If A Tree Dies In The Woods...

by Phil Anderson

If a tree dies in the woods does it make a sound? Does it tell us something? Should we be paying attention?


My wife and I live in the woods. We are fortunate to have some nice mature trees on our property. Walking through the woods recently, I noticed  a nice white pine had inexplicably died. It was a beautiful, healthy, 26 inch diameter tree maybe 70 feet high. But this summer it died suddenly. Why? Everything dies. Nature is always in flux. Is this normal life and death?  Or is this a harbinger of things to come?   

We don’t know why this particular tree died. The most logical explanation is the wild swings in weather we have been having. This spring the creek bottom was flooding from all the rain. The month of July there was no rain at all and unusually high temperatures. For years now we have been having warmer temperature. This summer we are about 10 degrees above “normal” and the “normal” 30 year averages have been shifting upward in recent years. Overnight low temperatures are especially high. 

For a number of years the balsam fir on our property have been dying. Balsam is a northern boreal forest tree. Our area is on the southern edge of this type of forest which is typical of Canada. Balsams like it cool and a little wet. But they are also a short lived tree that doesn’t usually get very big. Are they dying early because of warmer temperatures or was it just old age?  It is not possible to know exactly what is happening to these trees. 

These are not the only changes we see happening. Young maple and oak are coming up in increasing numbers. These species do grow in the area but are more typical of forests south of here. Wild flowers are blooming earlier than normal. Insects that didn’t used to be here are spreading north. Killing frosts used to come in early to mid September but not anymore. In the garden the tomatoes are ripening weeks earlier than prior years. We have cantaloupe about to come ripe! Even with short season hybrid varieties getting ripe cantaloupe in northern Douglas county is almost a miracle. 

When you live in the country you notice these things. When you garden, are frequently outside, or take time to notice things like wild flowers, you see the changes in our environment. Too many of us live in an indoor world. When you go from the air conditioned house to the air conditioned car to the air conditioned workplace you don’t see what is happening in the world. The only thing most people see of nature is the occasional outing to the city park.

All this is illustrative of our human hubris. We really don’t know much about what is going on with nature. We have only scratched the surface of understanding ecosystems we live in and depend upon. But we THINK we know it all. We THINK we are smart enough to avoid the consequences of our actions. We THINK our technology will solve all the environmental problems we are creating.

A prime example is the oceans. We know more about the surface of Mars than we do the depths of the oceans. The oceans generate our weather patterns and are the source of half the oxygen in the atmosphere. The oceans are absorbing much of the human produced carbon dioxide that is causing climate change. But this is also increasing the acidity of the oceans which is not good for the ocean food chains – which includes us! Yet we blindly continue polluting, over fishing, and dumping garbage in the oceans without consideration for the consequences.

Climate change is a fact. It is happening and it is happening NOW. It is not something coming in the future. Changes in our local environment are evidence of the larger changes happening across the planet. Glaciers are melting everywhere. The oceans are rising. Communities in Alaska, Florida, Bangladesh, and the South Pacific are being flooded. Temperatures are rising. Records for high temperatures are being broken each year in places as diverse North America, Europe, the Middle East, and Western Asia. Northern Siberia, on the arctic ocean hit 90 degrees Fahrenheit – 40 degrees above average.  

Yet despite all the scientific evidence of climate change we continue to ignore the problem. As a nation, we refuse to take even the most basic steps to cut back on our impact on our planet. We blindly continue trampling everything in our rush to more economic growth. We mine (that is use up unsustainably) water, topsoil, minerals, forests, and oceans. Even SAND, one of the most abundant resources in the world, is being used up! 

This isn’t a problem for someone else to solve. We are all complicit. We all make choices that contribute to the problem. We choose bigger cars and houses. We all love the highly consumptive, consumer culture lifestyles. We are not willing to sacrifice the personal conveniences and pleasures of modern life. We can’t be content with the simple pleasures of the past.  

I am no better than anyone else. Even though I don’t need any, when I look at that dead pine tree I see lumber. I know nature never wastes anything. The woodpeckers, pine beetles and fungi will put that dead tree to its proper, natural use. But there is something in my American work ethic background that always seeks more.

John Prine in the song “Paradise” accurately describes our human greed. 

“The coal company came with the world’s largest shovel. 
They tortured the timber and stripped all the land 
They dug for their coal til the land was forsaken, 
and they wrote it all down as the progress of man.”

My back yard is changing as well as the global climate. Endless economic growth is killing the planet. If we don’t rein in the “progress of man,” the consequences will be much more that a few dead pine trees.