Search This Blog

Friday, December 21, 2012

Black Ice

One year, the cold came quickly, brutally, and without wind.  The ice that formed in the stillness was black ice, so clear it was as if you stepped out on a layer of glass over the water.  Most ice traps tiny air bubbles as it freezes, causing the transparency of water to transform into translucent gray-blue.  This ice was terrifying in both its slickness and in its transparency.  I stood stiff-legged and looked down between my feet at vegetation on the bottom undulating gently in the slight current that wound through the pond. 

 My dog would not follow me.  She clearly did not like the transparency, and when after much coaxing she put her front paws cautiously on the strange surface, she slipped and fell.  Enough.  If my sixteen-year-old self thought that this strange ice was safe, it was my affair.  She whined and paced from the banks as I slithered carefully around the pond's surface, tracing the underwater pathways of the beaver, studying logs and stumps and drowned debris, the aquatic plants rooted on the mucky bottom.  I skirted the standing snags around which the ice would not be as strong, but otherwise went at will over the translucent surface.  It was a unique and extraordinary look into the inner workings of the pond, and I have never seen such ice since.

 Shoup Glacier, Prince William Sound, Alaska, 1990

I’ve had other extraordinary encounters with ice.  I lived under the cold stare of a tidewater glacier in Alaska one summer, always on edge for a calving that might send up a shock wave of frigid water rocking up the shallow beach into our camp.  We maneuvered zodiacs among the glacial bergs, ever watchful.  Once I sat admiring the graceful stillness of an ice tower floating silently on the calm water when without warning, the ice rolled over.  The tower became a potentially deadly arm striking the water before submerging.  The newly exposed keel bobbed gently for a moment or two, then all motion ceased and the morning continued as if nothing had ever changed.

Two towers calved from the Columbia Glacier, Prince William Sound, Alaska 1990. Note the main berg floating just below the water's surface.

Once we took ice for granted. It still seems cheap and easy, dumped into glasses of water no one intends to drink, casually spilled onto the grass when a cooler is empty of picnic goodies and no longer needed.  Ice on water was also once a given, and the lakes of the Maine of my childhood sprouted small forests of ice-fishing shacks for the winter months.  Frozen ponds and lakes made expedient run-outs from sledding hills, and easy shortcuts on skis if you didn’t mind the wind.

Then the ice began to melt, or never formed at all.  There are now winters when the northern lakes remain as open water.  We’ve already added enough carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to warm the planet’s surface so that the average temperature across the United States in 2012 was over 3 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the average for the twentieth century. Worldwide, it is enough to melt an average of 142 gigatons of ice from the Greenland ice sheet each year since 1992.  Enough so that there may no longer be Arctic ice in summer by 2050.  Not even one hundred fifty years after the first European reached the North Pole, there may be no ice left there.

I have dozens of slides of glacial ice.  That summer, we fished it out of the shallows and used it in the field-camp coolers, and once we lugged it up to a wood-fired hot tub to cool the too-hot water.  We sat with the ancient ice bobbing around our chins, melting fast as the rain beat down and steam obscured the glacier across the lagoon.  At the time, the permanence of the thick fist of the glacier punching out of the mountain valley was unquestioned.  We marveled at the surreal colors and shapes and sounds, but not at the change that even then was washing away the permanence of ice, and the cultures and biota that depend on it.

I have dozens of slides.  I was young, and broke, and used cheap film.  The images are discolored and fading, as if they are from a much earlier time, yet not even a quarter century has passed since they were taken.  The scenes these images depict have all but disappeared. The glacier is gone, retreating far up the valley and far from the water’s edge.  There is no more ice in the bay or tidal lagoon, and only the recently ice-scoured rock still bare of vegetation gives any hint of how recently things were very different.

How fast does change have to occur before it breaks the illusion of ice-like stillness?  We stand on a lens of black-ice denial, thinking we’re separate from the processes changing the earth right beneath our feet.  It can be a deadly illusion in a world of melting ice.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

All Hallowed Earth

My friend was double-digging a garden bed next to her house when she dug up the bones of the rabbit.  She had lived in the house for nearly a decade and had never owned such a pet herself, so spirit and skeleton had long since separated.  Someone had loved the rabbit enough to bury its body in the garden.  Maybe it had been a child's first real grief, or possibly a loss less heartrending, but it had been a loss nonetheless.  She dug a deeper hole, and reburied the bones.

