Saturday, January 7, 2012

Empire of the Beetle

I have just read this book and think anyone who cares about the environment needs to read this book.  It is a long painful history of good intentions running squarely into Mother Nature.
Today the great conifer forests of North America are visibly under attack and are been progressively reduced mostly as a result of ultimately misguided attempts at silviculture.  The climate warming we have experienced is certainly a trigger but not a cause.  The lesson is that meddling with forests is tricky to say the least.
I am personally convinced that the future of silviculture will descend into local individual tenure arrangements sufficient to support a sole operator.  Such an arrangement would demand selective harvesting, forest grooming, and some selective planting to expand complexity and general resilience.
Such a forest would give up its seventy year old mature pine trees just before they become a beetle meal, it will rapidly recover blown down wood before it is lost and it will convert all waste wood into chips.  There is a natural sequence to all this and it produces continuous value to the owner operator.
We are also about to see the advent of airships as heavy lifters.  Mature trees can be individually spotted, an airship is able to come in and grab the tree top with a grapple or similar grasping device and then allow the airship to actually shut down while applying full lift to the tree itself.  The operator is then able to sit back expending no fuel whatsoever while he waits for the tree itself to be cut at the base.
The faller then makes the cut in a safe manner and at the point of release the stem will shoot straight up out of harms way.  It should be possible to provide extremely safe methods that will obviously surpass just about every other method available.
Upon release, the airship powers up and takes the tree to a processing yard close by.  There the tree is laid down and released.  A crew then works to clear the branches and to section the stem.  The waste can be directly chipped.  We capture all the waste and leave the forest itself largely undisturbed.
Most important the need to attempt a monoculture quickly disappears.

Empire of the Beetle, by Andrew Nikiforuk
Postmedia News  Sep 16, 2011 – 8:30 AM ET | Last Updated: Sep 15, 2011 6:08 PM ET

Empire of the Beetle

By Andrew Nikiforuk

230 pp; $19.95
Reviewed by Richard Sherbaniuk

When renowned biologist J.B.S. Haldane was asked if his work had given him any universal insights, he replied that “God must have an inordinate fondness for beetles.” In fact, there are more beetle species — some 400,000 now, with many more waiting to be discovered — than any other animal on the planet. The total number of insects on Earth, including beetles, is estimated at 10 quintillion (10 followed by 18 zeros). They weigh 300 times more than the combined weight of the entire human population.
And they will no doubt still be here when the human race is long gone.

Subtitled “How Human Folly and a Tiny Bug Are Killing North America’s Great Forests,” Empire of the Beetle is about the devastation wrought by the bark beetle, a voracious insect the size of a grain of rice that often swarms in masses larger than schools of killer whales. Beginning in the late 1980s, a series of unprecedented bark beetle outbreaks killed more than 30 billion pine and spruce trees from Alaska to New Mexico, resulting in the greatest tree die-off since the deforestation of Europe by peasants between the 11th and 13th centuries.

The key word here is “unprecedented.” Bark beetles have been around for hundreds of millions of years, playing a vital role in the regeneration of forests, and thus the world’s carbon cycle, by consuming dead trees. Why are they suddenly swarming out of control, even attacking healthy trees, and defying all efforts to contain, suppress or kill them?
Andrew Nikiforuk explains why, in what I am sure is the world’s only page-turner about beetles. Over the past two decades this award-winning Canadian journalist has tackled subjects ranging from education and economics to the environment, in the process winning a Governor General’s Award (forSaboteurs) and the Rachel Carson Environment Book Award (for Tar Sands). He has a clear, muscular style and a masterful command of simile, metaphor and analogy to illustrate otherwise dull or obscure scientific data. His research is awe-inspiring, his conclusions irrefutable, and the implications dismal.

The bark beetle has been released from its ancient natural constraints by two factors. The first is human activity: bad public policy, out-of-control logging, and the bad or misguided science that led a hundred years’ worth of forest managers to the mistaken conclusion that a key factor in habitat management is fire suppression, rather than the recognition that fire plays a vital role in long-term sustainable forest health. The second factor is climate change. Together these two factors set the stage for a swarming plague of bark beetles whose predations have cost untold billions of dollars and are a foreshadowing of many biological disasters to come.
It is impossible to even begin enumerating the wealth of astounding facts peppering this book, so I will simply note that Nikiforuk artfully breaks up his science with a social history of mankind’s age-old fascination with beetles, from Aesop to Darwin.
He also interviews an enchanting collection of beetle-mad scientists and eccentrics, including the University of Montana’s Diana Six, former biker and drug addict, now bodybuilder and world-renowned bug expert. Then there’s the collaboration between “the entomologist, the musician, and the pool hustler … on one of the craziest science experiments in insect history.” Suffice to say the experiment involved woody “phloem sandwiches” and a contraption made of a meat thermometer and a piezoelectric transducer from a Hallmark greeting card. This bizarre homemade device was deployed to record bark beetle singing, which is how they communicate apart from odour. The songs were then played back to living insects in the tree in the wrong order, thus driving them to crazy self-destructive behaviour, including cannibalism. Whoever thought that music rather than toxic clouds of insecticide might be the key to saving the world’s forests?
This fascinating and thought-provoking book about an ancient insect pest exposes the frailty of seemingly stable man-managed habitats and presages the climate-induced ordeals to come.

1 comment:

John Boanerges Redman said...

Think if playing the various national anthems backwards could drive the statist warmongers to self destruction (instead of innocents). Oh, joy.