By Dave Mance III
I took a young woman from New Jersey on a
walk through my family’s Vermont woods the
other day. She was interested in learning how
rural people are adapting to climate change as
part of her Ph.D. coursework. Unfortunately
for her, it was only after we were out there that
I realized I didn’t have much to share on that
subject. When it comes to growing timber, we aim to maintain
a diverse forest, but while you could spin this as being a hedge
against some future climate-change-influenced event, our main
motivation is just good old-fashioned silviculture. I pointed
out some of the investments we’ve made in high-tech sugaring
equipment that allow us to maximize our yield per tap, but once
again, the changing climate was only a tangential consideration.
This technology may offer some assurance of a crop even
in weird-weather years, but its main purpose was simply to
She said she’d heard that maples were going to be displaced
by oaks in northern New England in the next hundred years, and
I told her I was skeptical of that claim. I told her my prediction
was that the place where we were standing was going to be
dominated not by oak and hickory but by black birch and red
maple in the later part of this century.
“How do you know?” she asked, no doubt trying to envision
how a guy in work boots with sawdust in his hair could have
access to an algorithm that would make him more knowledgeable
than a climate modeler with a supercomputer.
“Because see those little trees there?” I said, pointing to
the saplings in the understory. “They’re black birch and red
I found myself prattling on and on about invasive plants,
since they’re redefining siliviculture around here. Shortly after
we pull taps, we begin pulling garlic mustard in our sugarbush.
In some places, you can’t conduct a timber harvest anymore
without both pre- and post-treatment applications of herbicide,
which means money and time and oodles of chemicals. I told
her about foresters I know who are growing disillusioned with
their work; that instead of reaping the satisfaction of helping
landowners create productive habitats and high-value saw-
logs, they find that forestry is becoming an endless slog with a
backpack sprayer, day after day of just killing plants that have a
zombie-like way of rising from the dead.
She heard me, but indicated that her advisor was very keen
on something related to climate change.
I bring up the story because there’s an interesting disconnect
here. In academia, global warming is considered the environmental story of our time and there’s this great desire to document
how people are responding to it. And yet, the warming climate is
to a tree farmer what endemic poverty might be to a cop. Sure,
in a big philosophical sense it’s a part of the problem, but the
The Environmental Story of our Time
cop’s not really thinking about it as he’s responding to a break-in. Lowering global CO2 emissions would be great – I strongly
support the idea and the people who are trying to make it
happen – but that’s not going to help port security stop the
next shipment of pallets from China that are full of invasive
bugs, or diminish the honeysuckle infestation behind the
sugarhouse. Assuming there’s a finite amount of intellectual and
monetary resources out there, I hope we’re able to strike a good
balance in our environmental priorities.
The stories you’ll read in this issue reflect the boots-on-the-ground struggles rural people are having with invasives.
Photographer John Burk takes a photojournalistic look at
how hemlock woolly adelgid has affected riparian corridors
in Massachusetts; Jim Collins goes to rural Maine to see how
conservationists are trying to encourage native trout by discouraging non-native bass; Carolyn Lorié takes us to the front lines
with plant control specialist Jeff Taylor, whose whole working
career has involved eliminating foreign plants; Mark Paul profiles Barry Genzlinger – “Batman” – a guy who spends his free
time treating foreign fungus on bats’ wings with Lamisil.
In the interest of balance, I was glad we could also run
Martha Molnar’s humorous look at the battles she and her
husband are waging with poison parsnip in her back meadow.
In this passage, she describes a break in the action after a
morning spent pulling parsnip.
We then drive straight to the wilderness lake, where without
preliminaries we walk up and over the boulders, fling off
clothes, and wade into the glittering water. . . . All emotion
dissolves. My ears in the warm water, I hear only my own
breathing, which has lost its raggedness. My eyes see into the
depths of the sky, penetrate the layers of cobalt air. I close
them and let the soft ripples take me where they will.
We had a back-and-forth in the editing process where we
wondered if that part should be cut in the interest of efficient
storytelling, but I thought the detail was a crucial part of the
story. We live in a world of wounds, to steal Aldo Leopold’s
phrase, when an ecological education opens our eyes to the
many problems facing the natural world. But while it’s important
to confront this, it’s as important to make peace with it. In the big
picture, our war on invasive plants and animals is unwinnable –
we need to gird ourselves for a lifetime of struggle. That said, a
Saturday morning that features breakfast on the deck, followed
by some parsnip-pulling with your honey to make a rural
meadow a healthier place, followed by an afternoon floating in
a quiet lake sounds like a day well spent to me.
Anyway, there are at least seven stories in this issue on
invasives, each exploring things from a different angle. If a grad
student comes along asking how rural people are adapting to
invasive plants and animals in the Northeast, I’ll hand her this
magazine and say, “here, look.”