There’s not much carbon in the entire universe. And yet, somehow, this element appeared on earth and from carbon the first plants and trees emerged. This plant emergence began about 450,000 million years ago. This fact might give us pause because it suggests how unique this planet really is in its ability to create and sustain life.
Today we are faced with an unprecedented amount of carbon in our atmosphere. Carbon emissions far exceed the ability of trees and plants to absorb carbon. Carbon emissions raise the earth’s temperature too rapidly. Climate Change is the result, and unlike normal cycles of climate change that stretch over millennia, this time humans have initiated these extreme shifts in the weather. Climate change began with onset of the Industrial age and the rise of technology and today it threatens the fabric that supports all life as we know it. Ice caps melt, land masses sink, fires and droughts erupt throughout the world as the planet continues to heat up.
Ironically, one way to slow Climate Change (and by far the cheapest) is by allowing old forests to survive. In addition to storing carbon old forests build soil, cycle nutrients, mitigate pollution, purify water, release oxygen and provide habitat for wildlife.
We have two sources of carbon sequestration that can never be replaced: peatlands and old forests.
Mark G Anderson, PhD of the Northeast Wilderness Trust (www.newildernesstrust.com) has this to say about old forests:
“A long-standing debate over the value of old forests in capturing and storing carbon has prompted a surge of synthesis studies published in top science journals (like Nature) during the last decade.”
What follows are five points that are supported by solid evidence.
We now know that trees accumulate carbon over their entire lifetime. All plants absorb carbon dioxide from the air and transform it into carbon rich sugars that are then converted to cellulose to create biomass (trunks, bark and leaves of trees), or the cellulose is transferred below ground to feed roots and fungal networks. Over the long lifespan of trees large amounts of carbon are removed from the air and stored in the biomass (or underground). Although tree growth slows over its lifetime there is a corresponding increase in the tree’s total leaf area that allows the tree to store more tree carbon as it ages. At one site, large trees comprised 6 percent of the trees but 33 percent of the annual forest growth. Young trees grow fast, but old trees store a disproportional amount of carbon.
Old forests contain vast amounts of carbon. Up until recently it was believed that old forests ceased becoming carbon sinks, but new research finds that carbon storage increased in most stands more than 180 years old. Thus, old growth forests need to be left intact. This information is particularly important because old forests in the tropics that have acted as long-term net biomass/carbon sinks are now vulnerable to edge effects, logging and thinning, or increased mortality from other disturbances.
Old forests also accumulate and store carbon in the soil as previously mentioned. Recent studies have shown that the top layers of the soil found in old forests store atmospheric carbon at an astonishingly high rate. Organic soil carbon concentration increases significantly every year.
Forests share carbon not just among themselves but also between tree species. Recent research made possible by stable carbon isotope labeling indicates that trees interact in complex ways. Studies found that carbon assimilated by spruce was traded with neighboring beech, larch, and pine trees by way of tree roots assisted by mycorrhizal fungal networks, and that these mycorrhizal networks became more connected and took up more carbon as forest succession progressed.
Almost 24 billion metric tons of carbon could be stored by forests while safeguarding food security and biodiversity. An analysis of 18,507 forest plots in the Northeast found that old forests (greater than 170 years) supported the largest carbon pools and the highest levels of carbon storage, timber growth, and species diversity. Here we see that recent peer-reviewed science has established that unmanaged forests can be highly effective at capturing and storing carbon.
Mark Anderson concludes “it is now clear that trees accumulate carbon over their entire lifespan and that old, wild forests accumulate far more carbon than they lose through decomposition and respiration, thus acting as carbon sinks. This is especially true when taking into account the role of undisturbed soils only found in unmanaged forests. In many instances, the carbon storage potential of old and wild forests far exceeds that of managed forests. In the Northeast, a vigorous embrace of natural climate solutions to mitigate global overheating does not require an either/or choice between managed and unmanaged forests. Conserving unmanaged wild forests is a useful, scalable, and cost-effective complementary strategy to the continued conservation of well-managed woodlands”.
What we do need to do is to find ways to reduce unnecessary forest devastation by implementing kinder ways of logging our mountains. We could also curtail unnecessary forest edge destruction. A perfect example is what’s happening to the trees on Route 26. Is the widening of the road in Bryant Pond to service more traffic, increased speed, more people streaming in to the area really necessary when so many trees are being sacrificed?
The spring equinox marks the change in seasons – “unhinging one from another” in unpredictable ways. A door might open, or perhaps a frog decrees yet another steep descent into the well… the latter has been the case with me.