Some months later, her old cat died.  She buried him next to the rabbit, spreading fresh flowers over both of their graves.

I didn't mark the grave of my sweet orange cat.  He had lived indoors all his life, and so I buried him in the rough meadow beyond the fence, near a wild rosebush, not far from the creek.  His spirit can do what his body never could, and terrorize the rodents living in the woodpiles, stalk the snakes in the old stone wall, slip unseen through the grasses.

I didn't mark his grave.  Instead sometimes I still call his musical name out the back door after dark, into the rain.  He is nowhere and everywhere in the meadow now, part of the soil, part of the rosebush, part of the worms and the birds and the mice and all of the other beings who together make up that living web I call the meadow.

So it has ever been, and so may it ever be.

Somewhere on the flanks of a hill nearby, the last of the native peoples buried their dead and tended the graves.  The site is no longer public knowledge.  I think about this as I walk the paths that encircle the hill, now forested with thick stands of Douglas fir that are overtopping the oaks.  It's been well over a hundred years since the last burial there.  Likely even the bones are gone now, dissolved and picked up again by the tangled mat of roots that makes up the top layers of the ground.  The original place of burial is now moot. 

By this way of thinking, both the forest and the meadow are sacred ground.  By this way of thinking, all ground is sacred, for through the ages every inch of it has received the bodies of the dead and the dying, received back the carbon, the nitrogen, bone and hair and nails and teeth, skin and water and calcium, received it back and mixed it in the guts of earthworms and bacteria, made it ready for root and shoot to offer again the same stuff of life for the next round.  In the soil, past and future generations lie together beneath the blanket of leaves and grass, joined by the arc of those now living in that brief space between.

So it has ever been, and so may it ever be.

If we remembered this, if we remembered how we are beholden to the sacred ground, would we be so quick to treat soil like dirt?  Would we bury our dead embalmed in steel boxes lowered into concrete crypts, as if to cheat them of that final journey of renewal?  Would we think that burying toxic waste in the ground is a travesty?  Could we bring ourselves to dig strip mines, pave parking lots, strip land bare and leave it naked under the staring sky?  After all, we wouldn’t think of digging up the bones of our own ancestors, grasping at grave goods with hands of careless greed?  But we have done even this.

Why do we think it is only one day of the year that the spirits of the dead call on the living? Who are the dead?  All Saint’s Day, All Hallow’s Eve, the Day of the Dead.  They have become us, and we will one day become one of them. 

Better to take a picnic to share among the stones engraved with the names of those mostly forgotten, remember that they too once knew the warmth of sun on skin, the feel of a kiss, how good it is to be alive on an autumn morning as the leaves go down with one last flash of gold.  Better to spread flowers over the earth, offer compassion for forgotten grief, call the names of those we have loved out over the hills, and tend all as carefully as we would our own grave.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012


When European settlers first arrived in this region nearly two centuries ago, they planted fruit trees.  I don't know if this is the first thing they did, but the trees are the last signs of those early settlements.  A trained eye knows where to look for the remnants of an old homestead by identifying the trees the settlers planted.  Hauling young fruit trees  along the Applegate Trail took an act of imagination, a belief that the new life could have some of the same comforts of the familiar, even in a new land very far away.  The reward of that hope comes due every fall, when the woods are full of wild apples.

We went for a walk along the creek above us the other day, spotting feral fruit trees as we went.  There is an old row of apple trees along the road, continuous across current property lines.  Possibly once this whole section was tended by a single landowner.  Near the end of the paved road, the achingly red fruit of a forgotten tree hang like bright holiday ornaments.  Although the tree doesn't look like one of the original settler trees,  it appears to have escaped the notice of the people who own the property.  It isn't visible from their house, but it is separated from the road by a deer fence, discouraging trespass and sampling of those gloriously bright apples.  A pity.  I'm tempted to knock on the door, but we have an abundance of apples ourselves.

