Green Neighbors: Death and Change in the Forest

By Ron Sullivan
Wednesday November 26, 2008 - 10:53:00 AM
Dead live-oaks in forested hillside, Bolinas Lagoon. The dead trees still support live beard lichens.
Ron Sullivan
Dead live-oaks in forested hillside, Bolinas Lagoon. The dead trees still support live beard lichens.

I remind myself that the Tarot card with Death on it is supposed to mean “change.” As I get older, though, and see more death than change, it gets to be more of a personal threat, an insult of sorts.  

The disease caused by Phtyophthora ramorum, called “Sudden Oak Death Syndrome,” felt pretty personal right from the start. I’d marveled at oaks even before I met California’s natives.  

When I was a distracted gradeschool kid in Pennsylvania, I spent a lot of time gazing out the classroom windows at a great old oak that presided over a grassy hill half a mile away, not thinking much at all, my mind filled with the perception of that upright, weathered, gnarl-limbed matriarch. When I got old enough to go off alone, I rode my blue bike up the road and dragged it up the hill and sat with my back against that oak for hours, just basking and watching. I don’t remember much from those hours except for the steady living presence that embraced me.  

I’ve lived in California for 35 years and kept company with Californian oaks right from the start. I loved their fierce determined spontaneity, their every-whichaways habits of growing, their gradual transformation of their space, their huge jokes with light and color, long before I’d learned about their keystone position in our local web of life.  

Briefly: Oaks are Californian forests’ chief plant protein producers. Acorns provide so much nutrition to so many animal species—our own among them—that it’s hard to imagine what could replace them. Maybe nothing can.  

Most of us don’t remember, but something like SODS happened to the great eastern forests of North America. In the early 20th Century, a fungus, Cryphonectria parasitica, entered North America under the bark of some imported Asian chestnut seedlings. It didn’t kill its original hosts, but it was lethal to Castanea dentata. From its apparent original locus in New York City, it spread with terrifying speed and devastation to the whole native range of American chestnut from Maine to Arkansas, a skirted sweep centered on the Appalachian mountain chain.  

The amnesia regarding chestnut blight and the chestnut’s former lynchpin role in Eastern forests is startling. Maybe the forest looks like wallpaper to the uneducated—and that’s most of us. For all my passion, it certainly included me when I was an Easterner. Then again, I and my peers certainly knew oaks from maples from willows from mulberries from horsechestnuts, which was as close to a chestnut as we had. Oaks and horsechestnuts bore things to throw at each other; maples had maple-noses to split and wear and look perfectly silly; willows had whippy twigs to chase each other with or to braid for no particular reason.  

There might be SODS remedies for individual “specimen” trees, but so far nothing is practical for whole woodlands. It’s possible we’re facing another tree plague that will change our land as chestnut blight did, and maybe we’re helpless before it. That galls; we like to fix things. What now?