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Trees and Forests

The Dying of the Trees

The Pandemic in America's Forests

by Charles E. Little

275 pages, paperback , Penguin, 1997

From the sugarbush of Vermont and the dogwoods of Maryland's Catoctin Mountains to the forests of the hollows in Appalachia, the oaks and aspens of northern Michigan and the mountainsides and deserts of California, a range of human-caused maladies-- fatal ozone, ultraviolet rays, acid rain, and the disastrous aftermath of clear-cutting--has brought tree death and forest decline.

In The Dying of the Trees, veteran environmentalist Charles Little explores this phenomenon with scientists, government officials, and citizen leaders and recounts how they have responded (and in many cases failed to respond) to this threat to global ecological balance. What emerges is a fascinating, well-rounded, and sobering account of this disturbing trend, what it forebodes for the future of the Earth, and what must be done to save our trees.

Praise for The Dying of the Trees

" Let me say it straight out: The Dying of the Trees is the most important environmental book since Silent Spring. It is written with equal grace, with the same relentless dedication to truth, with the same sad, brave determination to look reality in the face and describe it for what it is. And what Little describes is an ecological catastrophe that is not imminent--it is happening right now, and if we do not begin to change the way we live on the earth very, very soon, there will be no reversing it." --T. H. Watkins, editor of Wilderness magazine

"The nattering, nay-saying pardoners of pollution will go bonkers on this one. Charles E. Little has researched and written an impeccably detailed expose of the decline of the great American forest under an onslaught of industrially induced plagues. The value of this landmark work will be measured in proportion to the decibels of outrage we're certain to be hearing from the paid apologists for the other side." --John G. Mitchell, author of Dispatches from the Deep Woods

"This book won't make us happier, but all of us ought to read it anyhow on the chance that, at this late date, it might make us saner. In spite of its very distressing subject, The Dying of the Trees is thoroughly readable and interesting. And its message is urgent: Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do." --Wendell Berry

"Little is a graceful writer and a prodigious researcher with a talent for molding a sense of place with lucidly explained science."--Audubon magazine

"I have just finished reading Charles Little's The Dying of the Trees and I am damned mad. Three decades ago, Rachel Carson gave us Silent Spring and we belched, blinked at the light, said, 'Yes, dear, you're right, of course,' and staggered on, like so many drunken Neros. Well, listen up. If Silent Spring was a wake-up call for humanity, then this tough, sad, and straight-shooting book may well be the first few bars of 'Taps.' Buy it, read it, but-- please--then send it to your Congressman . . . or any other opinion maker of your choice. It still may not be too late." -- Jake Page, former Smithsonian editor

Quotes from The Dying of the Trees

"I did not set out to be alarmist in this book. I am a writer whose usual topics deal with the affirmative aspects of what Barry Commoner calls making peace with the planet. I had hoped to find affirmative aspects to this story, too. But I did not. I can only speak plainly here--not only about the environmental causes of the dying of trees, but also about the consequences."

. . .

"What is more, the maple decline has ramified destructively throughout the maple-forest ecosystem. Canadian researchers have discovered that the defoliation of the crowns has decreased the abundance of birds that rely on the canopy for food and shelter. More pertinently to human concerns, lichens and some other sources of deer and moose food have been found to accumulate toxic metals from air pollution deposition on poorly buffered soils. These metals, cadmium especially, become concentrated in the organs of animals ingesting them. In some areas of Canada, the cadmium level has been so high that the government has declared that the livers and kidneys of moose and deer are unfit for human consumption."

. . .

"Looking at the history of tree death along a time line, one can see that--excepting the case of the franklinia, whose anomalous disappearance was doubtless a natural event of some sort, however mysterious--the dramatic incidents of widespread tree mortality among native species have occurred mainly in this century, in the industrial age, and have taken place in the replacement forests after the great national orgy of tree felling and land clearing between 1860 and 1890.

"And now, as we have seen, the tempo of catastrophe has been increasing in the post-World War II era. The lovely flowering dogwood appears to be doomed in its native setting. High- elevation spruce and fir along the Appalachian ridge from Vermont to North Carolina have been reduced to a fraction of their original numbers. The great ponderosa pines are beset by ozone drifting to the mountains from polluted California valleys. Ruthless logging has changed the composition of the forests of the intermountain West, rendering them vulnerable to pests and death and, finally, mass fire. The gypsy moth has opportunistically followed the axe and plowshare southward and westward through weakened forests from its unfortunate Medford, Massachusetts, starting point. Residual tree death attends the scalping of the Cascades in Washington and Oregon, where ancient forests are sacrificed in the politics of jobs. In the mixed mesophytic forest, one of the two oldest temperate-zone forests on earth, ecologist Orie Loucks estimates that as many as eighty tree-size woody plant species, including the near-extinct red mulberry tree and local populations of chinquapin and butternut, are showing the effects of years of oxidant concentrations and acid deposition driven eastward by prevailing winds from the industrialized river valleys of the Midwest and the Southern border states."

. . .

"A possible--if not likely--reason for the sudden increase of adelgid-caused mortality in forest stands of hemlock in recent years is that the insect seems to thrive on nitrogen. McClure conducted a test of this theory by fertilizing a group of adelgid-infested hemlocks with nitrogen and comparing the effects with another group of adelgid-infested trees not given nitrogen fertilizer. On the trees to which nitrogen had been added, the adelgid population densities were five times higher than on the other group. Moreover, hemlock growth was not enhanced at all by nitrogen, as might be expected. Instead, the unfertilized trees grew faster than the fertilized ones, and the foliage on the fertilized trees became discolored. According to Edward Whereat, a forest ecologist at the University of Maryland, McClure's research suggests a connection between the excess nitrogen deposition caused by air pollution and the recent virulence of the adelgid."

"All three trees which so agreeably grow together are afflicted--the hemlock with the adelgid, the dogwood with its unstoppable and deadly anthracnose fungus, and now the beech with a scale insect that severely stresses the tree, which allows a deadly fungus to finish the job."

. . .

"The Black Triangle, so named by its inhabitants, is a large industrial area bounded on the west by Dresden (in the former East Germany), on the east by Wroclow, Poland, and on the south (at the apex of the up-side-down triangle) by Prague, Czechoslovakia. One place Bruck visited was a Czech forest research station at Frydlant, on the Polish border. 'We were standing right in the middle of one hundred six square miles of dead Norway spruce,' said Bruck. 'It had been fumigated to death.' . . . 'I believe it is fair for me to state that I have never encountered quite the environmental nightmare that I observed in eastern Europe.' The trees had all died first, of course, giving a warning. But people were constrained --on pain of arrest and banishment, if not death, Bruck told me--not to object. After the trees died, the people began to die."

Table of Contents of The Dying of the Trees

  1. In This Sign
  2. Vigil at Camel's Hump
  3. On Top of Mount Mitchell
  4. The California X-Disease
  5. The Fire Next Time
  6. Path of the Gypsy Rover
  7. A History Only of Departed Things
  8. Lucy's Woods
  9. Pandemic
  10. The Treesavers
  11. On Crossing the Threshold

About Charles E. Little

Charles E. Little has worked for many years in the environmental field as a policy analyst, government employee, journalist, and author. A columnist for Wilderness magazine and a regular contributor to American Forests, Little lives in Placitos, New Mexico.

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