Requiem for the Trees
By Cody Petterson
For the first time in 15 years, I sat down in my car and broke down sobbing. As waves of sadness, frustration, rage, and despair welled up along the side of a dirt road, surrounded by mountains, I wept.
I'd spent the day planting and watering seedlings, which I've been doing for half a decade. We own 300 acres on the north slope of Volcan Mountain, between Julian and Warner Springs, in an area that was hit by the Pines Fire in 2002 in which two-thirds of the native conifers were killed.
I grew up hiking in nearby Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, long before the fires that destroyed the forest there in 2003, and I got it into my mind to restore the conifer forest that had been lost on our property. It took me months to figure out what was what, heading up to the mountain once a week, taking photos, coming home and trying to identify all the species, reading late into the night about botany, forestry, and silviculture. Over time, I collected thousands of cones.
I learned how to get seeds out of the cones and how to stratify, germinate, and pot them, and before long I was growing seedlings in my backyard. I put together a working group with the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Cal Fire, and the U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Service, and ultimately collected and sent 30 bushels of fresh cones to the Forest Service nursery in Placerville in El Dorado County. I eventually got a thousand seedlings from those seeds.
I planted the seedlings every which way I could, learning something new each time, year after year. The first year I planted in the open. The seedlings baked. Next year I tired in the shade. They baked again. I learned to water every two or three weeks, which isn't easy across 300 acres of steeply-sloped terrain.
The pocket gophers ate them from below. I caged the bottoms. Rabbits severed them at the base. I caged them above ground. Rodents climbed up and down into the cages and defoliated the needles. I caged the tops. The rodents ate the needles on all the branches that protruded from the cage, and the hardware cloth cages heated up in the sun and the metal killed all the branches and needles that were in contact with it.
Aall that time, the relentless heat and dryness killed any seedling left without water for more than two or three weeks. Winter rains are good, but there's no snowmelt anymore, and a winter rain doesn't help a seedling survive by October when there hasn't been a drop of rain in eight months (the second half of 2017 was the driest on record here). And in spite of the thousands of hours of thought, worry, work, and care, I've lost about 650 of the 700 seedlings I've raised from seed and planted with my own two hands over the last five years.
So that day, after a long, dirty, hot day of planting, I walked to one of my favorite spots – a ring of granite boulders sheltered by a huge, gnarled Canyon Live Oak. There, lying shattered and rotting in the middle of the ring, was half of the 60-foot tall tree. The other half was still standing, but covered in the telltale, tiny D-shaped holes of Gold-spotted Oak Borer (GSOB), a beetle that gets into the phloem, xylem, and cambium of our native oaks and quickly kills them.
GSOB arrived in San Diego County on firewood from southeast Arizona about 15 years ago, and has been slowly advancing north, laying waste to our native oaks in the process. So far it's killed around 80,000 trees. I wandered around to a dozen nearby trees, all big, ancient oaks, and the trunks of every one were spotted with GSOB holes. I stood there stunned. As far as the eye could see, the whole millenia-old forest was dying. I wandered back to my truck, numb. I sat down in the driver's seat, staring out the window at the oaks dying en masse.
In addition to the oaks, there's the stately, 100-foot tall Big Cone Douglas Fir, which towers above the oak canopy in our San Diego County forests. Depending on their size, each Big Cone drops about 200 to 1,000 cones every three to five years. Each cone has around 100 viable seeds in it, adding up to about 40,000 seeds on average, per tree, every few years. Multiply that by a few hundred trees and you have around a million seeds falling each year onto our stretch of mountain. And yet, despite the number, there's no more than a dozen saplings growing naturally on our 300 acres of property.
I sat there thinking that day about what it meant, year after year, with a million seeds dropped onto the forest floor but only one or two surviving, and only those on the dampest, darkest portions of the mountain. I thought about what it meant.
It meant the days of the Big Cone Douglas fir are over in San Diego County.
I sat thinking about the thousands of oaks on all those slopes, ridges, and hills. Dying. I thought of the Shot Hole Borer, working its way up through our canyons, killing all San Diego's Coast Live Oak, willow, sycamore, and cottonwood. I thought of the Big Cone pushing their way up through the oak canopy, the last of their kind. I thought of all my seedlings. The hundreds I've planted over the years, and the hundreds filling my patio and yard. I've lost too many to count, but I can somehow remember the moment I first saw each one had dried out, or been pulled under by gophers, or stripped bare by rodents, or gnawed by rabbits, or trampled by cattle from the neighboring reservation.
