The same day President Bush announced his plan to "continue the journey" into space by colonizing the moon and heading for Mars, I stood in line at the grocery store and thought about space exploration as just another excuse to head ever Westward, another distraction for troubles at home, another frontier to conquer and leave behind.
As I thought, a
distinctive odor tickled my consciousness, emitted by a row of
votive candles on a nearby shelf. I inhaled the rich, nutty
fragrance of roasting chestnuts recalled from my childhood.
"Chestnuts roasting on an open fire," crooned Nat King
Cole." When "The Christmas Song" was written, the odor of roasting
chestnuts was synonymous with winter, emanating from stands where
street vendors sold handfuls of the buttery nuts.
the magnificent forests of American chestnut trees are gone,
victims of an accident in the conquering of their particular
frontier. A lethal fungus imported with Asian chestnut trees began
killing native chestnuts.
The fatal microbe, first
noticed at the Bronx Zoo in 1904, eliminated American chestnut
trees on 9 million acres of forest in less than 50 years. By the
time "The Christmas Song" became famous, the trees that inspired
its opening line were gone in a disaster greater than any hurricane
American chestnut trees were the redwoods of
the East, with straight trunks reaching 100 feet tall and up to 20
feet across at the base. They dominated deciduous forests from
Maine to Alabama and Maryland to Michigan: researchers estimate
that one in every four trees was a chestnut.
oil-rich nuts fed native wildlife of every sort, fattened domestic
livestock, and provided a winter cash crop that rural-dwellers
shipped by the railroad-car load to cities across the country. The
straight-grained, rot-resistant wood was cut for telegraph poles,
fences, railroad ties, paneling, musical instruments and furniture.
Then suddenly, the trees died. The loss of American
chestnuts devastated rural economies and destabilized forest
ecosystems, causing watershed erosion, loss of soil fertility, and
elimination of other native species; it may even have exacerbated
global warming by removing the largest source of carbon storage in
Eastern deciduous forests.
Here in the West, we have
experienced similar accidents of conquest.
In the late
1800s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture touted several species of
trees imported from the eastern Mediterranean and East Asia for
windbreaks and erosion control in the Southwest and western Great
Plains. The thicket-forming trees with their springtime cloud of
pink flowers took hold like kudzu: today, tamarisk, also called
salt cedar, infests one million acres along Western streams and
rivers, crowding out cottonwood trees and poisoning soils with a
rain of salty leaves.
The thirst of these trees may be
their most devastating economic and ecological effect: Salt cedars
out-guzzle the native plants they replaced by an estimated 800
billion gallons of water a year — enough to supply 4.8
In an arid land perennially short of
water; when Kansas is suing Colorado (again) over water not
delivered; when California has grudgingly ceded claims to "excess"
water it had been sucking from the Colorado River, and New Mexico
is scrabbling to find the water it owes to Texas, salt
cedar’s thirst has an impact big enough for even Congress to
notice. Last year, the Congress appropriated $20 million for
research on salt cedar eradication. That’s probably not
enough to get rid of the trees in even one Western state.
Then there is cheatgrass, the Eurasian annual accidentally
introduced with livestock grazing. A prolific seed-producer and
quick germinator, cheatgrass quickly colonized the intermountain
Short-lived and intensely flammable, it is proving
terrifyingly effective at doing what ranchers have not been able to
do in a century of trying: removing sagebrush. Cheatgrass spawns
wildfires that have cleared hundreds of thousands of acres of
sagebrush just when we are discovering that the once-ubiquitous
shrub is critical to the health of the ecosystems where it lives
and the economies dependent on those ecosystems.
the tools to bring back American chestnuts, and to eradicate salt
cedar and cheatgrass. Doing so would enrich the landscapes around
us, and the lives we live on them. But such projects require money,
lots of it. And money, like water, is a finite commodity: if we
spend $1 trillion or so colonizing Mars, there’s that much
less for here on Earth.
That’s why I think
it’s time for a national vision that is less about heading
ever Westward and conquering new frontiers. We need to stay where
we are and thoughtfully restore the communities we now inhabit,
both human and wild.