On grieving trees

For years, a young writer saw the tell-tale signs of beetle kill. And then the infestation came for the pines at her own home.

I had recognized the signs since I was small: brazen red pines on Monarch Pass in western Colorado, the standing ghosts of trees killed by creatures no larger than my little fingernail. Beetle kill has been a devastating but familiar sight for Coloradans for at least the past 20 years, an infestation indicative of an ecosystem out of balance. In some areas, we have watched the change take place, the progression from one or two infected trees to irreconcilably large swaths of sickness, and, finally, to skeletal remains sucked dry of beauty and breath. The process has been studied and covered by news sources — even capitalized into a timber industry. It is a visceral reminder that what we have in the West is fading, that some of the oldest and strongest forests are susceptible to the smallest insects, literally and metaphorically. We have borne collective witness to the orange dwindling of trees we were told that we could always count on as evergreen.


From my house north of Ridgway, Colorado, I see daily what many people can only see on postcards. A glance to the east affords the sight of Chimney Rock and Courthouse Mountain where the sun and moon rise over the Cimarron Range. Deep ridges and valleys covered with piñon and juniper trees cut through the space between the mountains and me. This is a view I’ve loved for over a decade, so when a few warnings popped up in orange clumps in the otherwise green sea of trees last spring, I was alarmed. Throughout the winter, these trees had been healthy and held blankets of snow firmly, like champions of their environment. Seemingly overnight, they turned dry and frail. I was concerned that the irrevocable illness spreading across the ridge was indeed beetle kill. And, in just a few months, I would know for sure.

One morning, as I lounged in my hammock enjoying the summer sun, I began to hear a rhythmic creaking noise surrounding me. I thought at first it was a harmless insect luxuriating in the warmth as I was. Suddenly I realized the sound was coming from inside the tree nearest to me, and I envisioned dozens of tiny beetles mercilessly devouring nutrients, greedily burrowing and suffocating this tree even in its prime. I foolishly stuck needles into the tell-tale holes bored in the bark to try and wrench them from their work, but the process was already in motion. In two weeks, seven piñon pines in my front yard died.    

I grew up in an inescapable narrative of climate change, yet my young mind created illusions of distance from problems like beetle kill. I had only seen forests dying far away: a theoretical drawback for everyone, but not necessarily mine to shoulder. I have held onto the topography of my own trees like a talisman, knowing that the forest is somewhere I can always go and be held in return. Logically, it was just a matter of time before I would see beetle kill in the forests I’ve played in and loved and known, but like the animal that causes the problem, this issue had stolen insidiously into my personal reality. Climate change looks different on paper than it does when it is right in front of you: You think it’s far away, but soon it’s in your front yard. Being concerned about a greater narrative is exhausting enough, but touching the result burns holes through your world. 

There is so much work to be done after a death of any kind. First, my family surveyed the damage surrounding the dead trees. Had the other trees around them been infected already? Could they be saved? Then came the chainsaw. We have cut our own firewood for as long as I can remember. I have fond memories of winding up county roads to greet the dead trees, of gasoline fumes and sawdust during the first tinge of fall. I’ve felt the crack of giants fall from their place in the canopy to the ground, where it was my father’s job to butcher them and mine to carry the rounds to the truck and slap on our legality tag.

There is peace in utilizing a life well lived, and knowing it would serve us well. I had never felt bad about our lumbering until my hammock tree, the one I stupidly thought I could save, came down in a shatter of orange needles. Soon after, its brothers fell, exposing an emptier sky. Hundreds of years crashed down in seconds. I felt sad for the years they could have lived, and for the piñon jays and downy woodpeckers that relied on them for food, but then I saw the halo of tinder-dry needles on the ground that imitated their former bodies. They’d been gone for weeks. The damage was irreparable, and there was nothing to do but honor them by using them, just as we had done to every other dead tree. I took time to caress and give thanks to the cross-cut trunk, marveling at the rings and morbidly eyeing the squiggling blue paths the beetles and their larvae had made. They had eaten into time itself. 

Climate change looks different on paper than it does when it is right in front of you: You think it’s far away, but soon it’s in your front yard.

We processed the kill and our grief. Pulling logs to our winter stocks and snapping twigs for kindling, we piled and categorized and raked. What we were left with was material that we would survive the winter with, and ample flat space on the ground where sunlight now touched. In the death of my trees and the skyline I had grown used to, there was a birth of possibility: a space for growing food for ourselves. This, I believe, is the metaphor that we face at this time. There is no denying what we have lost, but there is no use in fighting for what we can’t get back. It’s time to cut our losses with life as we knew it and save our energy for securing a more sustainable future. We must cut our losses even when it means cutting our beloved trees.

Caitlin Van Buskirk, a Western Colorado University alum, currently lives with her family in Ridgway, Colorado, and is searching for her next adventure.

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Video: Beetle kill in the Rio Grande National Forest near Slumgullion Pass in Colorado. Video by Major King.

Runner up winner of the 2021 Bell Prize
The Bell Prize for young essayists honors the spirit of our founder, Tom Bell. At a time when there was little coverage of environmental issues in the Western U.S., Bell founded HCN in 1970 and was a strong voice for conservation. The Bell Prize is awarded to emerging writers, aged 18 to 25, who can carry on that legacy.
 The prize is supported by Mountainsmith.
Read the 2021 Bell Prize winner.