COVER ILLUSTRATION: Catherine McGuigan DESIGN: Doug Dobey
by Charles McGuigan
It is the most expansive war in human history, and it is occurring on every continent. Unlike all previous wars, this one is truly a world war because it is a global conflict against the very planet we all call home. Fortunately, we have forces on air, land and sea to combat these assaults. These forces are armed with reason and truth and a deep love for all life. Scientists are the generals and the admirals and the field officers in this conflict, fighting the battle for our planet on 10,000 fronts simultaneously. The enemies in this global war are greed and ignorance, those who prefer wealth over life, and those who deny facts. And the soldiers are each one of us, and we will have to make conscious decisions if we hope to achieve victory.
“I’m alarmed by the rate of recorded change and the lack of action in response,” says Dr. Christopher Gough, an associate professor of biology. We’re sitting in his basement office in the life science building at VCU. “I have, I think, some hope in that we are gathering lots of information that’s useful to inform how we might respond to these changes. The question is will we respond, and will politicians respond, and how will they use this information?”
After a short pause, Christopher quotes a line often attributed to Mark Twain. “History never repeats itself, but it often rhymes,” he says. “There is a precedent for inaction, and it usually doesn’t end well. It doesn’t end well economically, or in any other way.”
The day before this interview, Greta Thunberg, the 16-year old environmental activist from Sweden, addressed the United Nation, excoriating world leaders for doing little or nothing at all about global climate change. When I mention her name, Christopher nods.
“I think we need to have young people who are motivated and informed to respond to the environmental issues of the day,” he says. “And what resonates with me is Greta’s statement that there’s so much inaction despite our knowledge and understanding of what’s happening at the moment to the environment and the climate. So that’s indicting, and it resonates with scientists like me.”
Human beings, since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, have had an impact on the environment. Empirical evidence supports this. In the past century, our assaults on the biosphere have accelerated at lightning speed with the clear-cutting of forests, the unleashing of fossil fuels, the decimation of species, the wholesale destruction of habitats, the manufacturing of non-biodegradable substances like plastic and Styrofoam, and so on and so forth. The list seems endless. One thing we know for sure, human activity has thrown the biosphere off balance. To deny this fact is on par with believing the earth is flat, vaccines cause autism, the moon landing was faked.
“Where to start?” asks Chris Gough. “When we think about an issue like changing climate or deterioration of ecosystems, I think what’s intimidating is that it’s a multi-faceted problem, and there’s not one simple solution.”
We do, however, have at our disposal one of the most remarkable machines ever devised to combat global climate change. It offers a perfect means for sequestering carbon. Here’s the most amazing thing about this machine: it runs twenty-four hours a day, and the older it gets the more efficient it becomes. What’s more, it doesn’t cost a penny to operate once installed because it runs completely on sustainable energy. Plus, it requires zero maintenance, and is a visual pleasure to behold.
So what is this engineering marvel?
It’s called a tree.
Based on hi-res satellite images along with forest inventory data from over a million locations around the globe, we now know that there are more than three trillion trees growing on Earth. And those trees are responsible for sequestering some 400 gigatons of carbon. If human beings planted another one trillion trees (and there’s more than ample space to do so) those trees would capture a decade’s worth of human-generated carbon emissions.
Unfortunately, Brazil, under its neo-fascist ruler, has reopened the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. Satellite images reveal that every minute, a football field-sized swath of this precious forest is being clear-cut.
But many other countries are planting trees. The Trillion Tree Campaign, a project of the United Nations, has already planted nearly 15 billion trees across the globe. Australia plans to plant a billion trees over the next 30 years to meet the climate targets set forth by the Paris Agreement. Sadly, the United States because of its current leadership is one of the few countries that is not part of the climate accord.
Christopher Gough has devoted much of his life to the study of trees and their communities. “The work we do in our lab really endeavors to help resolve one aspect of the climate change challenge,” he says. “Our contribution is in the area of forest management and our interaction with forests as humans in a way that will help facilitate at least a partial reversal of climate change inertia by using forests to sequester carbon.”
