Our theme for the month of September is Alphabet Soup. Each writer was assigned a letter and will title their post “___ is for ___.”
It was a humid, early August day in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. I was on a run, and jogged up the pebble path that led past campers’ cabins, and eventually turned down a narrow dirt footpath that wound deeper into the rhododendron tunnels and low-light, dense-canopy of the Appalachian Blue Ridge forest. My glasses displayed the steam in the air on each lens, and the sheer cream-cheese-thickness of the water vapor made this afternoon run feel more like a senior citizen aqua aerobics course.
It was my third day working at the Gwynn Valley summer camp outside of Brevard, NC, and I was eager to explore the grounds. This particular path, I’d heard, led to a waterfall and a swimming hole, which sounded like an increasingly necessary destination with every sweaty step I took.
I had always assumed that the east couldn’t compare to the untamed west, that everything east of the Mississippi had been touched and ruined somehow by development. I was wrong; this forest was surprisingly wild. Lion’s mane wept off the trunks of old oaks. Jack-o-lantern-orange chanterelles decorated mounds of dark hummus. Brilliant-yellow coral fungi reached out from fallen logs like fingers. Various fern species blanketed the understory; and, of course, there were the rhododendrons, interlocking their branches to form a mangrove-like mid-canopy that shaded the mid-day sun down to a dim twilight glow.
The waterfall—like many in the Transylvania County repertoire—was a gentle, multi-tiered cascade over smooth, Appalachian quartzite. In the middle of the waterfall’s tiers was a deep pool with fine sand. I walked (ran) into the cool water and dunked my head into the river’s soothing reprieve.
It was idyllic, almost too good to be true. And that’s because it was—all throughout eastern forests hides an invisible predator, a microscopic insect that infects one of the most aesthetically beautiful and ecologically crucial trees: the eastern hemlock. Lining the banks of the river along the waterfall were the dried, splitting trunks of hemlocks. They stood like toothpicks, their branches having fallen off and only the main trunk poking up into the sky. They no longer provided shade, and light streamed through to warm the river, which normally would be shaded and kept ice cold allowing the water to hold more oxygen that macroinvertebrates and native trout species need.
When a tree is infected with the invasive insect, known as the hemlock woolly adelgid, there is a one hundred percent mortality rate. The redwood of the east, as the eastern hemlock is sometimes called, is brought down within ten years of infection. That meant the few living trees that still lined the banks of the stream would almost certainly be gone in the next decade. The sight brought me close to tears.
Invasive species aren’t anything new. We’ve been dealing with garlic mustard in parks, common buckthorn in forests, and goby fish, sea lampreys, and zebra mussels in the Great Lakes for the last century. Heck, the first European starlings arrived in New York City’s Central Park all the way back in 1890. Competition from starlings and predation by other invasive species like feral house cats have been key contributing factors to the estimated 3 billion native birds lost in American skies alone since 1970. As I write this, I can look out my window in Ann Arbor and see a full-grown “tree of heaven,” an invasive tree from east Asia.
Invasive species suck! It’s true. But they didn’t ask to be here—we brought them here. We carried them over on the hauls of our tankers, in our wooden shipping crates, out of our desire to have Japanese hemlocks growing in American soil. It’s our own hubris that’s to blame, our own negligence. Sure, we didn’t know Asian carp would escape our ornamental ponds, we didn’t know the Asian longhorn beetle would crawl out of a wooden crate and have free range on all our maples, and we didn’t know the Japanese hemlock would host the hemlock woolly adelgid that would make its way to Virginia in the 1950s and spread across the entire eastern hemlock’s range. We didn’t know it would have a hundred percent mortality rate.
We didn’t care to know, either. We didn’t take time to think about the reaches of our power. Like the infamous fall of the Romans, we’ve stretched our economic might far and wide, only to be plagued by the raids of Germanic tribes we’ve practically invited into our midst.
The story could end here. We got cocky, we started meddling in things beyond our understanding, and now we’ve ecologically ravished our land; like a kid lighting off fireworks in the dry California brush, we’ve started a blaze we could never control. The cynic in me is actually somewhat sadistically drawn to this story, where we humans act out of our pride, fail miserably, and get what we deserve.
Thank God it doesn’t end here. Or, at least, it doesn’t have to.
I returned to the camp after my run, soaking wet (whether from the swim or the amount of sweat, I couldn’t say). I let the warm sun beam down on my face. As I walked through the camp grounds, I noticed a cluster of hemlocks gathered around the old dining hall, a nineteenth century original building on the property built with sturdy beams and old stones. As I approached, the hemlocks towered above me, close to one hundred feet tall, with thick branches that spiraled out from around the trunk of each tree. On the tips of the branches were dense clusters of fine, flat needles that give the hemlock its characteristically impenetrable canopy. There were around twenty trees in all, each easily over two hundred years old, the last standing monarchs of an earlier forest.
Later, I learned these trees had been treated with an insecticide, which acts like a seasonal flu shot protecting each tree for a period of about seven years. Applying the pesticide is an expensive and labor intensive process, but it’s the only way we have of protecting the remaining hemlocks of the Appalachian region. It’s not a perfect system by any means, and it certainly can’t reverse the damage that’s already been done. However, by saving a few crucial hemlocks, we can preserve some of their aesthetics, we can preserve some of their ecological benefits, we can preserve some of their timelessness.
We’ve just wrapped up a month of alphabetically themed articles, which included deeply insightful and reflective posts like Katrina’s A is for After, and a stellar review of a complex music artist in Gabe’s Rr is for Rosalía; with Z, we’ve come to an end. Which brings us to zebra mussels.
Zebra mussels are those little black-and-white striped shells that gather in mounds on the shores of Great Lakes beaches. An infamous invasive species, they arrived from Europe in the mid 1980s and thrive off the plankton-rich waters of the Great Lakes, which forms the base of the food chain for native lake species. We’ve tried countless strategies to fend off the mussels, from the use of biotic toxins to my personal favorite: cayenne-based paints, yet all to no avail. After repeated failure against seemingly unstoppable destruction, what’s the point of even trying?
But maybe trying is exactly what we need to be doing—not getting caught up in the need to be perfect, which is just another product of our pride. “Perfection is the enemy of the good,” said Voltaire, or Confucius, or the VP of sustainability at Aspen Ski Co Auden Nash, or my undergrad professor of environmental studies Jamie Skillen. Regardless of who said it first, the aphorism rings true. Through small actions we can take steps forward, but if we wait for perfection we’ll never make progress.
Maybe restoration doesn’t have to be all or nothing, maybe it doesn’t have to be so black-and-white, “do or do not”; instead, maybe we have to do what we can with what we’ve got, sending up our imperfect offerings to the Lord, humbling ourselves as we embrace our own shortcomings.
I don’t know what to do about zebra mussels (though I still think we’ve got a chance if we simmer Pure Michigan’s “unsalted” lakes into a hot-n-spicy, jalapeño soup.) But I have hope that zebra mussels won’t get the final word.