Biology in the News Explained

Each generation, a new forest

I was just getting ready to order some more dark amber maple syrup from my favorite sugarhouse, Green’s Sugarhouse in Poultney, Vermont, when this article (subscription req’d – why, I’m not sure…) about the recent poor sugaring seasons due to warm temperatures this winter grabbed my eye. Here’s a snippet:

Warmer-than-usual winters are throwing things out of kilter, causing confusion among maple syrup producers, called sugar makers, and stoking fears for the survival of New England’s maple forests.

”We can’t rely on tradition like we used to,” said Mr. Morse, 58, who once routinely began the sugaring season by inserting taps into trees around Town Meeting Day, the first Tuesday in March, and collecting sap to boil into syrup up until about six weeks later. The maple’s biological clock is set by the timing of cold weather.

For at least 10 years some farmers have been starting sooner. But last year Mr. Morse tapped his trees in February and still missed out on so much sap that instead of producing his usual 1,000 gallons of syrup, he made only 700.

…Over the long haul, the industry in New England may face an even more profound challenge, the disappearance of sugar maples altogether as the climate zone they have evolved for moves across the Canadian border.

Are U.S. maple forests going to be a thing of the past in a couple of generations? Remember, in much of the northeast American chestnut was the dominant tree until early in the last century, when the introduction of the chestnut blight via imported Asian chestnut trees destroyed our native species within 50 years.

Such a dramatic and destructive consequence of humans’ compulsion to move species around the world (many for frivolous purposes), one might imagine, should have sparked a reassessment of the risks of such practices. But industry interests, i.e. short-term economic gain, have remained more powerful than the long-term interests of ecosystem health, even when one of the continent’s most prominent and visible species was impacted, to everyone’s knowledge at the time. The nicks and cuts on our native habitats from thousands of alien species and housing developments scattered here and there are relatively less noticeable.

So it’s likely a losing battle with industries, not to mention very lifestyles, that contribute to climate change, but have a much more indirect impact than a fungal disease jumping from an imported to a native species. Those who would rather not deal with the issue often take the attitude that change happens, and whether or not humans are causing the current changes is irrelevant, because there were plenty of pre-human climate change episodes in earth’s past, plenty of mass extinctions we had nothing to do with. One real difference between those events and the current one, however, is not only the accelerated speed at which these changes are occurring – the dinosaurs actually took millions of years to die out, while the loss of the chestnut was relatively instantaneous – but that a species is here to witness it that understands the implications of what it is witnessing.

No one growing up today knows the difference between a life with chestnuts and a life without. A hundred years ago though, those who depended on chestnuts for a living had to go through the agony of watching their very lives disappear with the trees. So it will probably be for those running the sugarhouses, many of which have been in the same family for generations. One reason I would feel the loss of this agricultural industry is that it is nearly the only one left that can’t be converted into a factory farm. The most high tech sugarhouses run tubing from the trees to their boilers. Green’s still does it the old-fashioned way: everyone in the family works nearly round the clock for a few weeks hauling buckets from the forest on a yoke. (The demanding nature of this work became particularly clear to me when I witnessed an 80ish, humpbacked grandmother stoke the flames with a log six feet long and the width of a telephone pole.)

In another hundred years, no one in Vermont will feel an emotional loss for the sugaring industry, because they will never have known it. But one more piece of the landscape will be gone, one more thread will be pulled out of the fabric of our environment. If humans weren’t around, would it happen? Possibly. Would it matter? That one is a question for the philosophers. I’d like to know what you think.

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