Spring is historically a time of rising waters. Plentiful and soothing rainfall raises fog from the lowlands to melt the last of the tired snow – a turning I used to long for.
This year I feel dread. High winds, thin dry air, deep blue skies and summer-like temperatures replace the precious rain that does not fall. Brooks are low; ditches are dry. The trees can’t take another year of drought. Too many are already diseased.
On the morning of the spring equinox I was unable to dip my pitcher into the brook for the water I wanted to acknowledge this spring turning because the remaining ice/snow, a result of winter of freeze –thaw, has made it impossible to get down there; and the brook is pitifully low. Both, for the first time ever. Crows were screeching in the trees. Squirrel chatter was drowning out the songs of nesting birds.
Deciding that I must have water that came directly from the mountain I climbed into my car to visit our local spring.
To my shock I missed the turnoff. Confused and dis-oriented by the loss of trees I had used as markers for 40 years I drove by the spring in a blur and had to turn around. Distracted by the masses of traffic and severed limbs that lay in bunches on the ground on either side of me I almost missed the spring for a second time after reversing directions. Stopping to fill my container in a daze, I left without being able to comprehend what I had actually seen.
I had a crystal bowl waiting for the water at home. After filling the container to the brim I gently lay my hand on its surface, remembering that touching the water with gratitude, love, and appreciation allowed beautiful patterns to appear on a molecular level. I sprinkled water around the house, blessing my animals, my bird, and myself. My longing for rain was palpable.
Later that day two of us honored the vernal equinox by gathering here to express our gratitude for this precious element, water, acknowledging that Water is Life while offering our intentions and releasing what we no longer needed – a simple fluid ceremony that allowed us to honor and participate with nature in the turning of the wheel towards rain, late spring blooming, leaf out (we hoped), and summer’s light.
The next morning I awakened knowing that I had to go back to the spring to witness what had occurred there. When I opened the door to leave the cardinal was waiting for me. I offered my usual morning greeting for the second time that day wondering why he was still here (every morning I take in his birdfeeder after he eats because of squirrels). As I stepped out the door the cardinal began to make a rapid series of sharp discordant chip –like sounds, sounds I have never heard a cardinal make before. As I walked up the hill he followed me flying from tree to tree. The loud chips sounded frantic; he was warning me, but I had no sense that he was telling me not to go.
Cardinal was my witness, just as I would be for what happened at the spring… Nature always reciprocates.
With a heavy heart I left him by the garage door and drove by the little town of Bryant Pond. The old trees in front yards had been slaughtered and lay in huge piles on the ground. I gasped. Driving further on I slowed to see pile after pile of big trees and slender young saplings that had been cut by the Great Machines strewn everywhere. Nothing had been spared in this massacre. Once again I drove by the spring, missing it for the same reason I had the day before. I pulled onto the narrow shoulder of the road to snap pictures of the devastation that stretched ahead as far as I could see. I learned later that the road crew would continue its work as far as North Pond, still miles away down the road. I reversed directions again to finish documenting the damage and came home. Although I posted the images publically they went unnoticed.
The day before I had asked to release my anger around the slaughtering of our trees. I kept returning to the image of the slain saplings… My anger had vanished, but in its place I had been given a terrible vision – What I had just witnessed I would witness again and again until “the end” whatever that meant. Man’s treatment of the trees old and young could not be stopped.Numbed, I walked out into the blue day wondering how I could accept what I had just learned. I had fallen deep into the well and it was dry.
Interfering with nature is not a practice I seek to embrace. Nature always redresses imbalances eventually. The problem here is that I won’t live long enough to see this rodent rampage come to a natural end, and so with great reluctance I begin to trap these animals in order to keep them out of my house and to allow birds – a multitude of species that we are losing at an alarming rate to man made pesticides and climate change – to feed.
I am deliberately removing these animals, behaving as a natural predator would in an unnatural situation. I do this with the knowledge that human interference has created the situation I live with and that I am now participating in it actively.
This knowing is deeply distressing to me.
I am also aware that I may temporarily reduce the squirrel population but it is so inflated by the current hunting practices that what I do makes little difference.
It is also obvious to me that the squirrel rampage is reflecting a destructive attitude prevalent in our own culture – the problem of human greed has resulted in the deaths of vulnerable species, the takeover by others, and the massive threat of climate change.
Nature and Culture mirror each others behavior. I am always observing the parallels. That we are One seems obvious.
