The following is a reprint from an Autumn 2009 post to my blog site on the late, unlamented Multiply.Com.
I first became aware of the problem in 2003, especially at Bandolero State Monument in northern New Mexico. For mile after mile, Martine and I saw dead forests with dry brown pine needles. When I asked a park ranger what was the matter, I heard for the first time about the pine bark beetle and its many relatives, which has been ravaging the forests of the Rocky Mountains in the United States and Canada.
There are approximately 220 genera comprising some 6,000 species of bark beetle. Trees which are healthy due to normal rain tend to be resistant to beetle attacks; but in areas of prolonged drought, the trees are successfully attacked and end up as tinder dry skeletons, waiting for a spark to set off a giant conflagration.
As weather patterns change, I see bad times coming for the drought areas of North America. We have already seen the worst year in recorded history for brush fires in Southern California—and they are still raging in San Bernardino County [in 2009]. While these are unrelated to the ravages of bark beetles, they are all part of a new pattern that will result in massive changes to the type of vegetation growing in the mountainous areas of the Southwest. Gone will be the giant pines, to be replaced by fast-growing trees that can withstand the increasing heat and dryness of the region. What these forests will look like is anybody’s guess.
I realize as I write this that one result of living a long life is to mourn the changes from the world of our youth. I remember the cathedral-like stateliness of the elms at Dartmouth College—all fallen prey to Dutch Elm Disease. The American South has been overrun by kudzu and other non-native plants. The face of the earth is changing, but, alas, our memory is still there. And with photography, we have a record of the world of the recent past.
But what of the massive forests of the 18th and 19th centuries, with flocks of millions of passenger pigeons and huge herds of bison. Read Chateaubriand’s novels Atala and René and the works of naturalist William Bartram for a picture of America’s interior that you will not recognize today.
Montaigne’s words on mutability in his Apology for Raymond Sebond come to mind as I think about this subject:
And we and our judgment and all mortal things else do uncessantly roll, turn, and pass away. Thus can nothing be certainly established, nor of the one nor of the other, both the judging and the judged being in continual alteration and motion. We have no communication with being, for every human nature is ever in the middle between being born and dying, giving nothing of itself but an obscure appearance and shadow, and an uncertain and weak opinion. And if, perhaps, you fix your thought to take its being, it would be even as if one should go about to prison the water; for how much the more he shall close and press that which, by its own nature, is ever gliding, so much the more he shall loose what he would hold and fasten. Thus, seeing all things are subject to pass from one change to another, reason, which therein seeketh a real subsistence, finds herself deceived as unable to apprehend anything subsistent and permanent, forsomuch as each thing either cometh to a being and is not yet altogether, or beginneth to die before it be born.
Then I ask myself, “Is this as dire as it seems, or is it all just part of life?”
In Tofino, next to Jamie’s Whaling Station on Campbell Street, there is a huge cedar which is buttressed with steel and held standing by massive cables. It is called the Eid Cedar, after an early resident, and is determinedly protected by the ecology-conscious locals. Will this be the fate of the great Ponderosa and Lodgepole Pines of the Rockies? Will they be watered by irrigation and protected by a plastic shield from voracious bark beetles? Who will hold back the floods of change?