BOOK REVIEW: The Big Ratchet by Ruth DeFries

In one of his most influential and important works, The Practice of the Wild (1990), Gary Snyder reminds us of the conditional nature of life on earth. As he put it:  Two conditions – gravity and a livable temperature range between freezing and boiling – have given us fluids and flesh. Thankfully, our planet is in just the right orbital around the sun, massive enough to hold an atmosphere, a stable tilt providing predictable seasons, a molten core that recycles carbon, and a magnetic field that protects us from the solar wind. In a relatively short time of stability, humans have evolved. Snyder points out that fingers and toes, eyes and ears, even our wagging tongues owe something to our evolution as land-striders, tree climbers and weather-watchers.Big_Ratchet_Cover

Something in Snyder’s earth sense was brought to mind while reading this brand new book by Ruth DeFries, The Big Ratchet – How Humanity Thrives in theFace of Natural Crisis (Basic Books, 2014). While not a poet, DeFries shares a perspective with Snyder that comes from careful observation and deep reflection. As a geographer and environmental scientist, she’s taken a different road to understanding earth systems and human systems, but her conclusions are similar to the Buddhist poet.

To be sure, this is a short, easy-reading book with a conversational tone. The language is straightforward and approachable, offering a clear narrative interlacing stories of technical innovations with the exponential growth of human populations. What makes us different from other species, DeFries says, is not our ability to manipulate our surroundings; rather, we have developed and extraordinary ability to twist food from nature. Our ability to pass knowledge across generations has given us a remarkable capacity to try, fail and adapt. If one experiment fails, we lurch, stumble, and try some other path.

And that is a key focus of the book, how human populations and societies have grown or ratcheted up to the limits of food production, suffered starvation and other loss (i.e., the hatchet), but somehow managed to discover or unearth a solution (i.e., pivot). For example, DeFries reminds us that natural limits to bio-available nitrogen once greatly limited food production. By the nineteenth century, expanding urban populations were facing food shortages as all the supplies of recycled wastes and imported guano failed to keep pace with demand. Then, German chemist Fritz Haber came along to add a spark to humanity’s accumulated knowledge and show how electricity could be used to fix nitrogen from the air producing ammonia fertilizer. Cleverly joining invention, innovation with accumulated knowledge, human kind has continued to prosper and grow at an exponential rate.

This is a hopeful story, a hopeful book – within limits. DeFries clearly states that: there are three fundamental requirements needed for a habitable planet: a stable climate, a planetary recycling apparatus and a smorgasbord of life. As she points out, there are limits to planet’s support system and the massive increase in population and food demand over the last 60 years or so strikes at these fundamental requirements. An increasingly unstable climate threatens to disrupt food production across the globe. Unpredictable planting seasons, drought, heat waves and storms are worldwide climatic changes that threaten food supplies everywhere. We greatly complicate matters by disrupting the recycling of nutrients, discharging them as sewage to rivers  and oceans and into the air.

Still, DeFries takes a long view and sees reason for hope. In the final chapter of her book, she says that human ingenuity is once again leading to positive change. While acknowledging the impacts of exponential population growth, she says the end of the demographic upheaval is in sight. She also sees humanity beginning to pivot away from wasteful business-as-usual, finding new ways to recycle nutrients, re-localize food production, reduce food wastes, and adopt healthier diets.

However, she leaves us with caution. After the big ratchet up of population over the last century, we face a time of great change and global challenges. She says we are learning that urban lives are connected with nature only against strong headwinds driven by the push to consume more. All of us, she says, need to do much more to keep the hatchets from falling too severely.

November Reflection

This morning, Leelanau County and much of Northern Michigan woke up under a blanket of mist and fog. The fast melting snow and suddenly warmer temperatures reminding us that we live at the triple point, water in all forms; and in a region where there’s plenty of weather to talk about.20141124_bohemian_valley_1

Taking a little time before rushing on to work, I watched a small patch of rising fog lift, dodge and drift across the tops of trees below my hilltop house. Once a smokejumper in Idaho told me those little clouds can be mistaken for rising smoke by the uninitiated fire watcher, but they’re just water dogs. It stuck. I’ve called them water dogs ever since.20141123_Shalda_Creek

Of course, the best part of such mornings is stepping out to wander, even if only for a few minutes. Something just a little mysterious or fantastical in the drift and slide of things, hidden and revealed. There’s always something new, some encounter offered up if I’m watchful and open to it. Like a new pattern of rifles in Shalda Creek or some color shift in the light across Bohemian Valley.

