American popular culture is full of admiration for trees. There is Joyce Kilmer’s famous poem, which begins, “I think that I shall never see/ A poem lovely as a tree,” and ends with the assertion, “only God can make a tree.” And there is the more secular evocation of – not just the forest’s beauty, but it’s endurance – in the civil rights anthem: “Like a tree that’s standing by the water, / I shall not be moved.”
But trees do move. Not just the ones you occasionally see in the back of trucks, their root balls bundled, their leaves, it looks like, holding their arboreal breath until replanting. Those solitary travelers are greatly outnumbered by the trees that travel as seeds, distributed by the wind or friendly birds or beasts to new locations.
Usually, that movement is limited and slow. The naturally reshaped outlines of particular collections of tree species are rarely dramatic, or even visible to the human eye. The big realignments, often involving near-extinction of particular tree species and their relocated revivals, occur over geological timeframes, the kinds marked by ice ages and great continent-sized meltings.
The yin and yang of climate change can be brutal. But our era, the last 200 years or so, since mankind went industrial, has been hard on many components of the natural world. Our introduction of any number of toxic substances and destructive processes has killed or forcibly relocated birds and bees, bison and cod and has radically sped up the tempo of climate change. A lot of lost species of flora and fauna simply couldn’t keep up. As climate change in New Mexico has warmed the southern Rockies, bark beetles have moved north and encountered fresh forests to feed on. I can see the crest of the Sandia range out my office/studio window, growing ever balder – just like me – in less than eight years of watching.
As science gets better at diagnosing what’s gnawing at the forests, it’s also getting better at mitigating the damage; in part, by breeding better stock, or finding more hospitable homes for endangered trees, in part by identifying what are called “counterpests” to combat and kill the bad-boy beetles that are boring fatally into innocent tree trunks and limbs.
Zach St. George is a freelance reporter focused on climate change and conservation. His writing has appeared in Scientific American, The Atlantic, Outside, Businessweek, Orion, Guernica, Smithsonian, Pacific Standard, USA Today, The San Francisco Chronicle, Bay Nature, and many others. His new book is Zach St. George in his new book The Journeys of Trees: A Story About Forests, People and the Future. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.