Wonder + Wildness

Chasing wonder on a science guided journey through the natural world in search of meaning, connections, and the courage to hope

Reflection: Dead Forests & Living Memories

Originally written November of 2015

Trying to explain complex ecological problems to a child can be quite a difficult task, but that is exactly what Helen Macdonald’s mother had to do “one dank January in 1976” in England as the two looked on as sick elm trees were cut and burned before them. Now, Helen is both a professor at the University of Cambridge and an award-winning writer. In her article for The New York Times, “Dead Forests and Living Memories”, Helen paints a picture of a lost landscape, the struggles of restoration and conservation efforts, and the continued threat of globalization on native ecosystems.

As Helen points out, “there have always been outbreaks of tree disease”, but “about as many have appeared since the 1970s as in all recorded history.” This is primarily due to the introduction of invasive species, pathogens, and pests to new ecosystems where the native plants have little in the way of immunity, defense, or protection. What exactly serves as the vector for these introductions? The answer is both simple and complex at the same time: Human activity.

We live in an increasingly interconnected world, with an increasingly interconnected market. This interconnection comes with increasing physical contact, and with that comes increased opportunity for the spread of potentially harmful agents. The sad thing is, with increasing human connection, we are losing our connection to nature. Trees are symbolic and as Macdonald puts it, “to most of us, trees represent constancy and continuity, living giants that persist through many human generations.” The loss of trees isn’t just a loss of landscape, loss of habitat, or economic loss, but a loss of connection to our past and to our future. 

Aside from the human element, the disappearance of trees from the landscape has a cascading effect across the entire ecosystem. When the trees go, so do other interdependent plants, small mammals, and birds, and with them, the larger herbivores and carnivores go too. What was once a thriving, biodiverse community is now a sad reminder of the past and a dismal glimpse of the future. Though with struggling success, there are substantial efforts to fight the problem.

There are two main methods of approach for those who are actively trying to deal with the problem: attempt to cure the disease or attempt to selectively breed plants to be more resilient in the face of these threats. Both approaches have their pros and cons, but neither should be seen as the only solution. There is also the very important problem of controlling the vectors of infection. Look at it as a grease fire in the kitchen. When the flaming grease has splashed to your cabinets, the floor, and is spreading to the carpets and walls, which fire do you put out first? Do you try and put out the source while the rest burns, or do you work your way from the outside in? 

Macdonald, Helen. “Dead Forests and Living Memories.” The New York Times, 17 September 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/20/magazine/dead-forests-and-living-memories.html. Accessed 9 December 2021.

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