Every so often, there’s an encounter that just seems odd. Like this slug making its way across a lingering patch of snow. This little shell-less gastropod looked completely out of place and a bit disturbing. Caught for a moment in that lingering childhood fascination with things slimy and weird, that sense of wonder returns. How many millions of slugs were pulling their way through the leaves on that small hill in Leelanau right at that moment?20141123_Ice_Snail_small

Not familiar with their names, I can’t say if this was one of Michigan’s many invasive or non-native species (examples: Then again, are any of them truly native? The glaciers left this land scraped clean 8,000 years ago; what little crawler survived? And they are mostly big pests to growers everywhere, damaging fruits, vegetables and flowers. Still, slugs are another part of nature’s big recycling system – both as detritus munchers and food themselves.

Ah, but this morning, that little creature brought me a moment of pause and reflection. Slowing my pace just a little to wonder how an egg-laying, hermaphrodite revived to foot about at such a strange time.

Oak Wilt Disease Discovered in Leelanau County

Foresters in Leelanau County are trying to tamp down another outbreak of tree disease. It’s just the latest in a series of problems disrupting forests in northern Michigan and experts are calling for some heavy-duty responses.

Kama Ross spotted the first outbreak of oak wilt disease in Leelanau County just east of Lake Leelanau in Bingham Township. As the forester for three county conservation districts, including Benzie, Grand Traverse and Leelanau Counties, she’s seen it before.

“It’s been confirmed in all the other surrounding counties,” said Ross. “But this summer we did take two lab samples down to the MSU laboratories and the second sample came back positive.”

Oak wilt disease is caused by a tree-killing fungus spread by beetles. It’s also transferred from tree to tree through the roots. The disease is particularly deadly to red oaks.

Ross said these trees will need to be cut down and carefully removed or buried on site. After that, the sites will need to be contained by a five-foot trench.

Oak wilt is only one of several diseases changing the entire forested landscape of northern Michigan. Ross said over 90 percent of white ash trees will succumb to the Emerald Ash Borer within a few years. And now beech bark disease has begun to kill most of the beech trees as well.

The Leelanau Conservancy helps manage many tracts of forested land throughout the county. Executive Director Brian Price said the loss of so many trees throughout Leelanau is highly visible and a growing concern for forest managers.

“Everybody knows there’s significant forest change underway,” said Price. “Most anybody that has their eyes open as they drive up and down the roads has some sense that we are losing … whole species of trees from our forest component.”

And it could get worse. A report issued by the U.S. Forest Service in March said climate change could make invasive pests and diseases even more damaging.

Stephen Handler is the report’s lead author. He said a warming climate is changing things for both for the trees and the bugs, including the beetles that spread oak wilt.

“As winters become shorter and growing seasons extend, beetles are likely to become active earlier and may become active later into the season as well,” said Handler. “Some of these pests and these disease agents may become even more damaging if they interact with trees that are already stressed from weather or climate.”

Handler said there are things people can do, like growing trees that are common farther south – trees that are adjusted to a warmer climate such as white oak and hickory.

But the key is keeping forests diverse. A diverse forest, he said, includes many different species of trees and different age ranges – young, mature and older trees.

Handler said property owners need to be aware of the risks posed by climate change to make the right choices for the future of northern Michigan’s forests.

“It’s not like growing an agricultural crop where you have the ability to reset every year,” he said. “We’re making decisions now that we will live with for decades.”

Forest Change Underway in Leelanau County

Kama_Beech_Bark_DiseaseOn her way to work one morning this past summer, Kama Ross noticed some sick-looking oak trees near a recently cleared right-of-way in Bingham County. Luckily, Ross knew what she was looking at: the first confirmed case of oak wilt disease in Leelanau County.

As the forester for three conservation districts, Ross regularly provides help and advice to forest owners all over Benzie, Grand Traverse and Leelanau Counties. She’s both an energetic advocate for healthy forests and a gentle teacher. She explained that Oak wilt is a tree-killing fungus that is spread by beetles as well as through tree roots.

“Oak tree roots graft. So a tree that has the fungus in it will graft with a healthy tree and the fungus will go into the system of the healthy tree,” Ross said. “Also, a little beetle active in Michigan loves the fungus that’s in the sap of the infected oak tree. So any pruning or any cutting of an oak tree that allows sap to open, will attract this beetle.” The beetle can then spread the fungus to other trees up to a mile away.

To contain this infestation, Ross said all the infected oaks and some of the surrounding trees will need to be cut and either buried on right site or disposed of very carefully to prevent further infection. Then, the roots at the edge of the area must be cut and separated.

“We’ll take a vibratory plow and encircle all the diseased trees,” she said, cutting “five foot down into the ground. And we try to go two times around.” Additionally, insecticide spraying may be needed outside of the encircled area.

