Yesterday a friend mentioned that she was thinking about what she could do to help with Climate Change when she looked out her window and noticed a cluster of trees on her property. Trees! Carbon sequestration is part of the solution, she thought suddenly. After listening to this soliloquy I instantly agreed. Every person who lives on a piece of property has the option to address Climate Change because one solution to our current global crisis is to allow as many trees as possible to mature into old age, and some of us can begin this process at home.
Long ago I reached the conclusion that the best thing I could do for the small parcel of land I lived on was to leave it alone, and this was before the threat of Climate Change loomed high on the horizon. When it did, I had already begun the process of allowing all of my trees to mature. Sequestering more carbon is a natural process, part of what each adult tree does to keep the air clean. The only requirement is encouraging a tree to reach adulthood, and beyond that, into old age (at one time it was believed that an old tree no longer sequestered carbon but the newest research informs us that this initial assessment was incorrect). Old trees sequester carbon until they die of old age or disease.
On ‘my’ land, what once was field has now become a young pine forest; across the brook in the mixed deciduous and conifer forest the hemlocks have matured creating a moist environment with their umbrella -like canopies, while other trees have died opening niches for wildflowers, a multitude of understory plants, berries, and some second succession seedlings. Each spring my first spring forays into the forest are always a time of excitement, because I never know what I might find. This patch of woods is rebirthing itself after having been cut over about 40 plus years ago, and I have been fortunate enough to witness the change. I am keenly aware that forests are adept at regenerating themselves because they have been around in some form for almost 400 million years.
As the summers grow hotter I find myself spending more time in the cool moist woods sitting next to feeder brooks that tumble down the mountain while sniffing the fragrant sponge -like duff beneath my feet. Sometimes, I dig through rich detritus to pick mushrooms or to uncover bright orange and yellow threads that make up parts of the mycelial network that connects the root systems of one tree to another in such complex ways that some scientists believe the forest is a single living organism. Around me, old decaying tree stumps are blanketed in mosses and lichens; those same tree stumps are still storing carbon. Others are sprouting seedlings. In the forest life and death are woven into a tapestry without discernable boundaries. I reflect in wonder over this fluidity that reinforces my belief that forests are adept at taking exceptionally good care of themselves and don’t need people to manage them.
I have been a conservationist all my life participating in one of the first of the Nature Conservancy’s acquisition ceremonies in NY as a member of the town I lived in. As children and adolescents my brother and I haunted this forested land that was rife with forgotten Indian mounds, land that would now be protected by the Conservancy. We were both thrilled to know that the ancient trees caves and ledges, streams and hills would be preserved for perpetuity, or so we were told at the time.
Later, as a young mother I moved into an old house next door to Rachel Carson’s summer home in Maine, the place where she wrote “the Edge of the Sea” and later finished “Silent Spring” the book that would bring the threat of insecticidal use/DDT to the attention of the public, officially launching the Environmental Movement.
It would be fair to say that nature and my love of wilderness have always been in the foreground of my life.
Of course, my perspective is somewhat unusual – most people see the forest as a resource to be used to strengthen the economy or a place for recreation. Today we find ourselves living in an era that demands more wood than the disappearing woodlands will be able to continue to provide. Still, for the present, logging was and is a viable economic industry, especially here in Maine, one that continues to provide families with homes, heat, and a myriad of other necessities as well as financial solvency for some. I do not make money from the forest but I am still one of those people. I live in a log cabin, I heat with wood, and daily I use an appalling amount of paper products.
With a planet in crisis and a continued need for wood products we find ourselves backed against the wall. How do we find balance and begin to troubleshoot solutions in a situation like this one? One way I would answer this query is by saying that we have to work together to support responsible logging, managed forests and most importantly begin to investigate the concept of rewilding nature – that is, allowing forests to begin ‘managing’ themselves ways that would allow trees to mature into old undisturbed forests.
When I think about responsible logging I remember a good friend of mine whose family logged for generations. He told me that his grandfather had taught him never to take too many large trees because they were needed as “seeders” for the next generation. I used to walk on his property a lot and even after trees were harvested within a year the forest seemed to be thriving. We can’t return to the past, of course, but perhaps we can find a kinder way to remove the trees we must have for homes and wood products?
When a forest is no longer logged or harvested virtually all of the carbon on those acres will stay in the forest, and not in the atmosphere. This is not to say that we couldn’t also continue to log, (logging is an obvious necessity) or support managed forests that allow for recreation, but it does mean that we also must make a firm commitment to set aside large swathes of undisturbed land, places where nature is allowed to thrive on her own, growing and tending seedlings until they become adult trees that are then allowed to share nutrients (including carbon) with one another and live out their natural lives. Eventually these old trees die, becoming snags for woodpeckers and owls to nest in as well as providing food and homes for other birds and woodland creatures. This kind of forest also tends to its understory, creates food rich areas for birds, animals, and insects while turning its fallen and decaying logs into even richer soil. A forest undisturbed. And in these areas, recreation, if allowed at all is restricted to hiking or skiing. ‘Nature for natures sake’, and ultimately, for the survival of our species.
This multivalent approach to working with nature, one that supports responsible logging, managed forests, and untouched land full of aging trees and rich soil allows us to effectively combat Climate Change by reducing carbon emissions radically.
Recent peer reviewed science demonstrates that there is perhaps no better solution for combating Climate Change than by protecting wild lands. Below is a brief summary of some of the important issues regarding carbon sequestration:
- Trees accumulate carbon over their entire lifetime.
- Whole tree carbon accumulation rates increase with age and size.
- Old forests accumulate vast quantities of carbon
- Old forests accumulate more carbon in the soil
- Forests share carbon among and between tree species
- Forest carbon helps slow Climate Change.
It’s worth stating that as things stand now we have less than three percent of wilderness left in the northeast. Without taking concrete action to care for what’s left of our forests and ‘rewilding’ others we will have lost access to a precious resource that can help us create a more sustainable future.
There is one organization that is attempting to address our present crisis with a multivalent approach – the Northeast Wilderness Trust – and I will have more to say about NEWT in the future. Please check it out: newildernesstrust.org.
In the meantime, even though it is winter, some of you might do what my neighbor and I did – climb one of your trees – I didn’t climb high in my crabapple tree, and yet the rough bark that held me secure while light winds blew snow in my face let me see the tightly closed faintly rose colored buds embedded in each branch. Surely, more signs of spring can’t be that far away.