Naila Moreira’s Down to Earth: A paean to the dwindling maple

No being on this earth symbolizes my childhood and its joys more clearly than the maple.

In my backyard as a child, my favorite climbing tree was a slender sugar maple right at the farthest edge of the back woods. I’d shimmy up the branches and feel the tree hold me like a second mother. My dog, a constant companion to me until I was 15, would settle resignedly at its base to wait for me to come down.

The tree would sway gently, surrounding me with delicate pale sprays of lime in spring, mature green in summer, and in autumn, the heart-stopping show of color that makes the sugar maple so loved: red, orange, peach, pink, yellow, a burst of poignant exuberance before it closed up to sleep the winter away.

I used to walk the streets of the neighborhood to find its cousins spangling my New Hampshire town. They’re the paintbrushes of our region, an art that needs no human touch. When I grew up and moved to Seattle for three years, I used to come back in autumn and stare at the sun illuminating each flaming leaf, tears running down my cheeks with missing home.

I’m by no means alone. “Maples are dear to my heart,” says John Berryhill, landscape curator for the Botanic Garden of Smith College. “Sugar maple and hemlock are probably my favorite two trees. I associate my feelings with places, and sugar maples and hemlocks feel like home, not just Western Mass but those spiritual places in the landscape that feel like home.”

And so for years, heart in my throat, I’ve been nervously watching the trees. How long, I’ve thought, until it’s the maples?

Before I was even born, it was the chestnut trees. Once the most prominent species in the eastern United States, a full 4 billion of these majestic nut-bearers perished when an invasive fungus was brought to the United States in imported Asiatic trees. The chestnut blight destroyed the primary food source of the now extinct passenger pigeon, and an important food source, too, for bears, turkeys, squirrels and deer.

Then came beech bark disease. This sickness is really two non-native pathogens: a scale insect and a fungus, which work together to kill off this large, smooth-skinned canopy tree. A local reader, Jerry Barilla, recently wrote me this beautiful elegy for his loved beeches:

“I live in the woods of Wendell and have lamented for years about the ailing beech forest,” Barilla wrote. “I’m told a bug burrows in leaving a portal for a fungus to take hold and slowly decimate the tree, its presence obvious as a black growth envelopes the smooth grey bark. With my arms encircling the girth of a healthy trunk I feel like I am hugging the staunch legs of an elephant. I so admire the tight grain and color of its milled lumber that I used it as flooring in my home.”

After the beeches came the emerald ash borer, introduced to the United States and discovered in 2002. It has killed tens of millions of trees and threatens to decimate all of our nation’s 8.7 million ashes.

Are you tired yet? I am. But I’m not done.

Because then it was the hemlock wooly adelgid. This destructive aphid-like insect, accidentally introduced from Japan, appears as a whitish fuzz on the underside of hemlock tree needles. It literally sucks the life out of these graceful, fronded trees, turning needles a sickly grayish color before they fall off completely. Trees normally die 4 to 10 years after infection.

The character of whole forests is again changing as once-ubiquitous hemlocks disappear, opening formerly cool dark forest interiors to harsher sunlight. Creatures from porcupines, which favor hemlock as food, to salamanders, which need moist, dim shade, could be threatened by hemlock loss. Even the ability of forests to retain and transfer water to groundwater aquifers could change.

The hemlock wooly adelgid doesn’t like extreme cold, so its spread is limited by cold winters. But of course, these days, we often don’t have frigid winters in New England like we once did. We can thank climate change for that.

Which brings me back to the maples – my own, and everyone else’s, adored avatar of New England.

This year, you might have seen that many maple leaves have turned darkish and spotted. I’ve seen several sugar maples around town that have already dropped leaves without ever turning bright colors. Just brown.

To my relief, I learned that this disease is unlikely fatal. Maples are being affected by several non-lethal fungal blights, including a disease called tar spot and a leaf-browning condition known as anthracnose.

Fungal diseases like anthracnose thrive when we have an unusually wet spring and summer, like this year. They don’t kill, but can weaken the tree, leaving it susceptible to other problems. Sycamores suffer from anthracnose, too.

A less well understood phenomenon, maple decline, is also affecting our trees, and can be fatal. Maples wither from the crown downward, a heart-wrenching doppelganger to their usual color change, and can then contract secondary fungal infections or other pathogens. Trees along streets and on lawns are particularly susceptible to maple decline, while those in forests seem to resist, possibly due to healthier soil.

With climate change, we expect to see more extreme weather conditions, such as more drought and greater bursts of rainfall. So we’ll likely see more anthracnose and other problems, like maple decline, in coming years.

“Most maples, and sugar maples in particular, are not well-suited to disruptions in precipitation patterns,” says Berryhill. “And that’s exactly what they’ve had. We’ve had a couple dry years – an extreme dry year last year – and then an extremely wet year.”

And this year, I’m guessing we won’t have much of a brilliant fall as the maples battle their way through their own kind of flu.

Although the fungal infections should be a mostly aesthetic concern, “if an immune system is already compromised, as many of these maples are, the equivalent of getting a common cold can be a problem,” Berryhill said.

I’ve long feared this was coming. To process my worries, I’ve spilled my thoughts in poems and essays about how the shifting weather of climate change could make our climate inhospitable to maples and drive them north.

What would our region be without the maple – or with maples too stressed to behave normally?

Without aluminum buckets dangling from thick trunks, collecting sap for thousands of sugar houses to transform into sticky syrupy maple liquor?

Without their yearly transformation from the tip downward, as though someone set the very top leaf on fire, the conflagration spreading like a torch through the lower leaves?

Without the creamy wood used for furniture, pool cue shafts, and bowling alley lanes?

We still have time to keep the maples from going the way of the chestnut or the hemlock. We’ve already put more stringent laws in place to try to avoid allowing in more invasive species that will threaten our forests. We can change the way we relate to nature; we can work to reverse our reliance on the fossil fuels that bring climate change.

It’s not theoretical anymore. Not for me, not for any of us. Anyone who has once been a child, climbing a tree, walking the woods or even a tree-dotted urban street, or just watching leaves through the window, should feel it too.

It’s personal. It’s here. It’s now.

Naila Moreira is a writer and poet who often focuses on science, nature and the environment. She teaches science writing at Smith College and is the writer in residence at Forbes Library. She’s on Twitter @nailamoreira.

Author: Going Green

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