The cloud of unmaking

canker tree

Inside the cloud there were trees, there were woods and fields, there was an entire mountain where the last few patches of snow had shrunk in the wash, so that the ground was now almost entirely bare.

woodpecker cherry

Inside the cloud, ants and woodpeckers went about their business of excavating chambers in the heartwood. Things seemed at first as they should be. But the ground, too, grew hollow from the ministrations of earthworms, the descendents of hardy pioneers, slowly unmaking the land and everything that sprouted from it. The dark red stems of Japanese barberry glistened against the yellow fur of last year’s Japanese stiltgrass.

Margaret's woods

Inside the cloud, rain didn’t have far to fall. But it brought nitric and sulphuric acid from power plants a hundred miles to the west. Evergreen leaves of mountain laurel turned beautiful shades of brown and red and copper before falling. Trees slowly weakened as the acid dissolved the minerals and nutrients needed for their growth, and left a soil saturated with aluminum. This effect was especially pronounced inside the cloud, which was more acidic than rainfall alone would have been.

white fungus clump

Inside the cloud, trees made vulnerable by acid deposition succumbed to a thousand different enemies: diseases new and old, native or exotic pests. A warm winter allowed insects to flourish; a cold winter killed weakened trees outright. Weedier tree species such as black cherry and red maple took over from the oaks and hickories, but were much more likely to snap in the increasingly frequent ice storms. The forest slowly took on a patchy appearance, turned to savanna. The fallen trunks and branches bubbled with white fungi.

white fungus twig

Inside the cloud, colors that had lain dormant all winter began to glow. Spring would come one way or another. Even if someday all flowering plants should die out, something would still brighten and appear to blossom. Something would still license the simulacrum of hope.

red maple deadwood

Don’t forget to submit tree-related links to roger (dot) butterfield (at) gmail (dot) com by March 30 for inclusion in the upcoming Festival of the Trees at his blog Words and Pictures.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

17 Comments


  1. I enjoyed your story of the forest. And, of course, as always, the pictures are great too!

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  2. a bittersweet early spring monday to you too.. well done!

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  3. Very menacing photographs. The fungus burst (the 4th picture down) looks like an Easter lily that has gone terribly wrong. Or like a crucifix with cancer.

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  4. Now that was uncanny.

    The fungal pictures look Goldsworthian, particularly the second one–like his sequence of torn leaves of one color matched and laid in a stripe on another color, often rotten or colored by a jolly old cowflap. But the first one looks like the victim of human intervention. Stabbed to the heart, the poor little macabre uglies. Yet the colors and shapes are so enticing…

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  5. Hmm. Is it my imagination, or has your work been taking a darker tone lately? With this one. you could teach Stephen King a few things…

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  6. Wonderful group of images, especially the first and fourth ones — love the fungi – very interesting form. Have you noticed more trees than usual dying in the forests down your way. As you know, we hike a great deal and pay a good deal of attention to many trees — we regard them as individuals, so notice a change in their health status. We feel the trees are quite visibly in distress – especially since the ice storm in Jan ’98. So many of the larger trees are just breaking apart — not just one species, but many.

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  7. Wow, bev, that’s impressive to me. I visit trees, but not where I live. I’ll see a few favorites next week near my parent’s place.

    The first picture looks like a big, hairy crack in the sky.

    The fallen trunks and branches bubbled with white fungi. Well said.

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  8. Hi all – Thanks for the comments. I hope it’s obvious that the “cloud” here was figurative as well as literal: objectively speaking, things aren’t quite as bad as I’ve depicted them, but it is easy to get depressed at the way things are going after 35 years of almost continuous residence in one place. In general, over the 3+ years that I’ve been writing in this blog, I’ve tried to avoid communicating my own depression about the state of the natural world, preferring to try and spark interest in nature with pretty pictures, sensitive verse, etc. But once in a while, I guess it’s O.K. to let a little anguish or despair show, too, so that you know where I’m coming from.

    bev – Butternut is the only tree species we’ve lost entirely since I was a kid. The biggest changes in the forest compostion here undoubtedly occurred in the 19th century, but a host of recent pests and diseases is threatening species such as flowering dogwood (dogwood anthracnose), eastern hemlock (woolly adelgid), and American beech (beech bark disease), to name the most prominent examples. Parts of the hollow that were plowed or heavily pastured at one time, even if they’ve had over 100 years to recover, can’t seem to get beyond a black cherry – maple composition (the kind of woods in these photos), given the frequency of ice storms, the browse preferences of deer, and probably changes in soil chemistry and structure, as well. Oaks, hickories, hemlocks and white pines – the species that probably dominated prior to the 19th century, along with chestnut – are much more resistant to ice storms (though not neccessarily to other disturbances, such as hurricanes, which are also incereasing in frequency due to global climate change). We lost a lot of mature, ridge-top oaks during the initial gypsy moth invasion in 1981, and unfortunately most of those areas have not regenerated to oak due to deer herbivory and probably other factors. But in other ways the increase in dead timber at that time increased biodiversity.

    As always in ecology, it’s difficult to generalize given the tentative nature of knowledge about almost all of these things, and the inevitable biases (e.g. in favor of macroscopic organisms) of even the most dispassionate of observers. I’m currently working on a post that will attempt to assess overall changes to biodiversity in Plummer’s Hollow since 1971.

    Larry – That’s a black cherry with a severe case of black knot, a fungal disease. Be sure to click on the photo for a better view.

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  9. I don’t mind hearing about the ecological changes going on in PH, even if a bit unsettling. But yes, your pretty pictures and sensitive verse do do a good job of sparking interest in nature. I’ve always had a passion for nature, but your blog has helped me rediscover that passion.

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