Solstice Hope

December 21, 2013 at 1:09 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
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Well, for seasonal affective types like me, the winter solstice is something wonderful. I probably won’t really be able to tell that tomorrow is a minute brighter than today was, but the thought of it makes me happy.

Accompanying this oddly situated reminder that winter will come to an end are not one but two hope-inspiring pieces today in the New York Times. The first is by a retired biology professor from the University of Vermont, Bernd Heinrich, narrating his experience of successfully growing American chestnut trees in his 600 acre forest in western Maine. Chestnut trees, we learn, were once thirty percent of the hardwood forests of the eastern U.S. but were almost totally wiped out by a fungal blight a century ago. Within fifty years, an estimated four billion trees had vanished.

But Heinrich planted four chestnut seedlings in 1982, and several of them are now thirty-five feet tall. And their seeds are being “planted” throughout the forest. Heinrich did not have a lot of hope for his four seedlings, but there they are, thirty years later, thriving, and reproducing.

The second article tells of a growing movement to rescue the endangered monarch butterfly. The effort focuses on getting people to plant milkweed seeds on their land, lawns, wherever.  Members of the movement are doing this because milkweed seeds are the monarch caterpillar’s only food, but the number of milkweed plants has declined massively in recent years.

The author admits that there are a number of causes of the decline of the monarch butterfly–drought, extreme weather, illegal logging in Mexico, fungicides, and pesticides, among others. But the greatest threat to the monarch butterfly, we learn, is the serious decline of its milkweed habitat in the Midwest and the Great Plains, where many  monarchs breed. The milkweed decline was precipitated by the federal government’s order in 2007 that gasoline be laced with corn-based ethanol, and their then allowing farmers to take land out of federal conservation reserves to meet the soaring demand for corn. Since then, 17,500 acres of reserves that were previously available for wildlife and wild plants like milkweed have been converted to corn.

But now, a number of groups are growing and distributing milkweed seeds, encouraging people–and by no means only farmers–to plant them. The response has been enthusiastic.

Both articles acknowledge that many problems still face the chestnut tree and the monarch butterfly. The fungus that killed the chestnuts is present on other trees in the Northeast and could wipe them out once more. And the effort to save the monarch butterfly is in a sense more symbolic than substantive; we could win that battle and still lose the larger war against environmental destruction.

But on this shortest day of the year, it cheers me no end to think about those chestnut trees in western Maine, and the possible revival of the monarch butterflies I visited once in southern California–a tiny but real increase in the sunlight as we bundle up for winter.

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