If mind, memory, and story are all stored outside of us in the mind/body of nature as folks like Indigenous peoples and some scientists suggest, then our dreams must absorb these elements that originate in nature. I think of dreams as the language of our body, an unconscious body that is in direct communication with the body of the earth. When we sleep our minds are at rest, allowing our bodies to lead, and to speak.
A few days ago I had a little dream that really intrigued me:
I am at ground level in a lush green forest eye to eye with a medium sized green frog who is, as all frogs are, beautiful to me. We are looking into each other’s eyes. We are lying close to each other and are apparently the same size. I look at him I feel comfort – maybe relief. I awaken feeling peaceful.
To provide some context for myself it is necessary to digress into my personal history with amphibians. Frogs and I have had a very intimate relationship that stretches back to my earliest childhood years. I had a rubber frog as a playmate as a toddler. I read fairy tales about frog princes with a kind of wonder and fascination. As an older child my little brother and I took flashlights into my grandparents’ woods to find peepers during warm spring nights. We didn’t want to catch them; we just wanted to sit with them as they sang. The unearthly chorus was, and is, a symphony without parallel. During the day we caught green frogs in local ponds, always returning them to the water after a brief visit. As adolescents we continued ‘our practice’, and by the time my brother was at Harvard he had acquired two large underwater frogs from South America…
I got married and divorced following the cultural script like a robot. When my children were young I would lie in bed at night listening wistfully to the peepers in the vernal pool across the road, spring after spring, feeling such longing. My mothering years were so difficult it is painful to remember them. I was still a child when I became a mother. Those first ten years of my childrens’ lives were overshadowed by the deaths of my brother and grandmother, the two people who loved me as much as I loved them. The woman – child had become an orphan by the time she reached her mid- twenties. Although I still listened to the peepers each spring I no longer visited their pools. Something in me had gone dead.
Once my children were grown I moved to the mountains of Maine (after having returned to the land of the living) and every spring I raised tadpoles to adulthood in an aquarium at my camp in the woods. In a few years I had a symphony of peepers that rivaled the soothing sound of cascading waters that flowed just outside my door. I also raised wood frogs, green frogs, and toads. Each year for the last 35 plus years I have been catching and raising frogs of some kind every spring, even though now I have a very healthy population of these most endangered amphibians. One of the worst aspects of living in a desert for four winters was that I lost access to the chorus of spring frogs. I have never understood exactly why I need to continue to raise tadpoles to adulthood beyond being able to participate in the frogs’ transforming process probably because I couldn’t shift the trajectory in my own life.
With this kind of history only broken by my mothering years and four desert winters, having a frog come to me in a dream seems prescient. I have only had one other dream about a frog. In that one a child gave me a frog for my birthday… unknown to me, incomprehensible grief lay ahead.
In another month I will be seeking out frogs eggs to raise, but just now I am stuck in liminal space trapped by mountains of tired snow, muddy rivers of water, a frozen driveway and increasingly harsh light.
I must add that every year March brings on a cyclic descent into depression regardless of where I am. When I was told that I had nearly been aborted in early April after my untimely, and unwanted conception these annual descents began to make more sense, but endurance remains my only survival strategy besides spending time outdoors in very unpredictable weather that still includes more snow and ice.
Now I want to return to the dream to untangle its message.
The first thought that comes to mind is that frogs are masters of liminal space. They are born in water with gills as tadpoles and live as adults breathing air at the edge of water or in nearby lowlands. They thrive only when there is enough moisture and rain. On one level it is possible that the frog may be reflecting this ability to live in two worlds – both the watery depths and on land. With that much said, dreams aren’t usually invested in repeating the obvious unless its to validate, rather they attempt to create an awareness or perspective that is unknown or un -owned to the dreamer.
Frogs appear in fairy tales and stories as shape shifters. Often a spell has to be broken to allow the frog (or any other animal) to become human, but I think this ability to transform can also work in reverse.
An unusual aspect of this dream is that the frog and I appear to be about the same size and we lie side by side. What this suggests to me is that we are equal in some way – perhaps parts of each other. Frog wo/man? ( eco – feminists would say we have easier access to our animal familiars than many men do).
The fact that we make eye contact – “I” contact – suggests communication without the need for words; it also might mean that this contact involves living my life on a waking level.
We are also sharing a space that is forested green and lush. The brilliant green suggests early spring just after the snow is gone – it may also suggest an abundance of water is present.
One way to shift reality is to tell a story. Stories are like magic. They have the capacity to change perspectives. Miracles also happen in stories. I had my first human miracle occur last year after I had a dream that said “your life will change radically” when I met a young man who did change my life. Perhaps I can have another?
The story of my frog begins when I ask him a question:
“Can you tell me why I am here with you?”
