Slumdog Millionaire, the Oscar-winning little-film-that-could, might have been well received here in the U.S., but in India it produced a huge uproar. It has reignited the debate in India over whether that country is doing enough for its desperately poor, or is ashamed enough, or should be ashamed. The New York Times presents this very difficult-to-read report and photo essay on the prevalence of starvation among Indian children. (Slumdog Millionaire presented a rather sanitized version, but this view doesn’t pull any punches.)
It’s easy to hold up India as an example of extreme social inequality, but here in America we still are concerned mainly with the health of the more desirable and attractive middle class, since they appear to hold the world together. Not to get too unfashionably outraged about it all, but poverty has always been the American dream’s ugly stepchild that it would rather not confront directly.
So let’s continue talking about maple trees. We all love trees.
Something has been happening to the maple trees in the Adirondacks over the past hundred years: they’ve been disappearing. Not just the old-growth ones; all of them. They’re simply not being replaced. This old article from the Post-Standard tells the story. The problem is not so much with the beloved sugar maples, but with another kind of tree — less beloved, but usually innocuous — that has got a problem: the beech tree.
When I was up in the Adirondacks last summer, I noticed that our campgrounds were surrounded mostly by beech trees. They were nice trees, but not very big at all. Everything looked like relatively young growth, although there had been no logging in these areas for a long time. I remembered reading this story and could certainly see the evidence. There were a few maple trees around and some maple saplings, but they would never grow to maturity because the beeches were multiplying like wildfire.
Beech trees are very useful as wildlife habitat, and you can use them for wood, but they are not as well-loved as the maples. The beech is not even considered a “junk tree.” While I don’t know how any tree can be considered junk, it’s true that some trees are specially disliked by the experts — such as silver maples, so common around here but considered “bad trees” because of their shallow roots and tendency to topple in storms. Norway maples are also considered bad because of their big broad leaves which choke out “desirable” lawn grass.
However, there’s a good reason why tree and wildlife experts fear the spread of the beech in the Adirondacks. It’s because the beeches are sickly. It’s strange that sick trees should mean more trees. But the beech trees are trapped in a cycle. They have been infected with beech bark disease, a complicated blight imported from Europe that involves both fungus and insects. The disease causes the trees to die before they have reached full growth. Fortunately – or maybe unfortunately – for the beech, it evolved with an admirable survival trick: whenever its roots are damaged (by disturbance or disease), it responds by sending up new shoots that can become new trees. The new trees grow for a few years, crowding out sunlight for other species, then get infected and die. Cycle repeats.
The Adirondacks are becoming filled with dying young beech saplings that will never grow up. They will never shelter birds or other tree species, or provide food for ground animals, or wood for our use. Concerned environmentalists do not know what to do about it — either for the beech population itself, or for the more “desirable” trees that are affected, or for the entire ecosystem they all support. There is a hope that someday the fungal disease will burn itself out and restore balance to the forest, but that’s a big maybe. Brutally clear-cutting the beech thickets won’t help, for reasons already described. The only way we could stop this situation in our lifetimes is to find a way to cure the disease. That isn’t an environmental priority.
But we shouldn’t be thinking about human lives the way we think about trees. So why do we?