Forests promote more than carbon sequestration. They are invaluable resources economically and provide habitat that enhances biodiversity, and they even have a spiritual component, as anyone who has ever spent time in a forest understands. As John Muir, Father of our National Parks, noted more than a century ago, “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”
“Increasingly we think of forests as serving multiple purposes,” says Chris. “They provide habitat for other species. And when we think of a public forest we think of recreation, spiritual interests and interactions, timber production, game, habitat for conservation of non-game species, and now we would layer on carbon sequestration.”
He considers another service that forested regions provide us. “Here in the Chesapeake Bay area, forests give us watershed quality protection,” he says. “The forests in our watershed are really the primary mechanism for trapping sediment, for reducing the amount of nitrogen and fertilizer that runs off from urban areas and agricultural areas that would otherwise end up in the Bay.”
Chris mentions China’s extremely aggressive tree-planting over the past twenty years or so. “They’ve invested a lot of money in planting millions and millions of trees,” he says. “But the trees they’re planting are different than those that lived in the native ecosystems that existed prior to human intervention and human deterioration of those ecosystems. So I think it’s important to recognize that they are performing important services like carbon sequestration’
Here in Virginia, the most rapid forest restoration is from hardwoods to pines. “Pine plantation forestry,” Chris says. “The species composition of this sort of forest is very different from the native hardwood forests, so those services in terms of habitat support for rare and endangered species is quite different.”
Even the sequestration of carbon is different. “What we’re finding in our own research is that more complex, more diverse ecosystems tend to sequester carbon more stably,” he says. “And that’s a key. The reduction or elimination of biodiversity so that you have one species isn’t good for a number of reason. There are lots of studies that show a positive correlation between plant diversity and animal diversity. And the other issue is this: If you’re a relatively simple ecosystem that can operate in a narrow environmental space and that environment changes abruptly as it is currently, you’re much less likely to be able to adjust with that change. If you have a more complex, more variable, more diverse complement of species, you’re much more likely to be able to move with that change because you probably have some species that are capable of changing with the environment.”
Another thing that plagues our forests, even some of our National Forests, are invasive trees and plants.
“Ailanthus, or tree of heaven, is particularly aggressive,” says Chris. “It’s especially problematic, because what they’re finding, following a clear-cut, rather than seeing oak regeneration they’re finding this invasive regenerating in place of the native flora. So there are challenges for multiple reasons associated with this.”
Add to that, it’s not a particularly beautiful tree, and it also stinks to the high heavens. “Also, it turns out, ailanthus isn’t good for anything that humans want to use it for,” Chris adds. “So the utility to ailanthus compared to an oak is nil. They can’t even make pulp out of it.”
To an increasingly long list of invasive species that are literally wiping out many of our natives, Chris mentions the bane of the South—kudzu. “These invasive species are supplanting our native species, rapidly, and some are more aggressive than others. Kudzu’s a good example of a very aggressive species.”
Chris singles out another Asiatic invader. “Many bamboo varieties are also really aggressive,” he says. “And part of that is that they don’t have a control point so there’s nothing that’s eating them, consuming them and keeping them in check. And that’s a big problem.”
Reclaiming ecosystems from invasive species is a daunting task. But by working one small section of the environment at a time, we can make headway in reestablishing native plants and trees. An island, in many ways, is a great place to do it.
“An island is discrete and has very clear boundaries,” says Catherine Farmer, an interior designer and landscape designer, who is also a tree steward.
About four years back, she began tagging native trees on Richmond’s Belle Isle. She would go back week after week, identifying tree after tree. As the season changed, and the last leaves fell from the trees, Catherine noticed something odd about Belle Isle. It was still shrouded in greenery.
