On trees, termites, humans and sentience

December 29, 2005

I knew it would be a tough sell, but I still tried to entice my wife and daughter to hike with me on the Appalachian Trail on Christmas Eve. Sure, the weather was mild enough, but the expectation that significant portions of the Trail would be covered with a sheet of ice discouraged them. A major sleet storm a week earlier and frigid temperatures in the meantime had left a persistent frozen slurry everywhere.

Still, I was desperate to go, to fill my lungs with mountain air and to work off some coming holiday-meal calories. To prepare, I took a retired pair of hiking boots and screwed a half-dozen sheet metal screws in each sole for traction.

Driving there, I felt guilty and self-indulgent for consuming a couple of gallons of precious gasoline for a solitary trip. I parked at the Huffman trailhead, on SR-42 between Newport and New Castle, Virginia. Walking upwards, southbound through an ice-sheeted pasture, my thoughts turned to time; large doses of time.

It would seem odd to many to go hiking rather than shopping on Christmas Eve. But the malls, with their orgies of consumption and material splendor, always depress me. I envisioned throngs of stressed and tired shoppers trudging through icy parking lots with whining kids in tow, on their way to stores vying for attention and dollars. Presents to be given and forgotten in short order filled plastic bags while credit cards were being maxxed out. The morning newspaper’s business section gleamed with optimism of a healthy economy evidenced by ever-escalating retail sales numbers.

One reason I chose this particular hike was my memory of it passing a truly amazing tree, a 400-year-old white oak. I’m reassured to be in the presence of living things older than me. This giant is surely on some “huge tree registry” as it is the grandest I’ve ever seen in the East. Many of its branches are a foot or more in diameter, larger than many nearby trunks. The forests were filled with trees like this before our forefathers denuded these mountains years ago. I’m angry knowing I’m in a generation without old growth forests in the Appalachians; I’ll not live long enough to see these forests return to their original grandeur. What’s grown since looks nice in the fall when the leaves ablaze with color, but today’s trees are ghosts of the ancient ones. I’ve visited this specimen several times and am always pleased to find it vibrant and healthy.

Individual trees if lucky can live for a few hundred years, but trees have been on earth for eons. Dinosaurs had a long tenure on earth, 250 million years or so. Humans surely seem destined to self-extinguish much quicker.

“Bloom and overshoot” is a well-known biological phenomenon. It’s all about energy, typically in the form of caloric food. Species will bloom, or multiply in numbers, when there’s lots of energy (food) around. For example, when a tornado swipes through a forest felling hundreds of trees, the termites which are present in homeostatic numbers will multiply dramatically to consume it. When about half the wood is consumed, continuing increases in population can no longer be supported. But the population explosion continues, overshooting the available food energy. And then it plummets, starving millions.

Trees process solar energy through photosynthesis. Termites process energy by consuming dead trees. Humans eat oil. OK, we don’t literally eat it, but without it, millions of us would starve because 4 to 10 BTU’s of petroleum energy go into the planting, fertilizing, harvesting, processing, storage, and delivery of each BTU of food energy on our plates. The typical piece of food we consume in America traveled 1200 to 1400 miles before we consumed it.

I cross a fence and enter a forest, sunlight and shadows striping the icy ground. I’m pleased with my studded boots and trekking poles, as this trail would be impassible without them. I trudge upwards purposefully.

I pass under a mega-watted power line, carrying the electrical lifeblood of our civilization to cities and towns unseen, beyond the mountain. I wonder what will become of it as time moves on. Someday sooner, perhaps later, the electrons will no longer course these metallic veins, the society that built it and the powerplant that feeds it will no longer exist in such a way as to provide its energy. And what of it then? Will the lines eventually fall, slipping from fatigued moorings? Will the towers themselves topple, taking nearby trees with them, only to be absorbed by the permanence of time and the mountain itself?

I’m reminded of a modest dwelling near my home, a doublewide trailer, surrounded by literally thousands of decorative lights of the season. Not having grown up in a Christian family, I don’t expect to ever fully understand its traditions. But it is unfathomable to me how in any way these obscenely garish and wasteful displays, the pumping of zillions of kilowatts and lumens into the winter sky, glorify the Christ Child.

The view opens up to the pastoral Sinking Creek Valley below. A distant jet leaves a wispy contrail on the azure sky but otherwise the stillness is complete. White brushstrokes of icy snow defy the day’s sunshine and warmth, lingering on north-facing slopes. Lazy ebony cows dot the brown and beige fields. Old farmhouses stand against time and weather interspersed with new McMansions, infringing on the viewsheds and subjecting their owners to a lifetime of copious energy consumption, just in getting to town for a gallon of milk.

I put down my pack for a few moments to adjust my jacket and it slides downslope on the ice for 20 feet until snagged by a bramble. Not surprisingly I have this trail to myself. Climbing an ice-clad mountain is a quirky thing to do. Out here alone, eccentricities need no justification. Beyond my fondness for solitude on forbidding trails, I’m cursed with an unhealthy sense of angst. I worry interminably about the future of our society and species.

Finding companionship on an icy trail is a tough sell, but so too is a concern about the vulnerability of our society. Engineers, scientist, and geologists worldwide are realizing that we will soon reach our peak production of fossil fuels, particularly petroleum. Like the deadwood in the forest, the energy we depend upon for nourishment will exhaust. When that happens, industrial societies like ours better have some jelly along, ‘cause we’re toast. Extensive and timely preparation, meaning conservation and alternatives, had best be in place long beforehand. But we’re making painfully few strides in that direction.

Analogous to our inability to prepare for the completely predictable hurricane disasters of Katrina and Rita on the Gulf Coast, we’re immobilized in a psychology of previous investment, unable to fathom the need and initiate preparations for a new reality. It’s hardly surprising. There’s plenty of gas at the filling stations, plenty of trinkets to buy at the mall, ample food at the grocery stores. How can we be sold a looming disaster of scarcity when we’re surrounded by abundance?

Termites, lacking cognitive skills, cannot react to diminishing food. Here’s the human advantage. The family of mankind can get a proverbial grip, discuss the situation, fashion a response to a new reality, and chart a new course. But we don’t. What’s the point of being sentient if we make no better preparations than the termites? Our ability to feel awe, wonder and gratitude set us apart as well, but in no way guarantees our future.

I finally crest the ridgeline, feeling the pride and joy that comes from each such experience, reaching the metaphorical zenith. The new view to the south reveals successive frozen ridges of these ancient, exploited Appalachian Mountains, like immobile waves flowing off a petrified ocean, for all eternity, perhaps longer.