Sunday, January 31, 2021

Getting Lost in the Woods, Lest We Lose the Woods

balsamDo you have a favorite tree of the Adirondacks? I do. Among the many wonderful options, it’s quite hard to choose.

My favorite tree isn’t the beautiful sugar maple, responsible for both fiery autumn colors and delicious maple syrup. Though I love the deep green color of the Eastern hemlock, it too is passed over. I regrettably often don’t even notice the birches, the beeches, or the red maples. Although I greatly enjoy hiking uphill through a thick tunnel of red spruce, this conifer is a close friend but not my closest. The tall and delightfully shaped Eastern white pine comes in second, but even this icon of the woods doesn’t hold first place in my heart.

My favorite tree is perhaps many people’s favorite: the Adirondack classic, the balsam fir. If nature has produced a more wonderfully appealing, delightfully fragrant, overall MVP of conifer trees on the East coast, I have yet to encounter it. There isn’t a tree that I associate more directly with the deep sense of peace and wholeness that I feel while in the woods than the balsam fir.

But lately, when I take walks in the woods to visit this dear friend, there is a worry stuck in the back of my mind. It’s a scary thought, whose simplicity belies its seriousness. There is a possibility that I may outlive the balsam fir’s time in the Adirondacks. Yes, it’s true: I may live to see the deaths of almost all of these wonderful trees.

Our Friends in Danger

What an unpleasant idea. It’s related to climate change, of course, like so many uncomfortable thoughts related to nature these days. Who wants to imagine the Adirondacks without the balsam fir? If I start to think too hard about this, I am filled with the now familiar dread of climate anxiety, a phenomenon increasingly endemic to people all over the world, especially young people.

Sometimes it’s important to sit for a moment with the thoughts that scare us. While we should not let fear be overwhelming, understanding the origins of our emotions – especially negative ones – can teach us important lessons, about both ourselves and the world around us. My worry for the future of the balsam fir is a good example of an emotion that directly immerses me into a potential consequence of climate change. We humans are not always wired to understand cause and effect on a long term scale. We forget that we exist as one small part of the complex, interdependent ecosystem of our planet. Modern Western society doesn’t help us remember our place in the natural world, either, since it is structured to disconnect us from nature and our place within it.

It is the emotion, therefore, that visceral feeling that I get when standing next to my friend the balsam fir, that inspires me not only to act, but to remember and accept my place as just another organic being on this planet. The immediacy of being in the woods seems to be the only thing that will help us save the woods. I’d like to share two examples that helped me draw this conclusion.

Dr. Charles Canham’s Forests Adrift

It’s a small silver-lining of the COVID-19 crisis that we get to attend virtual meetings that we would not be able to attend in person. Over the summer, I went to a virtual talk by Dr. Charles Canham of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, on the topic of his book Forests Adrift: Currents Shaping the Future of Northeastern Trees. It was a great talk, and much of what was covered during the talk can also be found in the text itself. As a layperson, I found the book approachable, and as a climate-anxious person, I can assure everyone that Dr. Canham does not take a “doom and gloom” approach to talking about the future of Northeastern forests.

One of the main theses of the book is that some common species of Northeastern trees may do better than we’d expect given the severity of the climate crisis. It may take many generations for the composition of the forest to change irrevocably. Further, there are multiple “currents” affecting forest changes besides climate change, such as invasive insect species, deforestation, over-grazing by deer, etc.

But I cannot say that his prognosis for my friend the balsam fir is cheerful. In particular, although many species of trees will probably be resilient to short-term changes in temperature or precipitation, Dr. Canham writes:

“The notable exceptions are for several species of northern conifer such as balsam fir and white spruce. The computer models that colleagues and I have developed predict that those species will begin to decline precipitously in our region within the next fifty years, in large part because adults of those species show high mortality rates at the southern edges of their current ranges” (p. 151).

This quote is followed by a chart that shows that as the yearly mean temperature of the Northeast rises, the viability of the balsam fir drops like a stone. Although Dr. Canham isn’t the only scientist to have sounded the alarm regarding the potential decline of the balsam fir due to climate change, he is certainly the only scientist I’ve ever been able to ask a question about it on a Zoom call.

So ask I did. It was a simple question. I asked him to confirm what I believe that his research indicates: that my favorite tree may be in big trouble in the Adirondacks if the worst climate change scenarios bear out in coming years. He more or less confirmed this with a very short, somewhat curt answer. Admittedly, there wasn’t much to elaborate on. Absent significant changes in the rate at which the planet is heating, the balsam fir will probably not survive another 100 years anywhere in the Adirondacks.

I felt quite sheepish for airing my very unscientific love for a tree in front of a crowd of dispassionate academics. My emotion in that moment didn’t match the scholarly mood. Here I was struck by the immediacy of climate change, but yet stuck on just another post-COVID Zoom call with no outlet to communicate this emotion. I was participating in a discussion of climate science that seemed devoid of the connection to climate reality. A falling line on a graph can only explain so much.

I left this talk pretty disturbed. I had had a realization, had benefited greatly from reading the book, but now felt unmoored from any way to come to terms with what I had learned. Thinking about what action could be taken seemed even further out of reach.

