Yesterday I hugged a tree and it bit back.
It was one of the tens of thousands of dead and dying hemlocks in our region, but I didn’t look up to see what species it was before I flung my arms around its trunk. My tree embracing is always spontaneous, which usually isn’t a problem, but this particular specimen had some tiny, nasty spines on its bark. One lodged itself in my index finger and irritated the skin all afternoon, reminding me of something I’ve been meaning to ask local government officials: what are you going to do about all these dying hemlocks?
The hemlocks have been besieged by the woolly adelgid, a tiny insect similar to an aphid that literally sucks the life out of the trees and can kill a healthy hemlock in three years. As it has high shade tolerance and likes moist woodlands, creek sides, and canyons, the Eastern hemlock is the dominant tree along many popular trails in this area. I love such spots, too, but I’ve begun to wonder whether my hiking buddies are in as much denial about the hemlock carnage as all of us seem to be about global climate change – thinking that if we keep our gaze down at the forest floor instead of looking up at the larger picture, we may be able to pretend for another year or two that the situation isn’t dire.
But even that tactic is failing now. Yesterday as I paid attention to the ground so I wouldn’t trip on rocky stretches, I noticed that in spots the path was slick with brown, fallen hemlock needles. The rotting ones cushioned our steps comfortingly, yet simultaneously made me mourn all those gorgeous lost trees. I wondered what will happen when the dozens of fallen hemlocks turn into hundreds – with almost no other standing trees to stop them, will they slide from the steep ridge into the river, floating downstream and eventually into Long Island Sound? With no roots to anchor the soil, will entire hillsides wash into our local brooks and rivers? How long will it take successor species to establish themselves?
Perhaps in stabbing me, that dying tree was urging me to sound the alarm. Yet another wake-up call from a wild world we’re losing so rapidly, I don’t know whether to spend all my free time in it, admiring and celebrating, or hide indoors to grieve.
Woolly adelgid information: http://www3.amherst.edu/~ccsp01/HemlockAdelgid.html