“The island was covered with privet and English ivy,” she tells me. Shortly after that realization, in January of 2016, Catherine wrote a proposal for a pilot program to help restore part of the habitat on Belle Isle, which, of course, was once a heavily degraded industrial site.
By mid-January, Catherine and a number of volunteers went to work extracting some of the invasive Chinese privet. Their objective was to remove a thirty-foot long strip of the fast-growing bushes, and plant in their place some native trees.
“Privet is in everybody’s yard,” says Catherine. “It can grow twenty feet tall and that’s what had happened on the island.”
On that first day, when Catherine and her twenty volunteers had planned to remove a thirty-foot swath of privet, they ended up removing three hundred feet of it, working quickly and methodically, uprooting the smaller ones by hand, and using weed wrenches on the larger one.
Not long after Catherine began this project, she was contacted by Laura Greenleaf, a riverine master naturalist. “She said, ‘There’s this really big problem with invasives in the James River Park System, and I know you guys recognize it,’” Catherine remembers. “And so we formed the James River Park System Invasive Plant Task Force, which includes the Department of Conservation and Recreation, Capital Trees, The Native Plant Society, and Richmond Tree Stewards, and we meet every month at the James River Park System. Everything we do, we discuss with Bryce Wilk, who is now the superintendent of James River Parks.”
Along with the privet, there was also the ubiquitous English ivy. “We removed the ivy on the eastern point of the island that was killing the trees,” says Catherine. “It was five feet tall, and forty-by-forty feet wide.”
In the intervening four years, Catherine and her volunteers have removed scores of invasive trees, including Ailanthus. “That was probably the number one invasive tree,” she says. “A truly massive one can have up to 700,000 seeds a year. And they’re alleopathic, which means they put out a toxin to kill competitors.”
Other invasive tree species on the island included white mulberry, mimosa, and Paulownia, which is that tree that sports blossoms in the spring that look just like wisteria blooms growing upright. “We sometimes have to hire an arborist to take down larger trees,” she says. “We’ve taken down eighty-foot trees.”
And a sort of magic occurred when the invasive species were removed. “There was a vigorous return of natives,” says Catherine.
Since that first January morning when Catherine and her team began clearing out the Chinese privet, they have planted over one thousand trees on Belle Isle. “We’ve put in six kinds of oak, red maples and a few silver maples, hackberry, ironwood, black cherry, American plum, winged and American elm, tulip poplars, sycamores, loblollies, Virginia pine and short-leafed pine, witch hazel, hazel nut, dogwoods and redbuds, black locusts, hickories and hornbeams,” she says. “We’ve pretty much put it all in. And these are all native varieties. No cultivars.”
And their work is far from done. “Our hope and goal in ten years is to have reduced the invasives to twenty percent,” Catherine says. “When we started, in some areas, there was one hundred percent coverage by invasives.”
Toward the end of the interview, Catherine pulls a book out and hands it over to me. Written by Douglas Tallamy, “Bringing Nature Home” was first published about ten years ago. “He’s the Rachel Carson for our generation,” Catherine says. “We have so many acres of grasslands and the habitat is so fragmented now that we don’t have enough masses of uninterrupted habitat for species to exist, and we’re having a massive extinction.” The culprit here is the lawn.
In the enclosed side yard of a boyhood home on the Isle of Palms, I was lying on a bed of grass staring into a flawless blue sky. The only interruption to this field of vibrant blue was a single white cloud that moved leisurely to the east, heading toward the Atlantic. I breathed deeply of new-mown grass that was tinged with the pleasant sweetness of gasoline, and I could hear the sputtering of the lawnmower and the whirr of its blade. Even though I could not see him because my view was blocked by the wall that surrounded the yard, I knew my father was pushing that mower. For many years after that, the smell of freshly mown grass, or the sound of a lawnmower conjured that memory, which was always followed by a sense of security, as if all was right in the world.
