“We live on a continent of ghosts,” paleoecologist Paul Martin once wrote, “their prehistoric presence hinted at by sweet-tasting pods of mesquite, honey locust, and monkey ear.” The honey locust pods with their sweet pulp and indigestible seeds seem designed to tempt a very large mammal with indiscriminate eating habits — a ground sloth, a mastodon, a mammoth. Today’s critters might eat the pulp, but they don’t touch the seeds. Were it not for humans planting honey locust cultivars, the tree might still be restricted to wet areas, its seeds dispersed only by flood waters.
There’s something especially haunting about the locust’s formidable thorns, hard enough to make a serviceable substitute for nails, and growing several meters up the trunk. Nothing alive today presents much of a threat to the tree, but imagine bearing a yearly bonanza of tempting sweets on brittle wood and not having some way to keep a herd of hungry mastodons from trampling you or a ground sloth from ripping down your limbs.
The Appalachians are a haunted landscape in many ways, as I’ve written before. Their ecological communities are still reeling from the loss of such key species as the Eastern cougar, the American chestnut and the passenger pigeon in the 19th and 20th centuries. The forest itself is ghostly, a nearly transparent outline of its former self. And as species such as the honey locust and the Kentucky coffee tree attest, even the Pleistocene wasn’t so long ago. The Indians whose arrowheads may be found in abundance in the field a stone’s throw away from this tree in Sinking Valley, Pennsylvania, may not have hunted for mastodons, but their ancestors surely did.
13,000 years isn’t a very long time — not even for people. Artists were painting the European megafauna as early as 16,500 years ago in Altamira Cave, in what is now France. Today, their distant descendents spray-paint the rocks outside a small limestone cave at the foot of the aforementioned field, across the road from the honey locust tree.
Humans, too, evolved with megafauna, and I believe some of our behavior patterns still reflect this association. We tend to reproduce, for example, as if we expected a saber-toothed tiger to eat half our offspring. And in our nightmares we are stalked by monstrous things which often have no real counterpart in the world as we know it — or should I say, as we have made it, we and our ancient hunting partners, the dogs. Together we have tamed the earth, and orphaned ourselves in the process. Which is, perhaps, the scariest thought of all.
Written for the November 1 edition of the Festival of the Trees (deadline: October 29).