simply assume that nothing is fixable.

 I have recently been working with someone who commonly claims that nothing
matters.  Nothing matters to him, personally, and little, it seems to him, matters either about the whole world overall.  It's all just depression and nonsense so why bother?

Sometimes I sarcastically or jokingly take this view, but in true seriousness this point of view is not only completely incomprehensible to me, I am finding that people who espouse it are very wearying people to be around.  It seems one would get tired of the labor of constantly exerting a cloud of negativity, of overriding any inborn sense of wonder or curiosity in order to maintain that it's all just uninteresting repetitions of inevitable futility.

How can you take the stance that nothing matters?  Not love, not joy, not overcoming evil, nothing wanted, nothing preferred, everything humdrum and miserable.  How miserable a life, how small a person who labors to live such a life!  And I think labor it must be, that it cannot be natural to assess the world and truly find nothing to care about.  I also think people who make this claim are actually lying, saying this as a defense mechanism to show how grandly unaffected they are--and at the same time demonstrate how they never aged past that time in high school when few of us felt safe to reveal who we truly were by what we cared about.

Well, we're not in high school anymore.  If nothing matters to you, how can you summon either will or vision?  If nothing matters to you, how can you matter to anyone else?

Sunday, September 12, 2010


Sorry for the radio is exploding at the moment.  In potentially good ways, but I don't expect to have time for another week or so to do any writing here.  I have some drafts of quite a few things waiting for the time to finalize them.

Small note:  I do find it vaguely gratifying to hear the person who continually remarks on my vegetarianism in tones of utter disdain, admit that the first time he tried to feed the birds of prey we keep here, which involves cutting open dead mice to insert owl-and-hawk vitamins, he nearly passed out and asked never to have to do it again.

I'll admit cutting open a dead mouse with dull scissors is not my favorite thing, but I'm finding I'm not particularly bothered by it either.

But then again, I'm a vegetarian because I know where, how, and to what degree of inefficiency and suffering, conventional store-bought meat comes from.  It's the specifics that I have chosen to opt out of, and not the act of killing and eating an animal in itself.  I like to think that if I wanted or needed to kill an animal for my own consumption, I would mentally be able to do it.  I don't know that for a fact, but I find it pretty likely when I think about how I like to challenge myself, and I would very much like to try.  It is the skillz and knowledge of how to do so and then what to do after its dead to make it into yumminess that I lack, as well as someone to teach me.