Planned for next spring, this will be a big effort requiring the cooperation of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Michigan State University, the Leelanau County Conservation District and the Cherry Electric Cooperative.

Ross encourages people who may be concerned about unhealthy red oaks in their woods or forests to get in touch with the Conservation District or contact an arborist to help identify the problem. There are a number of much-less threatening reasons that red oaks may appear stressed, but oak wilt disease is very aggressive. So, rapid detection and response is critical to combating the spread of this disease. She encourages owners to avoid cutting or wounding red oaks during the beetles’ active period from mid-April through July.

Ross hopes that this outbreak will help raise awareness in Leelanau County. “I’m actually very optimistic that we can use this outbreak to maybe minimize where oak wilt is going to go,” she said. “Maybe we won’t repeat what we’ve seen in some of the other counties.”

Unfortunately, this is only one of the challenges facing Leelanau’s forests. As most residents know, the Emerald Ash Borer invaded the area about 10 years ago. Having hitched a ride with some goods imported from Asia, this pest has been killing trees across the upper Midwest ever since. The results are quite visible from almost any roadway in the county. Over 90 percent of all Leelanau’s ash trees will die within a few years, Ross said.

And even more trouble is coming to the woods. A tiny, soft-bodied insect called beech scale is also invading Leelanau’s forests, drilling little holes in the bark of American Beech trees. The holes allow another tree-killing fungus to weaken and kill beech trees. Ultimately, this “beech bark disease” may kill most of the county’s beech trees.

“I don’t know where this is going to end up,” Ross said, “but our experience in the Upper Peninsula is very devastating.”

Clearly, Leelanau County’s forests are changing. These invasive pests and diseases are removing whole species from the community of trees that make up our forests. Brian Price, executive director of the Leelanau Conservancy says there are actually several factors at work.

“There are three major things or factors that we’re dealing with that are extremely disruptive in our forests,” Price said. “First, the pests and diseases are a huge factor and extremely troubling.”

Second, with the on-going loss of ash and beech trees, large openings are being created in the forests. These openings allow sunlight in that encourages new tree growth. But that’s when another “huge” influence on forest composition takes over. Price puts it this way.

“The only thing coming us is what the deer won’t eat. We have so many deer to over-browse the young trees that come back up to replace the ones that are dying, we’re going to only get the trees that the deer won’t eat.”

The third big factor influencing the composition of our future forests, Price said, is climate change. “Certainly, climate change is having an impact. But it’s hard to see the direct impact.”

Apparently, the US Forest Service is also concerned about the impact of climate change on the forests of northern forests. The Michigan Forest Ecosystem Vulnerability Assessment and Synthesis, a report issued by the Northern Research Station in March discusses a number of changes underway and anticipated.

According to Stephen Handler, the report’s lead author, the interaction of climate and forests is complicated. There are many forest stressors at work, including diseases, suburban development, fire and a large deer herd. But some climate-related changes have been observed.

For instance, he said, “the red maple, typically a southern or temperate species, is all of the sudden regenerating more successfully up in northern Minnesota, where it wouldn’t have previously been.”

Handler and the Forest Service see climate change as presenting new risks to forest managers. Like an approaching storm, it’s difficult to predict exactly what the results will be, but to stay safe, people need to be cautious. Forest owners should not bother waiting around for a crystal ball that shows what the future’s going to look like. “We know enough now to begin taking action,” he said.

Handler points out that all the climate models predict an increase in average temperatures for Northern Michigan over the coming decades. Additionally, precipitation is more likely to come in the form of large downpours, resulting in a lot of runoff. That combination of higher temperatures and less water staying in the soils may stress many of the region’s tree species.

“We’ve got some potential for pests and diseases and other stress agents to become more damaging,” Handler said. For example, “as winters become shorter and growing seasons extend, beetles are likely to become active earlier and may become active later into the season as well. Some of these pests and these disease agents may become even more damaging if they interact with trees that are already stressed from weather or climate.”

While all this change can be overwhelming, even frightening, there are lots of things people can do to help forests and woodlots adapt to climate change. Handler said he’s even optimistic because most of the recommended actions will encourage healthy forests, whether climate changes are severe or not. He calls them “no-regrets” strategies.

“The first thing is to focus on diversity,” Handler said. “That’s a diversity of species, age classes and a diversity of genetics.” For instance, forest owners should maintain and plant a variety of native tree species. Some landowners may want to plant trees that may have been more common in the southern part of Michigan such as hackberry or white oak to hedge their bets. Additionally, tree plantings should be tried in different locations such as slopes facing different directions.

Landowners interested in learning more about tree health and forestry can contact the Leelanau County Conservation District. Additionally the Forestry Division of the Department of Natural Resources offers direct assistance to promote vigorous forests throughout the state.

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