Farther along upstream, signs of an old orchard exist in a number of battered old apple trees, and we also found a pear tree and a stand of plum trees that were first pointed out to me by my dog, who loves the soft golden fruit that falls to the ground. 

The old fruit trees kept growing, fighting for sunlight against the swift-growing, light-greedy Douglas firs and the bigleaf maples that quickly overtop them.  They've remained even after the pastures have grown back into forest and the buildings completely rotted away, leaving only faint traces that the small farms ever existed here.  In fact, the strongest signature of former human habitation in these woods is the presence of these fruit trees, now the oldest in this section of forest.  They've woven themselves into the ecology of the place, offering habitat and food and hanging on to the patch of soil they were first given by the people who planted them.

Our land supports a few old trees as well, possibly planted at the same time as the apples up the road.  A young beaver moving through the area girdled one last fall, but somehow the tree survived the horrific damage and even produced a few apples this year.  The other trees are more like thickets because of the root suckers and bent, dragging branches, creating hidden lairs for the bobcat who comes along the creek now and then, visiting in hopes of a chicken dinner.

When we finished building the house, we planted an orchard.  It contains pears, plums, cherries, a peach tree planted as a whim and a wild hope because peaches often do poorly here.  We also planted three apple trees, carefully planning out a long season of fresh fruit with a Williams' Pride, producing apples in August, a Liberty, whose crop comes in late September, and a Gold Rush, whose golden fruits blushed with rose ripen a month after that.  "Mature fruit trees" seems a selling point in real estate, even though most of the time the fruit is never used.  It seems an almost instinctive desire to have some apple trees all the same.  Perhaps it's just another  way of putting down roots in a place, tying ourselves back to the land we live on.

The impact of our activities is so pervasive now it is hard to quantify, in the sense that no spot on our planet is unaffected by our species.  Often we think of this only in the negative, and to some extent, perhaps we should.  But the apple trees bear witness to another kind of influence, where we weave our lives into an evolving landscape, not always harmoniously, but managing nonetheless to create a complex story where our own points of view are present but not dominant.  After all, the Earth is our home, and we are as much creatures of this world as the deer.  In a more enlightened world, let this be the knowledge brought to us in the fruits of the woods and fields.  If this were so, perhaps we'd take better care of them.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Silver Trees and Long Odds

The silver trees twist up out of the rock, binding together red earth and blue sky.  The thick fingers reach up as if to catch quick whips of cloud, or grasp at the wings of the ravens.  These trees have clenched the rim of the caldera for many hundreds of years, bearing witness to changing seasons and ultimately, a changing climate.  They are beautiful, and many of them are dead.

 Whitebark pine on the caldera rim, Crater Lake National Park, Oregon.  Photo: J. A. Gervais

The whitebark pine, Pinus albicaulus to its most serious-minded friends, lives at the highest elevations of Crater Lake National Park in Oregon, and in high elevations throughout western North America.  The species has long contended with atrocious weather, swinging between violent storms and forty or more feet of snow each winter at Crater Lake, and then a prolonged summer drought that breaks with the next year's snowfall.  These trees don't even begin to produce seeds until they are in their sixth decade, and only after their first century do they begin producing cones packed with large nuts in any quantity.  Not surprisingly, they grow slowly and are capable of living a long time, at least in the world they knew.  Unfortunately for them, the ground rules have changed in the game of survival.

One of the wild cards that we're gambling with in warming the global climate is the ranges of species.  As conditions shift, some species find themselves unable to adapt or move quickly enough to escape newly hostile conditions.  However, some species are finding themselves unbound, capable of spreading where they've never been before, and often the conditions or other species that kept them in check do not spread with them.  Epidemiologists are already finding evidence of the spread of disease-carrying mosquitoes in many countries, which are putting new human populations at risk of diseases that not long ago were safely limited by biological boundaries.  But it isn't just people who stand to face new and devastating challenges as organisms break free of traditional limits.