I'd thought about it all a thousand times. I've lain in bed so many nights trying to wrestle with it. I don't know why, but that afternoon something in my mind buckled under the weight of it. I thought, "How do I tell my kids?" and started to cry. They've grown up with me storing seeds and acorns in the refrigerator, germinating seeds, potting seedlings, watering them, 500 at any given time in the backyard, working in the greenhouses, unloading all my dusty tools and empty water bottles from the truck when I get back in the evening from the mountain. Their dad working in any spare moment on reforesting is all they've ever known.
I thought of a photo we took a couple of years ago, sitting in front of our hundreds of seedlings. So happy. How do I tell them now that I don't know what to do with the 600 seedlings in the backyard? That if I keep them potted they'll get root-bound and slowly die, and if I try to outplant them on the mountain, they'll die even faster? Hoe do I tell them that there's no place left in the world for these trees they've grown up with?
And then there was the question that was there the whole time, waiting to surface: How do I tell myself? I think of all the love I've put into saving that forest. All the years. All the thousands of hours. All the thought, worry, hope, and faith. How do I tell myself it's all going to die? I've spent so much time among these trees, but it's not like trees you visit in a park. I don't go to a different trail or campground or mountain every week. I go to the same mountain, every time. I know every corner of those 300 acres. I can see the whole forest when I close my eyes. Those trees are like friends to me. I know their peculiarities and their personalities. I can identify some of those trees by their acorns alone. It's honestly too much to know they're all doomed.
And if my forest is dying, the same thing is happening everywhere else on earth. My mind leapt back 20 years to when I was doing fieldwork in Kenai, Alaska. I remembered driving past hundreds of miles of conifers dying from Spruce Bark Beetle, which had exploded without the cold winters to keep its population in check. I must have blocked it out for 20 years, but it was right there, just below the surface of my consciousness, foreshadowing.
The sadness, the fear, the despair comes over me in waves when I think about it. The whole biosphere, 66 million years of adaptation and speciation, is dying. I took personal responsibility for repairing, conserving, stewarding my half-mile square of it, and it finally hit me – what I'd been wrestling with unconsciously for a long time – that I can't save it. No amount of wisdom, sacrifice, or heroism is going to change the outcome. It's been wearing on me for years, but when you're raised on Star Wars and unconditional positive regard, you believe that no matter how long the odds, you're somehow going to pull off the impossible. It's been years of working, day-in, day-out, against odds that were unimaginably long. Only they weren't long. They were impossible.
And at the crescendo of sobbing and loss, the saddest thought I've ever had came to me: I wish I didn't know. What else can you say, when faced with a catastrophe of such vastness, with the unravelling of the entire fabric of life on earth? We need to fight to save what we can, but the web of life as we know it is done.
All the beautiful things we saw as kids on the Discovery Channel. The forests I grew up in. The mountain lions, the horned owls, and the scat and the tracks in the washes. We're so early in this curve, and the changes that are already baked in will be so profound. I don't think humans are headed for extinction. We'll survive, though many of us will suffer and die. But so much of this life with which we've shared the planet won't make it. I wish I didn't know. I wish I didn't know those ancient trees dying up there on the mountain. I wish I'd never hiked through Cuyamaca before the fires. I wish I'd never looked beneath rocks for lizards in the canyons before the bulldozers came. Or heard the frogs singing.
Some of us have seen what's coming. Some of us feel, deeply, the oneness of all life, feel its fabric fraying. On the first of April, 2019, just after 3 o'clock, some faith – some fantasy inside me – died as I felt despair for the world I've known and loved. We will not save what was. The world, the systems, the interrelationships, the densely-woven tapestry, the totality we were raised to love will collapse.
My responsibility now is to my children – to all our children – and the world that will remain to them. To rescue as much as we can from that global conflagration, from the catastrophes of famine, and flood, and fire, and conflict, and exodus, and extinctions that await. To end our dependence on fossil fuels, immediately. To dramatically change our food production, our transportation, our land use. Our way of life. To defeat anyone and anything that opposes or hampers that work.
If there were ever a truly holy war, this struggle – to save the whole of life from ourselves – is it. There can be no compromise. No increments. No quarter. There is nothing left, but to go forth with the grief, desperation, and granite-hard determination and transform the world. Utterly. Immediately.
Earth Day, 2019
Volcan Mountain photo by Tommy Hough
Cody and family photo by Tala Petterson
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