If the Tree Dies in Our Faces, Does Anyone See?

By Tooker Gomberg, Edmonton, Alberta.

Many trees in Alberta are dying or showing significant signs of disease. Is there a lesson here for humans?

My nine-year-old friend Faith has done a kind of inventory of the trees in our neighbourhood. She’ll gladly scamper around showing you which is the best for climbing, and where low spruce boughs droop to create a cozy shelter hidden from pesky adults.

We all have an affinity for trees. Most conscious Albertans must be aware that our boreal forest, one of Nature’s great legacies, is being decimated as fast as the mowing-down of the Amazon. Less than 10% of the boreal forest area can still be considered wilderness.

But there’s more than one way to fell a tree. It’s just recently that I have become aware that the trees I hug are often diseased and dying. It looked to me like all was well as spring arrived and trees burst into bud. Now I’m learning to see the forest, and the trees, with new eyes.

On Sunday, thirty tree-hugging environmentalists from around the province schemed at Bennett Environmental Centre in Cloverdale, Edmonton. It was a meeting of the Alberta Environmental Network’s Clean Air Caucus, and the stories being told were chilling. Pollution from gas flares is affecting cows’ reproductive capacities. Poisonous ground-level ozone and microscopically tiny particles are causing heart disease and death. The rapidly-expanding strip mining of Alberta’s north is throttling nature’s regenerative capacity.

But all the talk came home to roost when St. Albert dairy farmer Bill Bocock spoke up. “Look out the window” he said. “That maple tree is malformed and hanging down, and that mountain ash is the same way. That birch is nine parts dead, and that green ash is producing way too many seeds. It’s under severe stress, and soon will die.”

A few weeks back I heard a similar, chilling evaluation from Lee Morin, 56 years old, who has 45 years of trapping under his belt. He’s a keen observer of nature and a passionate advocate for birds and trees. While I walked around his property near Wembley, Alberta he pointed to the core of tree branches and firewood. Core rot – everywhere. “I’ve handled this stuff all my life and I’ve never experienced this core rot before” he pined. “It’s probably acid rain for one thing, ground level ozone, perhaps a combination. All the trees are being affected.”

And sick trees affect other beings. “The rabbits aren’t eating the tips – they’re eating the bark. The tips are their favourite part. I feel it’s quite toxic and it bothers them – I’ve never seen this in my life. There’s something wrong.” Clearly, Morin is disturbed by what he sees.

“Come here in five years and I won’t have anything left. It’s all going to be dead, five years from now, the way it’s going.”

Maybe he’s exaggerating. But he’s certainly not alone in his concern.

A few years back, author Charles Little, who spent thirty years as an environmental policy analyst, wrote a book entitled: “The Dying of the Trees: The Pandemic in America’s Forests”. It is a chilling account of sick and dying forests across the United States, an epidemic that is taking place everywhere – a pandemic. Some forests are dying due to acid rain, others from clearcutting. Smog is a big killer as are pesticides and toxic heavy metals. Roots might not be able to get nutrients due to pollutants falling from the air or with the rain. Climate change is taking a toll. These stresses combined leave the trees unable to ward off disease.

Morin concludes: “What’s coming is horrible. What’s going to happen when all the trees are dying in Alberta and B.C. – we’ll run out of oxygen! It’s very scary, I am scared. This is quite depressing, but the evidence is right here.”

One of Edmonton’s prime attractions is its trees. While campaigning for office, I loved walking around, passing pamphlets and picking a pocket of purple plums, or munching crispy, crunchy Bonnie Doon apples. An apricot tree blooms in Cloverdale, believe it or not.

An old Chinese saying goes: “If you are thinking a year ahead, sow seed. If you are thinking ten years ahead, plant a tree. If you are thinking 100 years ahead, make people aware. By sowing seed once, you will harvest once. By planting a tree, you will harvest tenfold. By opening the minds of people, you will harvest 100-fold.”

Friday May 7 is Arbour Day, traditionally a day to plant, and celebrate trees. It would be a good time to open our eyes and become better aware of the state of the forests and trees around us. It would also be a fine time to commit ourselves to the future and work for change today.