Monday, January 7, 2013

Attacks on Ancient Trees

On January 4, unknown vandals burned two large eucalyptus trees in Australia. The ghost gum trees (Corymbia aparrerinja) in Alice Springs, in the middle of the Outback, were not among the largest trees in the world, but were the largest in these desert springs. Aboriginal people revered them, and Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira made a famous painting of them. These were the trees on the species Wikipedia page for this species.

This is just the most recent of the tree-killings focused on iconic ancient trees. An unknown vandal used a pipe bomb to blow up the nation’s largest elm tree (Ulmus americana) in Louisville, Kansas, in 1998. In 2000 a vandal attacked Luna, a large coast redwood (Sequoia sempervirens), that had become famous when Julia Butterfly Hill had lived in it for many months in protest against the logging of old growth forests.

While such acts of vandalism remain rare, they are disturbing because they appear to be aimed at discrediting the people who wish to protect the Earth for the future of all of us, not just of a particular interest group. Trees produce oxygen that Republicans, Democrats, Buddhists, Islamist extremists, and Moonies all breathe. They are indicators, I believe, of a much more widespread discomfort or even fear that many people (often the same ones who oppose evolutionary science) feel about environmentalism. In short, they know that we are disrupting the Earth in such a way that the survival of technological civilization is in jeopardy and they do not want to face this fact. I see this as the more credible alternative to the idea, which I sometimes believe until I tell myself that it is unlikely to be true, that these vandals are working in the interest of particular large corporations. While it is credible that the vandal that nearly cut down Luna might have worked in the interest of a timber corporation, this is probably not the explanation for the recent attack on the ghost gum trees.

Another possibility is that the ghost gum trees were important to aboriginal peoples, and that the spirituality of aboriginal peoples (everywhere) is a threat to our modern, individualist, selfish civilization. I am not saying that the religious beliefs of Aborigines are any more likely to be true than those of my own Cherokee tribe. But they provide at least a framework of response and adaptation to a threatening world, a framework that individualists do not have.

My response? I decided to redouble my efforts at planting trees. My wife and I walk along Joe Creek in Tulsa. Creek is an undeserved honorific name for a big drainage ditch. (I thought about renaming it the Sir Francis Creek, but that is even more honorific.) When we find persimmon seeds (Diospyros virginiana) inside of dried raccoon droppings (fresh seeds will not germinate), we stick them in the ground in places that they are likely to thrive. Actually, my wife lets me do this while she walks around and pretends to not know me. Maybe someday a little grove of clonal persimmon trees (which can spread from even one surviving seedling) will prevent clumps of Tulsa from eroding down into Joe Creek.

And I also decided to donate some seaside alders (Alnus maritima) left over from my research to Up With Trees, a Tulsa urban forestry group. Tulsa is outside of the current native range of this species, but as one of the world experts on this species I can say the following. First, it is probably within the pre-historical range of the species. Second, it is unlikely to become invasive. Although it produces thousands of viable seeds, the seeds only germinate under conditions that rarely occur.

Botanist William Libby has planted California coast redwood seedlings in New Zealand and giant sequoia seedlings in the Taurus Mountains of Turkey. Who knows if these seedlings might be the only survivors of their species, if California (the native home of both) becomes too hot and dry for them? I will probably not, within my lifetime, see the deaths of the giant sequoias that I admired as I grew up in California and on my many visits back to them. Limited as I am to Oklahoma, I cannot plant redwoods—they would most likely die. But I can plant a few trees, which may not amount to much but they are a defiance against the tree vandals. And who knows that the seaside alder might survive, a century from now, only around some wetland in Tulsa?

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