The frog regards me with a golden eye and remains silent, which doesn’t surprise me. Historically, frogs do not bring me clarity… I feel moist mosses beneath my supine body, hear running water and witness a forest of little lichens that have sprung up at eye level like a miniature forest. I breathe in the scent of water, sweet soil that lies just under our bodies, sense the presence of the complex mycelial networks underground. Conversations between the trees at root level create and sustain this forest that stretches out around us. I feel roots rising up to support us through the rich moist ground. I feel strange stirrings of hope overcoming my numbness. I am grounded. But there is no personal movement, although there is certainly a shift of season because at the time of the dream in day life it is still winter – not quite mud season.
Gradually, as I look around I become aware that we are situated in some sort of circle of emerald green growth surrounded by deep purple crocus. I hear mourning doves and cardinals singing. A magnificent forest of trees, hemlocks and pines, cedar, balsam, maple, oak and ash, surrounds us. All the trees have huge trunks and thick gnarled branches; a few are dripping with lichens. Some tree columns are heavily ribbed, others smooth. The conifers have healthy green needles and the cedar fronds are deep green. This is an old forest full of ancient and wise beings – a forest that is full of magic! …I stroke the frog’s smooth velvety skin and feel comforted by the sounds the trees are making – blood is pulsing through their veins – sap is beginning to rise…
In this peaceful moment sudden illumination strikes as the meaning behind a deeply troubling chained bear dream that I have been carrying around for two months becomes clear. The bear will not be able to free himself. I must sever the silver chain that binds this poor bear to a tree. For some reason it wasn’t obvious that it was up to me to set the bear free – The bear’s anger, anger over the loss of so many of our trees belongs to me.
The trees had spoken.
I cut the chain.
The frog bears witness in silence.
It is the first day of spring.
The story is not finished, but I feel relief knowing that I have set one of the bears free. The loss of so many trees in Maine to the Great Machine of a Devouring Economy is another matter. All winter I have been assaulted by the images of ravaged mountains that have been stripped. These mountains are all around me. I have owned my grief and anguish. Now I must deal with my anger. The question of how to do this remains an enigma. I need to transform that anger into some kind of positive action beyond writing about trees. The sense I have is that what I say goes nowhere.
Postscript: 3/23 – after the equinox I discover that I have made a mistake. My anger has kept me a float keeping me a tree advocate up until the present. But when I cut the chain I not only set the bear free but I also surrendered my anger around the trees… in its place a I received a vision of the future, one I could do without…See next post – The Death of Spring.
Up until this week only in the woods have I been able to escape the glare from a too brilliant sun reflecting on rolling hills of hardened snow. The driveway was a block of ice until a few days ago– one wrong move and a deadly fall was a real possibility. The crunch of frozen snow – freeze and thaw – will be a repeating pattern until the season shifts – meanwhile the work of punching through snow has broken the timelessness of winter – slow days with me sliding over smooth packed snow on snowshoes pondering tracks of rabbit and deer or having no thoughts at all. Winter Peace.
When I enter the forest the deer hooves strike dangerous holes in the snow, trampling down my daily route. Sometimes one of my legs falls through – Suddenly I am lopsided. It’s a battle to stay upright but I slog on with determination only to feel a blast of northwest wind biting my skin with sharp teeth, although happily the worst of the wind can’t reach me here. There is a dull roar overhead and I am grateful to live in the lowlands. The sub zero wind chill is a challenge. Two days ago a cold front blew through followed by gusting 71 mph winds that knocked out the power splitting telephone poles in two like matchsticks. My paths flooded the day before in 60 degree temperatures – then they were impossible to cross even with cleats. Everywhere else broken branches, trees split, here, on the ground, bunches of white pine needles, stray sticks – the forest has been under assault since December1st and shows it.
This morning with record breaking temperatures once again in the low 60’s rivers of water flow down the hill. I am living in another lake and have taken to the roads for walking. I am worried that the water levels are too low in the brook. It takes 12 inches of snow to make an inch of rain – so even with adequate snowfall this winter we now need rain – a lot of it. I want to feel appreciation for hearing the cardinal’s mating song for the first time as he joins the mourning doves and chickadee “fee bees” and, feel gratitude for the grouse who are suddenly exploding out of the brush, but instead I feel frustration. The warming trend brought on by climate change has created extremes that make this month even more of a challenge than it was ever before.
I feel grief and anger rising in equal measure. All the authoritarian bluster to keep the old story intact. Nature is dumb, a resource to be used, climate change is a hoax. I am so sick of the story that is destroying us all.
