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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Tsuga’s View - A Long-Term Look At Environmental, Political, and Social Issues, From The Perspective Of Michigan’s Oldest (and Most Optimistic) Tree Species

By Marvin Roberson

Welcome to the first installment of “The Tsuga’s View”, an irregular (in many senses of the word) look at Progressive Issues and Politics, with a positive emphasis on where we are, how we got there, and why we should keep working for the common good, even in the face of adversity.

In this first column, I’ll describe the life cycle of Tsuga canadensis (Eastern Hemlock), what we can learn from it, and how it makes a good metaphor (and example) for progressive issues. In the next issue, I’ll describe the general concept behind applying this life strategy, and why things are much, much better than they seem. And in future installments, I’ll apply this idea to specific issues about which we should and do care.

I went to the Michigan Secretary of State a couple weeks ago, and applied for a personalized license plate. I’m a Forest Ecologist, and I applied for “TSUGA”, in honor of Tsuga canadensis, the scientific name for Eastern Hemlock, my favorite tree.

I say “applied for”, because a few years ago I ordered “Pinus”, in honor of Pinus strobus, or White Pine. This plate was rejected by the Secretary of State on the grounds that some might find it “obscene”, despite the fact that Pinus strobus is the State Tree of Michigan, and “Pinus” appears dozens of times on State-owned web sites. Apparently, Beavis and Butt-Head run the license plate office (“Heh, heh - he said ‘Pinus’ “). To view dozens of news articles about this license plate debacle, Google “Pinus license plate”.

I applied for this plate before the election, and of course, before any of us had an inkling of what the election might bring. While I’m not foresightful enough to have ordered the plate as a prelude to the election, I do think it’s apropos. I’ll be glad to sport “TSUGA”,  not only because I love the tree, but because the very facts about the life cycle of Hemlock which I love also make it a great metaphor for our current political situation.

Hemlock is the longest-lived of Michigan tree species, with some specimens reaching 800 years of age. Trees often take 250 - 300 years to reach maturity. Hemlock is patient. However, once Hemlock gets established on a site, it sets up camp and stays there, often for thousands of years.

Hemlock exerts something called “Hemlock control” over sites where it gets established. Hemlock can grow in very acidic soils, in conditions where most species cannot thrive. Not only does Hemlock thrive in acidic conditions, but it’s needles are also very acidic.

Once established, Hemlock begins to “control” the site by dropping it’s own needles. The already acidic soil becomes even more so, further inhibiting growth of other species. The shade from the mature trees also works to keep other species from colonizing the site.

This can go on for thousands of years, as the slow growing, slow maturing, very long lived trees continue to alter the site, making it more acidic, cooler and shadier, which is more conducive to Hemlock, and less favorable to species needing more nutrient rich soils.

Every once in a while, something disturbs the site, and interrupts this cycle, seemingly rolling back progress. Let’s say a lightning strike hits the base of a mature tree, and starts a fire in the layer of dried, dead needles on the ground. This burns up those needles, reducing the acidity, and kills the smaller trees, causing more sunlight and warmth. Further changing the site, the ash from the fire is more basic (less acidic), allowing nutrient loving species to come in and colonize.

Things are looking bad for our Hemlock grove, aren’t they? But wait - things aren’t necessarily as they seem. Because it’s pretty rare that these surface fires kill the huge, old Hemlocks. This means that even as the new species, which need non-acidic soils, are getting established, the Hemlocks are re-working the site, making it more acidic once again.

The big trees are also continuing to shade out the site, and are dropping Hemlock seeds, which can thrive in the re-acidified soils. In addition, the new nutrients from the ashes of the fire are temporary. The fire was a single occurrence, and the changes to the soil do not re-occur. So the colonizing species use up the nutrients, and are left once again with shady, wet, cool, acidic, Hemlock-friendly conditions.

So the long-term strategy of the Hemlock works, and prevails, even in the face of seemingly catastrophic disturbances like wildfires, and competition from other species. These disturbances appear to roll back the progress of the Hemlock, and in fact, temporarily do that. But the life cycle of the Hemlock is so strong and substantial that progress is made, even as setbacks happen.

We just had a wildfire like nobody imagined, it’s still burning, and frankly promises to do so for a while. But I will claim that Progressive ideas are like the Hemlock - long-lived, resilient, and able to prevail in the long run.

And the long run is the view that we should be taking, like the Hemlock. Our huge, massive, site-altering Progressive trees are still alive and dropping seeds. Many of the things we see as “setbacks” are actually indicators of progress. Much of what we have accomplished will not be lost, even if it is rolled back for a while. And the direction our society is moving is inexorably the right one.

In the next installment, I explain why things which seem like “setbacks” are actually indicators of progress, why we’re moving in the right direction, and why reports that “Sunshine Marvy Has Left The Building” were premature.

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