The Tupelo and the Ailanthus

Kudzu performing ecological repair in temporarily deforested Athens, GA.  Photo from Creative Loafing.

We are surrounded by infant old-growth forests.  Every woodland that manages to avoid the perils of drought, storm, disease, crown fire, and unscrupulous human beings will grow more stately, beautiful, bountiful, and biodiverse as the years march on.  While we are currently in the opening stages of what is likely to prove the most comprehensive mass extinction since the end of the Permian, old trees are tough to shift.

Forests typically outlast cities.  Think about how permanent Angkor Wat, Altun Ha, Pripyat, or Namie seemed to their builders and inhabitants.  Consider the street trees in your nearest urban area; what will happen to the sidewalks, roadways, water pipes, electrical lines, and nearby buildings as their root systems and branches expand?  Given the state of local municipal budgets these days, will there be the money or inclination to repair that interruption by the time these saplings grow old enough to cause it?  Which is more valuable to an increasingly food-insecure populace, high-speed internet or plums?  Suburban landscapes across North America are perennially one growing-season month of lawn-mowing away from reversion to meadow and thicket.  “Pripyat began returning to nature as soon as the people left, and there was no one to trim and prune and weed,” remarks botanist Svitlana Bidna in Mary Mycio’s book Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl, “It takes a lot of human effort to maintain urban landscapes.”  What effects might the collapsing US economy have on urban and suburban wildlands?

What species will constitute these forests as time goes on?  How will the landscape smell, how will it look, what sounds will be heard?  Who will live here?  I’ve wanted to spend some words on the subject of living in a mass extinction event for some time, but until recently my ideas have been formless and unfocused.  It took an evening’s reflection under an old blackgum tupelo to clarify the issues at hand.

The phrase ‘mass extinction’ summons up images of sudden asteroids and freezing dinosaurs, or hectares of rainforest churned into McDonald’s feedlots, but this is somewhat misleading.  While multi-species die-offs are considered sudden in a geological time-frame, they take rather a while to play out for those individuals experiencing them in person.  The great Permian-Triassic ‘event’ responsible for the loss of 83% of all (known) genera lasted a million years at its peak, and may well have been preceded by other die-offs spaced at five million year intervals.  The end of the Permian was celebrated with a couple of serious planetary benders followed by a fifteen million year hangover.

Our current extinction seems set to occur much more rapidly.  The massive ecosystem destabilization our cultural forebears initiated when they first put plow to topsoil and axe to oak some 16,000 years ago did not help matters.  The subsequent rapidity with which the Earth’s oceans are warming exacerbates the trend further.  Moreover, we Westerners have befouled the waters, air, soil, bedrock, and bodies of this planet with some of the most persistently toxic chemicals present this side of the galaxy.  Some have argued that these factors have all but guaranteed a rapid die-off of everything more anthropomorphic than E. coli and bread mold.  While we may yet be set to lose closer to 90% of all (known) genera over a geologically brief timespan (many of the more huggable ones during your and my lifetimes) I do not think that we have seen the last of the ecosystems called forest, reef, chaparral, or prairie.  Eukaryotic life has shown surprising resilience in the past; one ought not underestimate the regenerative prowess of growing plants.

Before charging ahead, take a minute to let the reality of mass extinction sink in.  No more polar bears.  No more honeybees.  No more whales.  No more tigers.  No more elephants.  No more bananas.  No more frogs.  You will see this happen.  No more redwoods.  No more sea turtles.  No more butterflies.  No more eagles.  No more cedars.  No more fireflies.  Amphibians, who hold the lineage of the first vertebrate on land, stand to disappear in a welter of chemical mutation and slime-choked lungs within the next handful of decades.  The lifestyle that includes reading and writing computerized essays is wholly responsible for this situation.  You and I have taken part in behavior that is killing the most beautiful creatures in the world.  You and I have soiled innumerable iridescent feathers with dull sludge.  You and I have razed sun-dappled glades that were old before our great-grandparents were born.  You and I have killed from afar with weapons called factories and power plants, and we have killed eye to eye on dark roads at 70 miles per hour late at night while no other human was watching.  Tempting as it is to succumb to mea culpas, mail a check to the Sierra Club, and forget all about it in the morning, extinction is bigger than our guilt.  We among the living, among the ancestors of the canny survivors, have a duty to the world to live well.  The dying must be tended with care and compassion, the dead wept for, and the living richly fed with the fruits of our lives.  Learn from our mistakes, live, and help the world to grow in richness even in a time of decay.