Grief and anger brought on by weather extremes is part of the problem but not all of it. Some of these feelings are about me personally. In March I feel stuck in liminal space. Pine Siskins and squirrels have sucked the birdfeeders dry so many times that I have brought most of the feeders in. My friends the cardinals are complaining – probably as frustrated as I am. The deer are after the cedar seedlings down by the brook, nosing them under the snow.
This morning, when I talked to my abutting neighbor and friend, we agreed that these aren’t survival foods as the foresters tell us but tasty morsels chosen by the deer for nutrients they don’t get from store bought grain. “The deer have their ways” says this wise man of the woods who claims he was born there, worked there, and will die there too. (I hope this is true for both of us). My friend also tells me that our other neighbor has at least a hundred deer over at his house feeding. Up until now this man has provided them with grain but has decided he won’t continue this practice next year. I am very relieved; I have too many deer that are living here! Besides, Lyme disease is increasing in severity and is a real threat to everyone. We end our conversation agreeing that both of us have had it! He’s sick of plowing roads and wants to get working on my house.
It doesn’t matter that neither of us would choose to live elsewhere – and unlike me he wasn’t stupid enough to try – I shake my head at the memory. It took me four years to remember I belong here – and I had to unravel a message from the Sand hill cranes that kept brrring over my head to get it. ‘Go Home’ they cried, year after year as tears ran down my face and my confusion mounted. I couldn’t understand what they were saying. Home is here in this tangled woodland forest with its brooks and bogs but that doesn’t mean that I’m not sick of winter. I want more GREEN…
Coming indoors after our conversation I look out my windows towards the trees and brook as I do a thousand times a day – but this time I hear a voice. “We’re sick of it too,” the trees remarked. And suddenly I saw them or through them in a way I hadn’t before – bark peeling, trunks battered by winds, limbs broken under old ice, branches scraping tender skin. The trees had to speak up before I got it – inside mirrorsM outside – They’re tired too, just more accepting. We’re in this in this together. So damn obvious.
(I can hear the skeptic snickering, stating with authority that I’m projecting my feelings onto the trees, dismissing the sentience between nature and myself, insulting us both with Androcentric ignorance and arrogance. No doubt this character never heard of Scientists like Sheldrake, Simard, and Kroeger).
I grinned then and thanked the trees for reminding me that I got caught in my own soap opera forgetting we are all sharing the same story, a story in which I am only one participant,
We are all sick of winter, endless freeze thaws, and longing for the sap to rise once again along with the first purple crocus.
I look out the window as I finish my story and see the deer; one stands by the window staring in. These are the Spirits of this Land who came to me the first time I stepped on this patch of earth in pouring rain. Their stares penetrate my soul/body with knowing eyes. They come to reinforce truth: I belong here, just as they do.
Women with Wings
It wasn’t until I wrote this story that I learned that the Cranes cyclic winter presence and my response to them demonstrated how the power of “women with wings” had been operating as actual birds in my life on a visceral level without my conscious awareness. My body knew from the beginning that I was making a mistake believing I could move to the desert; it took four years for that awareness to penetrate the haze of my mind.
Sandhill cranes have one of the longest fossil histories of any extant bird. A fossil from the Miocene epoch, 10 million years ago, was found to be structurally the same as that of the modern Sand hill crane.
When I first encountered these ancient birds I was forcibly struck by their behavior. During the winter I met small groups of them flying overhead, noting the lack of an apparent leader, how they always called out to one another, how one crane always took on the role of protector of the whole flock by keeping watch for predators at night. At the Bosque del Apache I watched in amazement as they interacted by the thousands in harmony. Their bodies are large and robust; yet they have such powerful wings that they are able to become airborne without apparent effort. Once in the air they fly so high that even when it’s possible to hear them they become literally invisible to the naked eye.
This migratory species is without parallel. They journey twice a year using three basic flyways, each with stopovers where the birds meet and rest. Most breeding grounds are found in the northern U.S., Canada, and Alaska, but some Sand hill cranes travel as far as Siberia to breed each spring. During courtship they engage in elaborate displays dancing with outspread wings and leaping into the air while calling. Mated pairs engage in “unison calling” an unusual and complex duet. When the birds fly south in the late fall to spend the winter months foraging for grains, the young fly with the parents. During their three – month stay they form flocks of thousands of birds. Most amazing was my discovery that these birds coordinate these bi -yearly long distance flights without a leader. That’s when I put my observations/research together and recognized that these birds must also operate as an “egalitarian matriarchy” (Carol Christ).