All that has changed. Nowadays when I smell that mixture of gasoline and freshly-cut grass, and hear the belching and drone of a lawnmower, I am more apt to think of Apocalypse Now. Specifically that iconic scene when the Air Cavalry takes flight in a swarm of Huey Gunships, menacing birds of prey, their rotor blades churning the air thunderously. Then the obliteration of jungle foliage and human beings with jellied fire, and Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore being moved by the smell of napalm, reminiscent of gasoline.
So much for fond memories.
Lush, emerald lawns cover over 40 million acres in the continental United States. That’s nearly fifty thousand square miles, roughly the size of New York State. It is the largest single crop in the country and has absolutely no food value. These uniform swards of green, whether they blanket golf courses or the yards of suburban homes, come at a dear cost to the environment.
In some states, turf grasses cover large percentages of the ground. Ten percent of Delaware is devoted to lawns, and in Connecticut and Rhode Island, the number soars to twenty percent.
Lawns require fertilizer, which contributes to increased nitrogen levels in runoff water, and in far too many instances herbicides are used, which eventually end up in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. And consider this: each day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, nine billion gallons of fresh water are pissed away to keep an invasive species of grass ever-green.
Add to that, loss of habitat, and because manicured lawns do not flower, pollinators perish for lack of nectar. This, too: turf grass is a monoculture there is no real biodiversity.
And though lawns do sequester carbon, they don’t do it nearly as well as a more biodiverse ground covering.
During the last recession, Richmond had a bumper crop of abandoned properties, and Chris Gough seized the moment. “We followed up by digging in the soils and quantifying the amount of carbon in the soils and how that changes over time after people leave,” says Chris. “And so the take home from that was lawns that were abandoned for a longer period of time actually accumulated more carbon because there was a recovery, a return, back to the prior ecosystem that existed before it was grass. You eventually get woody species, trees, shrubs, bushes and so it appears that as that plays out over time after abandonment there’s this accumulation of carbon in the soil.”
More and more, people are allowing nature to takes its course by introducing native plants into their yards and letting the cultivated grass die out. On the streets of Bellevue many front yards are now blanketed with perennials, and in some cases, vegetables. And they all look great, they look natural, and they celebrate their own diversity, unlike the boring conformity of a green lawn.
“And if every one of us little homeowners would bring some natives, we could help restore habitats,” Catherine Farmer says. “We could bring back biodiversity.”
It is in the small engagements, the slightest of skirmishes, that the tides are sometimes turned so a war might be won.
A couple years back, in a multi-disciplinary effort, Chris Gough joined with professors in the school of the arts and engineering to create something that would show what carbon sequestration could look like in an urban setting.
Directly across the street from the VCU Institute for Contemporary of Art at the corner of Belvidere and Broad, there’s a non-descript building with a slash of greenery. That intersection happens to be one of the busiest in the city, and several tons of carbon are produced there every day. So with this team, and with the students, they created a green wall.
“This vegetation hanging on the wall is providing this important service of sequestering some of the carbon, not a lot, but some,” says Chris. “It’s in a way a tool, illustrating how, through several green walls placed strategically throughout Richmond, we could provide a number of benefits—carbon sequestration as well as reduction of urban heat islands, and beautification of the city.”
Chris Gough thinks that more and more people are finally beginning to understand how dire our environmental crisis is. The proof is in the pudding.
“In the last couple decades you may have noticed palm trees popping up in places where they didn’t live before, and they’re surviving the winters,” he says. “Banana trees are everywhere. People are recognizing anecdotally through their own experiences and also through the long-term data record that this trend of climate change is real. At some point it becomes undeniable. Some of the predictions made just fifteen, twenty years ago, which met with much skepticism, are now appearing and happening.”
The greatest hope that we have to win this war for the planet is in the youth of today, which is always the case. “I think that this generation, this younger generation, seems to be very motivated to tackle these challenging questions,” says Chris Gough. “Overall, they’re better informed than any generation before them. I also think they are willing to confront some of these challenges of economics and global change on some level, understanding that there may be tension, but we have to work through that.”