 Whitebark pine cone and seeds, which feed many species of birds and mammals. Photo: J. A. Gervais

Whitebark pines are susceptible to a small and unassuming beetle, the mountain pine beetle, known as Dendroctonus ponderosae to entomologists; it is not clear if this beetle has many friends.  The tiny beetles overcome trees by flash mobbing their target, burrowing beneath the bark in great numbers all at once and overwhelming the tree's defenses.  They then let other beetles know that the flash mob has done its work by emitting a chemical signal, called a verbenone, essentially saying the party is over.  Been here, done that.  The flash-mob beetles then lay their eggs beneath the bark of their victim.  When the larvae hatch, their tunneling and voracious appetite for the tree's inmost bark is so great they can kill a large tree in a few weeks by cutting off water and nutrient flow between branch and root.

Beetles have a weakness; they don't like cold weather much, and low temperatures used to hold them at bay from the high country throughout the mountains of western North America.  However, winters aren't what they were, particularly with regard to temperature, and the beetles have surged up slope to attack new targets.  They've discovered whitebark pine, and they like it.

Clark's nutcracker, which depends heavily on whitebark pine seeds.  The birds cache the seeds under several inches of soil, and forgotten caches produce new trees.  Photo: J. A. Gervais

Humans have dealt a doubly bad hand to the whitebark pine.  A century ago, nursery trees from France were shipped to British Columbia.  They carried an undetected stowaway, the fungus Cronartium ribicola, which almost certainly has no friends at all.  The fungus attacks pines, and kills them within a short span of years with a disease called white pine blister rust.  It has finally arrived at Crater Lake.  The fungus kills many trees, and weakens others, making them even less able to withstand the beetles.  Botanists in the park estimate that a quarter of the whitebark pines within the park boundaries are dead, another quarter are dying, and the remaining half face a very uncertain future.

The botanists are doing their very best.  They've been collecting and growing seeds from marked trees and when the seedlings are a few years old, the botanists expose them to the fungus to see which trees have genetic resistance.  They're slowly identifying the very small number of trees who carry the right genes, so that these trees' offspring can be planted and protected to increase this rare type.

A flash mob of mountain pine beetles claimed the tree on the left.  Photo: J. A. Gervais

Unfortunately, fate holds some of the most important cards.  First, the genetic resistance to fungus means nothing at all to the mountain pine beetle.  Trees resistant to the fungus can still be flash mobbed and killed.  Second, the botanists must beat the wildlife to the resistant trees' cones in the first place, lest the Clark's nutcrackers, grouse, squirrels, and bears make off with them first.  On top of that, there is little money to do the work, as is too often the case. A scant hundred trees have been tested so far for fungal resistance.  Many of these have failed the challenge.  Only a few hundred seedlings have been planted to replace the tens of thousands of dead and dying trees.

The botanists aren't giving up, even if the odds are long and the numbers small.  They're busy continuing to test genotypes of trees, identifying as many as they can that might offer the fungus some fight.  They're protecting these trees from the beetle essentially with a bluff: stapling little bags of verbenone to the trunks of those special trees, to fool the beetles into thinking a flash mob has already invaded.  It seems to work at least some of the time.  Those same trees sport bags of netting around the cones on their branches, which will at least keep the birds at bay.  You have to play your cards the best you can, even when the deck is stacked against you.

Whitebark pine with packets of mountain pine beetle verbenone stapled to its bark to repel the beetles, and net bags to prevent animals from eating the cones before botanists can collect them. Photo: J. A. Gervais

Whether it will be enough to win this round in the game is another matter; the odds are probably longer than getting dealt a royal flush, but it beats simply folding and losing this elder species without even mourning it, letting the sudden unbending of boundaries wash away so much that is beautiful, unique, and irreplaceable.  May we all be so inspired by the botanists' example that we find whatever ways we can to play our own cards, because in the game to slow global climate change, every move we make to reduce the damage in any way each of us can increases the odds for our own long-term survival.

Note: much of the information in this essay is from "Can we stop the decline of the whitebark pine?" Crater Lake Reflections Visitor Guide, Summer/Fall 2012.