Bare Trees

Island Life


The days have turned into years since I was growing plants for a supposed living, but I will have to admit that I still see what is passing me by through botanical eyes. While I found the politics side of binging through past episodes of the now defunct series known as ‘Designated Survivor’ fascinating, I will have to confess at utter frustration in seeing in the series a complete disregard for seasonal continuity. I suppose that there is enough or more than enough to keep one fixated on with the multiple plotlines of political intrigue and personal mayhem that Mr. Sutherland and Co. have to endure in each passing chapter.

But it just seems to me that someone should have been paying attention to the logical, seasonal progression of things as their time is going by.  As one scene changes, we see autumn leaves on the street trees. Then on the next transition we have a glimpse of a green White House lawn and bands of red summer flowers at the edges, followed by yet another scene change where we see an arboreal backdrop completely devoid of leaves. As it is, I have a hard enough time in these multi-layered dramatic concoctions with following who is who and why they are doing what they’re doing without having to reconcile why a scene change involving a few minutes or hours passed lands us in an entirely different gardening mindset. One could even say, in light of all of this, that life is hard enough already in the realm of first world problems, but then some might say that the real, first world status of these United States might be in the process of reality change thanks to the actions of our “presidential”, scary clown parade, so we might not have that check down to fall back on soon if something doesn’t change.

All that being said, that’s not really why I came here today. Truth be told, I haven’t really come or gone anywhere today. Yesterday, on the other hand, I did venture into that off-Island, over-the-water place to the east, and went through the whole “when did they build that, and where am I?” thing as the grand conversion continues to continue over there. As I was waiting for one of the pedestrian stoplights along Fauntleroy, my gaze drifted to the left and I noted a number of burnt sienna silhouettes of what were now former cedar trees. As an evergreen, cedars generally follow the catch-phraseology of suggested toilet usage during a water shortage, namely: “yellow is mellow but brown is down.” By this I mean that western cedars generally drop some of their scaly leaf sprays every year from the more interior parts of the branches- they turn more yellow and fall, forming the dense duff around the base that does not support much if any undergrowth. On the other hand, if the yellow-brown starts from the outside ends of the branches and works inward, the tree is basically best turned into planks or firewood rather than remain as kindling and fuel for potential summer wildfires. In continuing to glance left as I passed by the rest of Lincoln park, more tree clusters with brown foliage became evident all through the park- there was one stand that appeared to have passed the brown stage and was now a gaggle of bare-branched skeletons awaiting some sort of final removal ceremony, and the usual complaints from those who arrive to protect nature from chainsaw madness and human encroachment. In this case, they would be way too late.

It should be stated that one does not need to leave the Island to witness arboreal or botanical distress. There is a whole cluster of dead and dying alder on parking lot hill. There are dead conifers on bank road. There was the highly visible Elm tree down at Shawnee that failed to produce any summer leaves and was turned into log rounds, whilst a number of other trees on the water side of the highway down there have also ceased to exist. I have been taking notice of the Indian Plums around my house that have been dropping leaves earlier and earlier and have seen whole stands of them expire and fall over within the last couple of years. One has to ask, amongst all of this terminal behavior- what has changed? It has been fairly obvious (although not so much this last year) that things have been much drier than usual in the summer. This region has been known for its Mediterranean type climate cycle of wet winters and dry summers, but in my experience over the last thirty nine years, the past few have been a lot drier than usual- I think the records that have been set along these lines recently can attest to that as well.

One of the factors that has been a good reason for recommending native plants for the landscape is that they are best suited for that specific climate one is living with and planting into. When the established native plants out in the landscape start dying in significant numbers, especially plants that have been doing okay in their locale for their various lifetimes, then it is perhaps time to throw out accepted norms and practices and start to look into what the survivability parameters are for our natives, and what alternatives there might be out there if larger areas of native stands begin to die off in greater numbers. I would say that for starters, the change in rain patterns in the summer is perhaps the biggest problem here. That would in part explain the die-off of the cedars in Lincoln Park. I have noted in the past that in greenhouse culture, plants on the whole are more tolerant of much higher temperatures if they have an adequate supply of water. I would say that, with the two summers prior to this last one having both warmer temperatures and less water, it has probably not been a good thing for our natives in general. All of this would have had me concerned just about our regional flora, but having twice driven across country in the last year, coast to coast, and noted this phenomenon of die-off pretty much everywhere that I went, it sets off grander alarm bells that point to a much bigger and more worrisome set of problems.

Last year when I left on my journey, I headed south first. On my third day out I was driving on I-5 between Weed, CA and Redding through the area that had just had one of the monster wildfires of California. There were parts that were still smoking as I passed. A few days later I was heading up into the foothills of the Sierras and taking note of the dry grass meadows that were dotted with clumps and stands of their native, evergreen oaks. Some had the dark and rich green foliage of a healthy tree, while others looked pale and sick like a plant on the edge of death. I knew from nursery bulletins of years ago that some of these oaks, along with certain other species, were being affected by a blight known as sudden oak death, and so I asked a museum curator where I had stopped if he knew whether the oaks I had been seeing were victims of drought or the oak death blight, and was told it was the former. As I moved further along to the east, there seemed to be a mix of recently burned over areas, along with single trees and small stands that had simply expired on their own. Last year on the whole seemed like everything was parched and about to burn if it hadn’t already. This year, even though my route east took me further to the north, it seemed like everything had been “well watered”, with large stretches of desert looking uncharacteristically “green” for that time of August, with fresh foliage on much of the desert flora.

There were spotty tree deaths noticeable for most of the rest of the way east, but I am remembering that once I got to the southern tier of western New York, I began to see whole stands of similar or the same species trees as standing dead, both right along the highway and in clusters up into the surrounding hills. At first I thought it maybe could have been the result of winter road salt, but then I saw more dead stand up the hills and far away from the road. And then I though that it might have something to do with drought and heat, but some of these stands were right along a river that the road paralleled through the bottom of the valley. In the areas of pines and other conifers one could see a brownish tinge on branch ends where the melted, salty road spray had burned the needles of these trees. There were other areas where pines were simply all brown and dead. I can’t remember if there were no salt zones in New York or not, but I recall that the Mass Pike had numerous signs indicating “No Salt” was to be applied to the highway in those areas, which suggested that perhaps a concern about salt based environmental damage was starting to sink in to something besides the roadside soil and water.

In googling dead trees, I also found an incidence of massive eucalyptus death in Australia in new South Wales, where 2000 square kilometers of Eucalyptus viminalis perished by unexplained but non-fire related means. There was another incident on the big island of Hawaii where half of the ohia trees in a 6000 acre area had died, perhaps by way of a fungus. What comes to mind here is the movie ‘Interstellar’, where a small contingent of the human race is secretly trying to find other habitable planets for some to move to, as the rest of us back on earth watched as one major food crop after another succumbed to untreatable blights. Right now on this planet, there is something going on with the trees that no one is seemingly talking about. In the mean time, large portions of oxygen producing and multiple species supporting forests are getting chopped down for profit and cattle ranches. Ocean acidification and other pollutants are killing off the oxygen producing capabilities of our seas. And the orange idiot of the White House is ignoring and reversing climate initiatives and signing away the logging rights to large chunks of wilderness trees so that they can be converted into anything but the life sustaining link that they are in the chain of life on the planet. If things continue as they are, it just might give a whole new meaning to “someone being a complete waste of air and water”, but if things are allowed to carry on unchecked to that point, I guess it just won’t matter anymore.