Walking with Oaks

Coronavirus is but One of Many Pandemics We are Facing

Pine Valley Creek

Ruth Wallen

Pine Valley Creek

Just as the stay home order was declared in southern California, I went ahead with my planned trip to Pine Valley Creek to walk with the dead and dying oaks. The name of this creek is deceiving. The wide grassy valley is home to one of the largest, most splendid groves of oaks in San Diego County. I’ve been coming to walk with these oaks for almost ten years. When I first came all of the trees were still standing, although many had been denuded, reduced to tall twisted skeletons. As I returned year after year, more trees died. The small branches reaching in all directions fell first. Larger tree limbs followed, until all that was left were barren trunks. Now even most of tree trunks had fallen or been cut down, probably more for the safety of cattle than the rare people who frequented the tiny trail by the creek.

For many years I came to grieve and bear witness. The oaks had been felled by the Goldspotted oak borer, (GSOB), a beetle introduced probably from Arizona. The beetles preferred the oldest and largest trees. Drought made worse by a warming climate left the trees more vulnerable the beetles, unable to produce enough sap to defend themselves against attack.

This year as I drove to the oaks, about forty-five minutes from my home, I wondered if I should be on the road. Before being shut inside, I needed to visit these trees. It was the first dry day after a week of rain. As I turned off the main highway I saw snow in the higher mountains. Everything was a lush emerald green. The grass glistened when the sun hit the lingering droplets of water. I enjoyed looking for the bits of blue, pink, purple, white sprinkled the ground—tiny flowers just beginning to bloom. Mushrooms abounded. Spring was coming, even to this charnel ground.

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Among the mushrooms and budding flowers, the carcasses of the tall trees littered the ground. Only a few of the dead trees that I’d first encountered nine years ago were still standing. I walked among a sea of fallen giants. One twisted arabesque after another, each one still expressing some of its former grace. Each log was also a microhabitat for a new generation—covered in white and golden lichens, and green mosses. A profusion of hard fungi jutted out from the logs, some bright orange, others a ruffled black with gold edges. In places, small blades of grass were sprouting from the decaying wood.

Good intentions aside, I find myself writing this essay over a month since my journey. During all of this time, I have had these oaks to contemplate, the images from my walk seared in my memory. Repeatedly I’ve wondered, what drew me to this place? Why did I choose to walk with these oaks as my last outing at the onset of the current crisis? What were these oaks supposed to teach me at this time?

Firstly, we have been living in the midst of pandemics for years. Five hundred million pinyon pines have died from bark beetles in the southwest since the turn of the century. By 2012, a different species of beetle decimated lodgepole and ponderosa pines in over 3.4 million acres in Colorado alone. The state of California has lost over 150 million trees since 2010. It may have been only last December that the Covid-19 pandemic hit humanity, but the trees have been living with pandemics for years.

I recognize now that it is particularly appropriate that I chose this walk as the one to contemplate during my time shut indoors. The origin stories of the Covid-19 pandemic and that of GSOB killing these oaks are similar. While climate change is a contributing factor, the primary cause of the demise of these oaks is a beetle introduced because of human commerce. Covid-19 spread from animals to humans because humans destroyed the homes of these animals and/or indulged in trading and consuming them. The Goldspotted oak borer is native to Arizona. Scientists assume it was introduced into southern San Diego County on fire wood. In their natural habitat, the beetles were kept in check by predators or other unknown factors, which didn’t accompany them to California.

This story is echoed by that of sudden oak death, which has caused wide-spread devastation of coastal life oaks as well as tanoaks in northern California and Oregon. In this case it is not a beetle but a water mold, a microscopic fungus-like pathogen Phytophthora ramorum, that arrived on imported nursery plants. It was first noted in both Europe and the US in the mid-nineties.

The wanton introduction of exotic species into the US for pets, for horticulture, or inadvertently as they hitchhike on humans, products for human consumption or are discharged in ballast water by ships, has caused widespread ecological disruption. A century ago it was the chestnut blight that wiped out a tree that once provided sustenance for humans, animals, and birds in the eastern US. Now the emerald ash borer is ravaging trees in some to the same areas. Stories of the destructiveness of introduced species are ever more common. Take the Florida Everglades for instance, where Burmese pythons and Tegu lizards, both of which could be legally owned as pets, have found homes in the Everglades to the detriment of the native mammals living there as well as the eggs of alligators, sea turtles, and birds. The Florida panthers is suffering from an epidemic of trichinosis, a disease introduced by feral hogs. As I write, the squawking of a flock of parrots flying by outside my window, reminds me of a more benign introduction.

Not only do humans move things around, but humanity has moved everywhere, often pillaging local ecologies as we go. Despite cautions not to move firewood, a recent study correlates outbreaks of GSOB as it slowly spreads northwards, to areas where there are clusters of rural homes, homes often heated by wood. Despite repeated plans to preserve the rural character of the backcountry, the suburban tentacles of San Diego keep expanding out from the urban core, as has been true in so many cities. San Diego is but one of three of the ten largest cities in the US that is more suburban than urban. Since I moved here in the eighties the whole town has grown on areas once covered with chaparral. At the time, the road from the coastal interstate, to the inland highway about ten miles inland wasn’t even paved. Now it’s a four-lane highway. The chaparral has been replaced by hundreds of thousands of homes.

