"Worlds Ephemeral" - Foreword

9/21/2020



"The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction."


- Rachel Carson


"Ethereal"

     Over the last few years, I have grown incredibly fond of the fall season. In combination with the pleasant, mild weather, the vibrant oranges, yellows, and reds create a visual experience that is second to none. My favorite places to admire the colors of fall are among the aspen trees higher up in the mountains and in the canyons filled with cottonwoods, maples, oaks, and box elders. In years past, this show has gone on for several months, especially if you start at high elevation and chase the color as it slowly fades downward and into the desert plateaus. Unfortunately, as many of us observed, last year the season was abruptly cut short. Record droughts and heat wore the trees out, followed by a cold snap that made them drop their leaves in a hurry, skipping over the beautiful colors all together as they shriveled up and turned straight from green to brown. 


"The world, we are told, was made especially for man - a presumption not supported by all the facts."


- John Muir


     The desert has long been seen by most of the world as wasted land. In 1929 when President Hoover wrote a letter urging the western states to preserve more of the wilderness as public lands, the Governor Dern of Utah replied, “The states already own… millions of acres of this same kind of land, which they can neither sell nor lease, and which is yielding no income. Why should they want more of this precious heritage of desert?” But I suspect as we continue to populate the planet, and it is harder and harder to find places to be alone, the stark contrast to civilization by the space, solitude, and silence that the desert wilderness provides will become even more precious.

     Already, people from all over are flocking to these wild lands of singular beauty. But rather than seeking the peaceful solitude that they provide, they come in huge groups, allowing no time for deep introspection or appreciation for the scenery around them; blasting loud music, taking selfies, and disturbing the fragile ecosystem in which they travel.

     One of the most disturbing things I have seen over the last five years is the trend of an irreverence and use of natural places as a means to an end. In these sacred tabernacles of wild beauty, I have found enormous amounts of trash, trampled

"Cutting Through"

vegetation, and unnecessary graffiti. And it’s only getting worse. I feel strongly that many of the problems we are now facing globally stem from this selfish perspective that so many people have towards the Earth and its resources. Trees, one of the most important species on this planet as it provides oxygen, food, and clean air for all, have particularly been suffering because of our reckless actions.

     When trees are wounded, such as by somebody carving their name in its trunk, it makes the tree extremely vulnerable to one of its arch enemies, fungi. Fungi spores are constantly all around us, and in forests, they are just waiting for the opportunity to invade a tree’s wound and begin to suck out all of its nutrients. If a tree is in bad shape, even just losing a limb or getting a scratch can cause its demise. Healthy trees can heal, and close up less severe wounds with new bark quickly enough before they are invaded with fungi. But unfortunately, healthy trees are now harder and harder to find. So when people are carving hearts and the names of their loved ones into these trees, they are in effect sentencing them to death, especially now that trees are already struggling to survive more than ever.

     Extreme temperatures are devastating for trees. On hot days, trees will use enormous amounts of water in order to sweat, and working together, cool off the forest around them, creating their own regulated microclimate. However, during long dry spells, this becomes no longer possible once they have used up all of their water reserves deep down in the ground. When this happens, the first trees to notice they have used up the water around them send out a signal to the rest of the forest warning their neighbors they better be frugal with the rest of their reserves (bark beetles can pick up on these scented signals as well and know which trees are weaker targets). Trees can also share the water they have access to with other trees in the forest that are calling out for help, granted there still is some to go around.

     If heat persists, and there is no water to be found, trees have no choice but to abandon some of their leaves. They shrivel up and turn brown before they fall to the ground, and this is done to create less surface area for them to transpire. While being less thirsty now that they can retain more water, losing leaves reduces their ability to photosynthesize, which means food production begins to decline. If it doesn’t rain again until mid or late summer, it is too late for them to grow back more leaves. This is why they rely so much on ample amounts of water in the spring, which there has steadily been less and less of.

     Without enough leaves to produce new sugar, trees must use up their reserves they have set aside for growing new leaves the following spring. With water and sugar depleted, trees become even more vulnerable to pests like beetles and fungus, and barely have the resources to effectively fend them off. They also become more vulnerable to the freezing temperatures of the coming winter, where they usually mix their stored glucose their leaves produced during spring and summer with the water of their trunks in order to create a natural antifreeze to prevent it from turning into ice.

     This creates a cycle of a slow death, as each spring trees produce less and less leaves. Thus creating less food to survive the winter, and so forth. This is why you'll often see trees with a few dead limbs, or a clump of shriveled leaves hanging from its branches in the middle of summer. These trees are slowly dying off in pieces, as the hot sun and the cold air slowly amputate away at its limbs. Climate change has been killing off trees all over the world, and making forests more vulnerable to an even greater enemy than fungi or bark beetles–fire.

"Fireflies"

     Over the last decade, it has become harder and harder to ignore the fact that fires are consuming our forests at an exponential rate. The smoky air throughout the entire country has made us all painfully aware. On a recent backpacking trip, still hundreds of miles from any of the ongoing fires, we woke up to a hellscape one morning as thick, brown fog engulfed everything around us. The rising sun was a dull, red ball. I woke up coughing, and being at a high altitude of 12,000ft, the polluting smoke made it even harder to breath. It took a full week before the smoke was finally cleared out by a beautiful rainstorm.

     A lot of opinions about the forest fires have been arising, especially putting the US Forestry Service at blame. A popular opinion is that fires are supposedly a natural, healthy phenomenon within forest ecosystems, and they get rid of dead wood and create room for new life. Since the Forest Service is no longer managing the forests, and is instead preventing fires at all cost, the dead wood in forests is piling up and fires are becoming explosive when they do eventually happen, albeit human caused or natural.