But for better or worse, in the weeks that followed a second experience related to this one sent this sense of disconnection packing quite quickly.

forest fire
Losing the Woods

Just a few weeks after this talk, I learned of the complete loss of one of my favorite forests.

Big Basin Redwoods Sate Park was one of the jewels of the California state park system. As California’s oldest state park, it had a wonderful combination of stunning natural settings and interesting history. Some of California’s first environmentally-minded non-profits were founded based on the inspiration of the giant redwoods who live in these woods. It is just a short drive from the Bay area, and up until August of 2020, was a marvelous introduction to hiking, trekking and even just experiencing nature for over 200,000 visitors per year. My husband and I were fortunate to be able to visit in the spring of 2019.

It was therefore quite the punch in the gut to learn that this magical Californian forest was completely destroyed by a raging wildfire. Over 97% of the park was burnt to the ground. Though not all of the giant redwoods were destroyed, the complex ecosystem of the forest may be irrevocably damaged. Given the rapid changes already felt in California due to climate change, it is entirely unclear whether this forest will be able to recover to its full glory at all.

Accepting Loss, To Fight for Friends Still Living

Among all of the intense grief that had accompanied 2020, I was surprised at how much I grieved the loss of Big Basin. I was inconsolable for a while. It seems selfish that this one climate-related disaster brought home the immediacy of the climate crisis for me, since I had been to this particular park and stood among these particular trees. But it is nonetheless another of the ways in which I am human like everyone else. We love what we know and what we appreciate. Too often, it takes a lot of appreciation before we’re willing to do the work to protect things that are in danger.

So for better or for worse, it took a terrible disaster to jolt me into making changes in my life related to the climate crisis and the future. I could have read tons of books and stared at pages of graphs without ever having the same inspiration to action.

Among many decisions I made, I resolved to be more appreciative and more involved in the future of the woods that are my spiritual home, the Adirondack Park. I want to invite everyone who reads these words not to wait for a great loss to spur you into action. I also ask that you think hard about the world your children and grandchildren will live to see. Given the severity of the climate crisis, there will be a lot missing from this future world that does not get a lot of attention at the moment.

I want my future children and grandchildren to experience the beauty of a quiet stand of balsam fir trees. Further, I want your children to know and appreciate this experience too – because unless a majority of people do, long term, the future of our wonderful forests is definitely in question. It is never too late to take a moment to appreciate our dear friends. In my opinion, doing so will be the critical step in saving them.

Balsam fir photo from Almanack archive.

Gov. Gavin Newsom visits Big Basin Redwoods State Park, Boulder Creek, California. By the office of the Governor of California, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


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Vanessa Banti is a millennial librarian who loves the Adirondacks, and hopes to live there someday as a wonderful neighbor. In her professional life, she works with copyright and intellectual property, and in her personal life, she outside under the pines as often as possible.

10 Responses

  1. Helene Vanderburgh says:

    Thank you, Vanessa. So beautifully said. I can feel and share your emotion. I have the great good fortune to live in the Adirondacks surrounded by balsam firs young and old.

  2. Kim Pope says:

    As I read these words, I too feel the sadness that comes with knowing. But to recognize the problem, educate others and expose what will be lost in a way that speaks to their heart is hope. You have given me some hope.
    To plant a tree is to have hope !

    Kim Pope
    New Adirondack Blue Mountain resident.

  3. Wade says:

    Ms. Banti, thank you for this article. I too morn the loss of many things Adirondack that should have taken geological time to change but have done so in my lifetime. Yes, the balsam is one of my favorite trees too. Their aroma coupled with the sound of the white-throated sparrow are my icons of the Adirondack forests. The Alpine summits are another treasure potentially to be lost to climate change. The list goes on …

    I too am troubled by this pending loss not only for myself but more importantly for future generations. I just feel tied down, frustrated, helpless, like many, by not knowing what I can do as an individual. I, as the old bumper sticker said, try to act locally and think globally. How do we get the climate change deniers to face the facts? Are we too late?

    Keep up the fight and the flow of information!

    • Vanessa says:

      Hi Wade – thanks for your kind comment! I don’t at all think it’s too late, or I wouldn’t put the energy into writing about these topics. There’s lots to be done, and hopefully I can write more about potential solutions.

      Awareness is most important at first, and indeed acting locally is paramount. I think you’re on the right track. 🙂

  4. Mark Walp says:

    My favorite is the Hackberry, in honor of a certain style of politician, although the former is much less common here than the latter, and the latter probably wouldn’t mind keeping it that way.

  5. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “There isn’t a tree that I associate more directly with the deep sense of peace and wholeness that I feel while in the woods than the balsam fir.”

    > I have a love for balsams myself, and I never really put thought to a favorite tree in the Adirondacks, but in thinking about it now it would be the white pine. What I like about balsam firs is that you can caress those small needles with your hands and fingertips and not be pricked by their sharp, pointed tips as they are soft to touch. And yes….the perfume scent those firs put out! But the white pine! O’ the majesty of them, their wide girths, their stately heights, oftentimes by their lonesome they stand in those Adirondack woods. I know where some big ones are way back in the Moose River Recreation Area. Just amazing! From a distance amazing, but when you draw near and stand under them….the most wonderful experience. Talk about something greater than one’s self!

  6. Charlie Stehlin says:

    “To plant a tree is to have hope !”

    Yes Kim. There’s hope yet!