It’s the same story throughout the US. To cite a few statistics that I gathered years ago, between 1970 and 1990 the population of Los Angeles grew by 40% but the size of the developed area grew by 300%. In Chicago, the population grew by 4% while residential land use increased by 40%.

Suburban development is dwarfed by what is happening on a global scale, in part to provide the resources for such continued development. I am haunted by a statement in an editorial arguing that the pandemic highlights the need for transformative change, published in the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, which states bluntly: “Our actions have significantly impacted more than three-quarters of the Earth’s land surface, destroyed more than 85% of wetlands and dedicated more than a third of all land and almost 75% of available freshwater to crops and livestock production.”

Now the virus, which was unleashed because of human disrespect for the needs of species other our own, has chased us to our rooms to ponder, to think about appropriate behavior. On the one hand, we are asked to be hyperaware of the impact of our movements on the lives of other humans, to always maintain our distance from those other than the immediate family members or roommates that we live with. On the other, the virus reminds us of our interconnectivity and the potential impact of individual carelessness on the lives of others. How can we expand and deepen this awareness so that it applies to human relationships with all living beings? If we expand our awareness, what questions are brought to the fore?

How can humans withdraw gracefully? Artists Helen and Newton Harrison coined this phrase to refer to withdrawal from the shoreline as sea level rises. The pandemic suggests a need to think about withdrawal in broader terms.

One definitely non-graceful response is fear, contraction and hypervigilance, which only intensifies isolation. It manifests in absurdities like the border wall, which lies less than twenty miles to the south of the trail I was following, as if an ever more fortified fence could do anything other than magnify suffering, as migrants are pushed to more desperate measures to cross in isolated areas where many do not survive the heat or cold. The construction of the wall, bypassing all environmental review, wreaked havoc on the local ecology. The epidemic is magnifying the human suffering, used as an excuse to “return” immigrants across the border without the opportunity to apply for asylum. Migrants come to the US because of many of the same forces that are causing the pandemics among the trees. Drought caused by climate change has been particularly severe in Central America, forcing many to abandon their farms after years of meager harvests. The forces of global capital and an addiction to unlimited economic growth have propped up oppressive regimes while supporting an inequity of wealth that is part of what makes the US an attractive place for immigrants in the first place.

I bring up the issue of the introduction of non-native species as a byproduct of the unlimited flow of global capital with trepidation, not wanting to feed xenophobia, which will only increase human suffering. Can boundaries be conceived in other ways, perhaps as porous membranes that respect the assemblages of plants and animals as well as indigenous cultures that have developed in different regions? Could this time of pause, be a time of simultaneous recognition of the importance of the integrity of the local, as well as our global interconnectivity? Online forums are replete with descriptions of the joys of fresh air, of walking in one’s neighborhood, of the discovery of birds and insects never noticed before, or perhaps now appearing in greater abundance. Even more apparent are the blue skies in urban areas once shrouded in brown haze.

I filled up my car with gas before driving to see the oaks, and still have almost half of my small tank. When I heard a couple of weeks ago that the beaches and parks might open, I couldn’t help but dream of a walk in the sand even while I asked myself, if I value the survival of the oaks, what activities might best be left on pause? Before I got far in my reverie I heard that the beaches might close again. Too many people, too close together. Yet another admonishment to slow down, consider more deeply what it means to withdraw gracefully.

Although skies are now blue in Los Angeles, carbon emissions have only declined by roughly 8%, about what the United Nations Environmental Program says is necessary every year between now and 2030 if countries hope to keep warming below 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels, the threshold agreed to in the Paris accords to avoid the most dangerous impacts of a warming climate. Individual choices to travel or consume less are important, but how can we be part of creating the much larger structural changes that are necessary?

To be clear, withdrawal in the form of the massive unemployment and mortality caused by the pandemic is certainly not graceful or just. Mortality in the hundreds of thousands, mortality that disproportionally impacts black and brown bodies is an outrage, a reflection of deep structural inequities. The abysmal response of the United States government, resulting in the highest number of deaths in any country in the world, is an indication of what happens when the so-called most powerful nation in the world turns its back on the crises we face. It isn’t “just going to be fine.” It is not “under control.” It won’t “just work out well.”

Predictions vary in terms of how long the virus will necessitate a partial shutdown of human activity, most suggesting until a vaccine is developed and distributed. As Deena Metzger’s eloquent articles have described, for those fortunate to survive COVID-19, the pandemic is only one of many impacting earth’s inhabitants. Wildlife populations have declined by 60% since 1970. Forty percent of insect species have experienced population decline during that time. I choose to visit Pine Valley Creek every spring, to be reminded of the resilience of the living world as well as the heartbreak. The fallen trees that I stumbled over will decompose, nurturing the next generation, including the small oak seedlings that I came upon, unaffected by the beetles. I won’t live to see the oaks as they once were in this valley. Nor will I live to see the regrowth of the forest of pines and cedars in the mountains to the north, a forest that was almost completely destroyed in the Cedar Fire in 2003. But will my grandchildren or great-grandchildren see them? These are the questions and more that the oaks have left us to contemplate.

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