The funk of decomposing autumn leaves and the whiff of wood smoke are in the air. Fall colors are seeping through the woods — the scarlet leaves of the tupelo, the red maple, the yellow sassafras, all the way to the understory and the cinnamon rust of ferns on their way out.
But it was a bright green beech tree leaf with solid yellow stripes that caught my eye. And then another leaf just like it, and then another. These leaves, few and far between, were not changing color haphazardly, like the other species; their changes looked like uniform gold bars on a green background.
I had been looking for just this phenomenon since reading Kai Potter’s excellent article “Leaf Disease Arrives in Provincetown’s Beech Forest” in the Sept. 22, 2022 Independent. The brand-new beech leaf disease was first discovered in Ohio in 2012 and has since spread throughout the Northeast. It has been detected in Orleans and, last year, in the Beech Forest.
I was not in the Beech Forest but a couple of miles away, in the Dwyer Woods near my home. This disease, apparently caused by a minuscule nematode worm and associated pathogens, is poorly understood, but it seems to be threatening entire stands of beeches in other states and may end up doing so here.
I am still not certain that I had found a new outbreak of beech leaf disease. I dutifully photographed the leaves and sent the pictures to the state contacts listed in Kai’s article. About a week later I got a call back from someone in the state’s Forest Health Program. She apologized for the delay in getting back to me, saying that there were only two people in her office dealing with the statewide emergence of this disease, and they were overwhelmed. She was fielding calls from everywhere, west to east.
I asked her what could be done about it. “Nothing,” she said, “unfortunately.” I will not go into Kai’s description of the possible treatments for this potential ecological crisis; the current science is conservatively pessimistic.
So — who cares? They’re just trees, after all. Look at the world around us, with human misery everywhere: war, devastation, hunger. But I go to the natural world for my solace — perhaps you do, too — and beeches are very soothing trees. I would mourn the loss of our beeches, the way their delicate leaves bathe us in pale green light, the way their spear-shaped buds persist into the winter winds. They are remarkable and important in their own right.
Beeches are not the only victims. Right whales are slowly disappearing before our eyes. Well, not exactly: unless you are out there, unless you stand on various local beaches at the right time of year and watch their amorous exploits and their peculiar skim-feeding behavior, you may not know that they are here for weeks at a time. But they are prestigious visitors to our waters, eminent neighbors — and by many accounts doomed.
The causes of the whales’ ultimate demise are complex, but chief among them are ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. The conservation efforts (seasonal speed restrictions and curtailment of fishing) being put in place have negative effects on our local economy of fishing and tourism, as ably explained by Mike Rathgeber in past issues of this paper.
And now another issue has been brought to our attention in “Standstill on the Breakwater as Moors Decline” (by Carey Morning, Oct. 20, 2022): the slow but steady attrition of the West End marsh, attributed to a surge in the purple crab population and its appetite for vegetation. A possible solution would involve some changes to the iconic West End breakwater and is sure to encounter resistance.
Trees, whales, salt marshes: all need our help. What is a more Sisyphean endeavor: removing tons of lines and gear from the world’s oceans and reforming a reluctant industry, dealing with a microscopic nematode over thousands of forested acres, or removing a massive and wildly popular breakwater in the hope that it might save a salt marsh?
We as a species are at a unique turning point, a new phase of our existence on this planet: the natural world depends upon us. Of course, we have always depended on this world and its resources, evolved as a species in it, and depend upon it still. But our aggregate power is so great now that endangered species and entire ecosystems rely on us to bring them through. It is, among other challenges, the challenge of our time.
But it is also an opportunity: “It is an honor to be the guardian of another species,” writes Robin Wall Kimmerer in Braiding Sweetgrass, “an honor within each person’s reach that we too often forget.”