Tree Memories

Posted by on 06/24/10 in Nature, Stewardship

Thirty years ago, children camping in the Rocky Mountains came to know the looming lodgepole pines that rustled in the wind through the day and night, provided hiding places for chipmunks, deer, and capture the flag, and shaded the creeks and trails from the intense sun.

Rarely did those children consider how the roots of the lodgepole kept the soil from running downhill during spring thaw or summer rainstorm, how they fed and sheltered beaver, sand hill cranes, and elk, how they served as a linchpin to a complex ecosystem already fragile due to limited water, thin topsoil, and brutal sun and wind.

Today, however, children camping in many parts of the Rocky Mountain West know the looming trees quite differently, for most of the pine they see are dead, killed by the invasive, persistent Mountain Pine Beetle (see: http://www.fs.fed.us/r2/bark-beetle/index.html).

These once-majestic trees now stand together like skeletons, brown and ominous, many with their needles already dropped. Or they lean up against each other like a pile of pick-up sticks, their roots no longer holding the soil. Or they have already fallen across paths, roads and each other, rotting slowly as nature intended and yet on a scale so massive that it seems eerily unnatural.

In many places, even those pine trees that have survived the Beetles’ onslaught succumb indirectly to their impact. Many trees that once shared the force of the wind with their neighbors now face it alone; they tilt warily, branches ripped off, needles too, precariously clinging to the thin soil. Those that have survived the beetles are destabilized by shifting soil as erosion exposes their roots. And the already ever-present danger of forest fires has been exacerbated by the layers of dry tinder now layering whole mountains. With over 3.5 million acres of forest devastated by the beetle, this is no ordinary infestation, but an event that is profoundly changing the ecosystem for decades to come.

While one could intellectualize the damage with arguments about forest management policies or simplistic allusions to the circle of life, the reality is that change on this scale is intense, unusual, and difficult to accept.

However adventurous we human beings are, we still value a sense of place, of order. We tend to assume that the way it has been is how it will be—forever, that to a certain degree, our children will grow up in a world that reflects that in which we were raised, though not perhaps in terms of technology, which most of us recognize changes quickly and at an ever increasing rate of change, nor in terms of geo-politics: country borders shift in every generation, regimes come and go, and economic systems evolve.

But to imagine the Rockies stripped of much of their pine forests in less than two decades—well, that is change on a scale that can really upset our sense of place, a transformation that highlights yet again how little control we really have over our surroundings. It is one thing for humanity to change humanity’s environment, but quite another for a small beetle to do so, with us unable to do much more than neaten up the carnage.

Is there a meaningful metaphor in all of this? Sure. There are always metaphors that translate across systems, be they environmental, ecumenical, or economic. But for today, perhaps it is enough to simply point out that a way of life is changing, that in a corner of the world that otherwise seems so peaceful and stable, ecosystems and cultures are adjusting quickly to changes they did not expect, invite, or anticipate.

Thirty years from now, the barren, denuded landscape of the Rockies will be a fond memory for those who see it today as children. They will marvel with their own children at the new growth of quaking aspen, fir, spruce, and even pine that will have sprung up where fallen lodgepoles used to be. They will be overjoyed by the changes—and perhaps a bit nostalgic for the world they once new. That is how it works.

We here in Colorado—like so many people all around the globe—will pass to our children a world profoundly different than the one in which we were raised. Some elements of that are wonderful and other elements terrifying. In that, we have much in common with people around the globe, and with those generations who have come before us and those who will come after.