The Trees of Life?

It’s relatively easy to be pessimistic about the state of the world’s trees these days.  Dire reports continue to show a decline in overall forest area and a corresponding decrease in natural carbon sequestration.  Acid rain is plaguing trees in the Great Lakes (that, plus Nirvana’s re-release and Newt Gingrich’s brief return to glory had me wondering if we’d entered an early-1990’s time warp).  Drought-fueled forest fires ravaged California and Texas over the summer.  And in a case of unabashed cynicism, congressional Republicans got a slap on the wrist this week for actually taking bets on how many acres will burn each year (8.7 million was the correct figure last year).

But despite all of this, forests can still claim a surprising string of victories in 2011.  In May, a comprehensive study from Finland indicated that worldwide forest density (used in this case as a measure of health and robustness) stayed level or increased on every continent except for Asia.  In Yellowstone National Park, the ascendant grey wolf population has apparently curbed the number of roaming elk herds, giving young trees a better chance of taking root.  Environmental advocates cheered in October when the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the “roadless” rule that limits building in the national parks.  Scientists, for their part, identified bacteria on old-growth trees that may help to sustain a forest’s nutrient balance.  And just last month, researchers at Stanford identified the biological cause of the massive aspen die-offs (often called Sudden Aspen Death syndrome) plaguing the American West.

It remains to be seen whether or not these bits add up to a positive trend or any sense of concerted progress.  But it bears watching in 2012.  I hope to research the issue further and go into greater detail in a future post.

[Film note: the image is not from Terrence Malick’s gorgeous, enigmatic head scratcher but rather 2006’s The Fountain (with Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz).  It was  bombastic, convoluted, and a massive flop for director Darren Aronofsky (who recovered nicely with 2010’s Black Swan).  But it’s visually stunning and admirably ambitious in its attempt to tackle the same cosmic themes five years prior to Malick’s opus.]

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