By storm and toxin, drought and flame, who will persist to sustain the spark of life through the next fifteen million years of calamity?  It’s that hardy 17% of Permian survivors who we must look to, that 17% who became 100% over many aching millennia of suspiciously similar forest types, sudden storms, and frequent wildfires.  The organisms that survive mass extinctions tend to be either generalists or very lucky.  Further words will be spent on each type in future essays.

It seems to be to the general benefit of eukaryotic life as a whole that resilient, fast-growing, opportunistic, hardy organisms like starlings and Ailanthus have been spread to the four corners of the Earth by deranged European explorer-types, all negative press to the contrary.  The Earth doesn’t always operate for our convenience at a human pace or in accordance with a Western aesthetic.  Life is frequently and necessarily ugly to our eyes.  In the event of a planetary emergency, the lions, tigers, and (panda) bears are toast any way you look at it, but rats?  While we all, pigeons, toads, tree-ferns, and featherless bipeds alike, would have greatly benefited had not a bunch of ancestral yahoos decided to take more from the land than they were given, we have nevertheless arrived at the present situation.  Our land ethic regarding invasive or rampant species must stem from a careful appraisal of our actual, rather than ideal, predicament, including the possible and probable futures depending from that predicament.  Biodiversity often acts as a means to the ultimate end of resiliency.  The health of the forest is more important than the health of any individual tree, or any individual species; the existence of the ecosystem is vastly more important than its health or complexity at any one given minute, generation, or century.  When dealing with unprecedented climatic fluctuations and a stew of persistent, bioaccumulative toxins unseen before on this planet, it makes only a short-sighted sort of sense to uproot, further poison, and otherwise attempt to extirpate the sorts of species most likely to survive the hard times to come.  The older the forest, the more resilient it is.  Let the weeds establish themselves, either mourn the displaced species or tend them actively so that they need not be displaced, and help the forest be a forest.

But back to the suburban old-growth.  The long-lived organisms of our present environs may yet prove to be the last of their kind.  Old trees are tough- once a plant reaches its second century in good health, not much is going to shake it for the next five (arborists put down your billhooks, I’m generalizing here).  Infant trees, however, are much more susceptible to climatic shenanigans and other disturbances.  The relatively slight waves of localized extinction over the past three-odd million years were marked by changes in forest composition caused by the shift of climatic zones across the landscape faster than the trees themselves could relocate their offspring.  As we are now staring down an extremely rapid shift in average and extreme local temperatures, to say nothing of rainfall, winds, fire, etc., we can also expect that many of our grandmother trees will never shelter their own grandchildren.  (I wonder what type of creature could carry infant trees from one climatic zone to another faster than the trees themselves would migrate, thus preserving some degree of biodiversity in the landscape…)  If you, me, and all our neighbors decide not to destroy the trees in our neighborhoods nor tolerate their destruction, and if we tend these trees with care and skill, and if, moreover,  we teach our children to love them well, they will remain in our world, growing richer, livelier, and more beautiful with every year.  The old-growth woods of the more picturesque places of the world are here in the American suburbs.  Every place on Earth has burned to the ground, been buried in a mudslide, drowned under floodwaters, toppled, changed.  Now the land is grey over green.  The forests of your elderhood may be more Ailanthus than tupelo, the skies more English sparrow than goldfinch, the meadows more knotweed than milkweed, but such is our world that we must depend whole-heartedly upon these most resilient of our neighbors.  Once there was fire, later there will be fire, now there is forest, tomorrow there is forest.

Bonus Box!:

For more information about some efforts made to rethink the old invasive species paradigm, see this excellent post from my friend and long time partner in crime Connor Stedman’s blog.


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