As a child, I loved science without knowing what I loved was science.  I collected bugs and rocks.  My family walked groomed nature trails and would stop to read each informative plaque out loud.  Later, bored with fiction meant for children, I turned to reading biographies, history, and, of course, science.  Through my reading, I discovered archaeology and physical anthropology.  I considered majoring in biology.

As an adult, I love to drive north, away from the cities, to buy field-grown tomatoes, orchard fruits, handmade sausage, honey and raw milk produced for us by grass-fed cows.  The leaves are green, the air pure and blue hills rise in the distance. There, on the ridge road, among the ravens and raptors, I think this is how life is supposed to be lived, until I see the maples that line the roads above our valley.

The maples are decaying.  In the decade I have driven that route, I have seen the trees shrink as their limbs fall and their trunks split.  Their condition raises memories of reading about Carbon – 14 dating and the discovery, made in Germany, of the “autobahn effect,” which altered the relation between Carbon – 14 and trees that grew along roads.  The burning of fossil fuels creates carbon dioxide which is absorbed by plants.  The result is that plants that recently died will seem to be older than plants that died years, even centuries, ago.

My worry is not that radiocarbon dating may be useless in a decade but with the health of the trees.  Thirty years ago, carbon sequestration was seen as a primary defense against global warming.  However, the most effective instruments for removing carbon dioxide from the air are healthy trees.  Insect, fungi and pollution are sickening, even killing, these giants of the forest.

On a particularly warm February day, a neighbor asked, “Isn’t this weather wonderful?”  I said no, because winters here on the 42ndparallel need to be cold and the ground should be blanketed with snow to sustain life as it has evolved here and now.  Warmer winters mean that bugs that damage trees survive and breed in greater numbers. Whether one reads general newspapers or scientific journals, the story is the same: entire mountain-sides are being stripped of their trees, both evergreen and deciduous.

That trees provide habitat for animals is obvious.  The nearly hollow tree in my front yard hosts squirrels in its trunk and rabbits among its roots.  Birds build nests in trees, on shrubs and even on sturdy vines.  Trees provide rest for hunting or migrating birds.  They act as wind shelters for yards and their shade keeps the soil moist and cool.  Some birds feed on the seeds and buds of trees.

I knew a family that took down the trees from their yard to avoid raking leaves.  The next summer was unbearably hot for them.  Their solution?  Install central air. Had they left the trees, they might not have needed the air conditioning.

Trees protect human health by cleaning the air of pollutants that acerbate asthma and other ailments.  

But trees have enemies, besides insects and householders who wish to remove them. Developers clear forests to build houses or raise cattle or to create paths for oil pipelines.  Governments withdraw funding from scientific research including the simple observation of forests from towers to assess their health, to the tracking of the DNA of plant diseases.  I was surprised to see that a variant of the water mold, Phytophthora infestans, which caused the Irish potato famine is still with us, attacking the roots of a range of plants from tomatoes to oak trees.  Research may develop remedies, if it is funded.

The causes for the decline of our forests include rising temperatures, very wet summers, dry winters and human activities. The enemies of the forest have always been with us.  As far back as the 1950s, scientists were becoming aware of the causes of forest decline. Those causes are increasing in intensity at a time when the health of trees is more vital than it has been in the past.  Microscopic organisms, however, have no control over what they do.  Humans do.  We can and should make the best choices of how we live now.

Despite having been born in Detroit, Susan Wozniak has spent most of her life in New England. She has been an environmentalist since she was about 12. She reads more non-fiction than fiction. She doesn’t hike as much as she would like to. She thinks about writing more than she writes. She loves theatre more than she loves novels. She has grandchildren whose lives and safety are her biggest concern.