     This sounds like a reasonable explanation, and would make sense were it not for the new science emerging about our forests and how those ecosystems have evolved and survived over millions of years, long before we ever stepped foot on this planet. Many trees, such as coniferous trees, contain dangerous, easily combustible, flammable materials such as sap and hydrocarbons. No wonder our fires rage for months and are so difficult to put out, there are organic sticks of dynamite all through their paths. If fire is a natural occurrence in forest ecosystems, this would imply that nature has made a fatal mistake by making trees that are so flammable. Evolution and natural selection are all about adaptation, so why would nature create plants that closely mimic tanks of gasoline?

     Deciduous trees are a different story, and have evolved to be completely immune to fire, as long as they are alive. Spruce, Pines, and conifers easily ignite even while they are still fresh. This gives us a hint to which kinds of forests may have evolved and adapted around fire and to which ones fire has been a stranger until recent years. But in large part, the forests that have developed any kind of resistance to fire, are in the minority. The fact that so few trees have developed without a proper defence against fire implies one thing about most of the world’s forests: long periods without change.

     Certain species of insects have evolved within forests and have lost their ability to fly. Since food is abundant close by, why bother to roam away from home? This suggests that these kinds of evolved species have lived in the same small area for a very long time, which means their forest ecosystems have also remained very much the same and relatively undisturbed for many centuries. Consistent and recurring forest fires would throw everything out of balance, and wipe out these kinds of forest dwellers, causing them to instead adapt to traveling afar and finding new homes every few decades. Extremely old trees are another testament to the fact that fires do not regularly burn their way through forests. 

"Trio"

“For example, Old Tjikko, a spruce that stands in the Swedish province of Dalarna. According to scientific analysis, this puny little tree has at least 9,550 years under its bark, and it could get older still. If a forest fire had swept through the region in one of those years, Old Tjikko would have departed for the realm of its ancestors a long time ago.” (Peter Wohlleben, The Secret Network of Nature)

     The fact remains, we are now seeing enormous, unprecedented, record breaking forest fires all over the planet, even in the arctic circle. So who is to blame? To start, dense old growth forests have been mostly cleared out for logging and cattle grazing, practices that date back to the time of the Roman Empire. Young forests that have grown back are mostly filled with shrubs, grasses, and undergrowth that are not well shaded, since there are no longer large trees blocking out the sun. This has caused forests to become extremely dry and more susceptible to drought.

     In other cases, forests that have been felled have been replaced by monocultures of trees such as pine and eucalyptus. These trees like I stated earlier, burn like tinder, and without a diversity of species throughout the forest, fires just become greater and greater as they move through, never hitting a barrier.

     Sure, lightning on occasion starts fires, but the reason they catch fire and continue to burn afterwards is because of our impact as humans on the environment and climate. However in most cases, fires are directly started by humans, either through carelessness or because people want to burn trees down for a variety of reasons. One of these reasons is for human development. Once the trees are gone, it is much easier to claim the land to build hotels and homes. Tragically, some fires have even been started by firefighters, who to insure their job security, intentionally create fires to fight when things calm down too much.

     In forests where the trees have developed some kind of fire resistance, such as adult redwoods (the saplings burn easily and are completely consumed by fires) and ponderosa pines–as long as the flames do not reach their crowns which are still highly flammable–it obviously implies that they will expect to face fire at some point in their lives. But this does not mean that they need it in order to survive, that’s the big difference here. It also shows us that while being adapted to fire, they still do not like to burn. This is why they are not designed to combust easily, so that large areas are not completely decimated. They have evolved to be able to survive rare lightning strikes that would only slowly burn along the floor of a healthy forest.

     The other argument, that burned trees release important nutrients for new life to flourish, is largely a myth as well. Dead trees are not only consumed by fire, the millions of small bacteria and insects–such as beetle mites and wood lice–that live in forests cause dead organisms to decompose. It is through this way that the valuable nutrients that dead wood contains are effectively extracted and redistributed throughout the ecosystem. This system that nature has created is much more efficient and less destructive than forest fires that reduce everything to ash. This way, the nutrients are elegantly recycled in a way that benefits thousands of different species, instead of everything being consumed by fire. Unfortunately, because of human impact, these long, slow processes have been largely disrupted, and no longer function the way they were built to.

"Glowing Forest"

     It seems the best solution would be to simply leave as much of the little nature we still have left as undisturbed as possible. This way the slow, naturally occurring processes that have been keeping the Earth in balance for millennia can continue to do their job. We need to allow our forests to mature properly, and develop greater variety in both species of plant and bacteria. How this will happen on a planet largely dominated by an animal that continues to demand more and more natural resources, I do not know. But until then, we will continue to pay the price.

     However, the future may be better than we think. Some encouraging technology is just around the corner, most of which is being created not by our governments, but within the private sector. Scientists are now finding there truly is an abundance of natural resources, the problem is they still remain largely inaccessible. Desalination for example, would allow us to turn the ocean–which contains nearly 98% of all the water on the planet–into clean water suitable for drinking and crop production. Solar technology, which has been improving by 30% every year, would allow us to access the energy created by the sun, which is 5000 times more than what the entire world consumes annually. Different ways to store solar energy are also becoming a reality, which would overcome the problem of cloudy days. Food production is expected to improve as well, as alternatives to overfishing our oceans, overgrazing our land, and overfeeding our livestock are being discovered as well. Instead of sitting by and waiting for our government leaders to make changes and take care of things, empowering these optimistic entrepreneurs may be our best bet against climate change. The question is, will this promising technology be created and embraced quick enough to make a difference before it’s too late?

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