lightning storm over boundary peak. red clouds, pinyon trees in foreground

What it’s like to live in a dying forest

A few weeks ago he pointed to a tall thin piñon (pinyon) pine near the road and remarked, “hm, it’s dying.” Its needles had mostly all turned shades of gold; it was definitely dying. Poor little thing. It made a good go of it!

Not satisfied with that cheap sentiment, the next day I returned to it to figure out why the pine was dying. On a closer look I could see many hundreds of what appeared to be chia seeds attached to the needles. A quick search of the Internet suggested we had “piñon scale,” which is a type of aphid. A quick look over the horizon suggested that the millions of acres of trees surrounding us also have piñon scale. Last year they seemed fine! This year they’re half dead!

The trees just don’t have enough water to deal with how they are being sucked alive by the chia-like scale bugs.

Can you believe how I felt after a year of pandemic and fire when I realized how helpless I am to do anything much as these trees are all sucked dry during a drought, die, and then offer themselves up as beetle food and tinder? About as deep as hopeless gets is as hopeless as it feels to understand that life around you as you know it — the forest of breathing trees around you — is going to die. On the flip side it’s interesting to be witness to such a drastic change. The main concern obviously is fire. There isn’t much we can do except care for some of the trees closer to where I’m staying. We can thin them and treat the ones that can be saved.

You know how it was said, “clean your floor, clean your forest…” :eyeroll:

At the rate the scale is multiplying, I estimate at least half the trees in the Inyo and Toiyabe forests near the California/Nevada border and beyond will be dead by the end of the year. Thousands of acres, millions of trees. It is unfathomable.

Are the juniper trees, which stand as green as ever and immune to this scale, aware as we are? Do they tremble in their roots like we do? When the fires come, they too will burn. Same with the buckwheat and the sage, the scorpions and lizards.

The Weak Defense

At first I spent many days under trees, a pathetic few number of them, popping the chia-seedlike larval-stage “cysts” between my fingers. Oh, so satisfying! They pop like cysts — or little zits — but stain your fingers bright yellow. Sometimes since several will line up along a needle on the same plane, you can pop 3, 4, or maybe even five at a time. It’s strangely gratifying. Or just grab a bough of needles and squeeze a handful. You’ll hear the pops, and your hands will get wet. I knew this wasn’t going anywhere, though. Even though each pop meant 30-50+ fewer eggs being laid (soon), every time I looked up I was reminded of just how many millions of cysts I wouldn’t be able to pop. Trees extend as far as the eye can see where I live. Not a single power line, paved road, house… just trees.

Imagine living in a city you love: pretty hills, bridges, and the tallest buildings making those instantly-recognizable skylines. Living in a forest is like living in a city you love, but the views include other landmarks you grow familiar with. Instead of people there are many animals. In fact, all the animals pushed out of the city are here with me! The animals and I are on a hill with a view of Nevada’s tallest mountain, the Sierra Nevada, Mount Grant over Hawthorne, the Minarets, the Toiyabes, Excelsior Peak, Miller Mountain — you get the idea. My landmarks are the hills, the shapes of the hills. After that, landmarks are the places which are treed versus the places which are bare, and the colors the difference makes, added to the color gradient made by distances. For about 270º of my view from where I sit, the horizon is a stark line between sky and mountain; the rest is the stark line between sky and tree. It now hurts to look at that tree line, and it hurts to look at the foreground of trees, because of their condition: their crowns are thin and orangey. Logic and inevitability decide they will burn soon. Imagine your city landmarks disappearing within the course of a year. Withering away before your eyes. Imagine it maybe burning. Where do the people go? Where do the animals go? What does it look like when the smoke subsides? What is left?

It is so beautiful right now, even though when I look closer, more critically at the forest I live inside, I see that many trees have already died and have been dead for years. This has been happening right under our noses for years. How did I miss that? The blight will continue on, barring a massive weather event. Perhaps a great monsoon could water the trees and help them defend against the sap-sucking cysts, and perhaps a great snow and prolonged early/late freeze could disturb their life cycle. But as it is, high temps and drought have unleashed them with a fury they wouldn’t possess in a normal year. (A normal year. What is that?) It was a warm and very dry winter. There’s hell to pay for climate change.

Our Shared Forests

When you want to leave the city and go to the forest, where do you go? What’s your favorite forest? How is it doing, really?

Some places you’ll drive through burns, so you know what a forest looks like after it has burned. Some places you’ll drive through a clearcut, so you know that, too. When you drive through a lovely forest, what makes you think it is healthy? If you were driving through a lovely forest you realized would die within a year or two, how would you say goodbye?

Today I sent a note to the tiny local post office to let the locals know that their favorite forested haunt is in serious jeopardy. The way I see it, they better make a move and get in their last goodbyes before someone — or lightning — comes and makes the “final campfire.” In my fantasy world they maybe all band together and come out and help dig out aphid eggs. Relentlessly, day after day, they dig eggs as if their life depended on the forest. Together we all celebrate with controlled burn piles if it’s not too windy. We watch the trees turn green again, and the rains return. Again, it’s a fantasy. They might just be excited for the free firewood, or easier hunting. Who knows.

It took me a while to notice the trees are dying. Others might not notice a thing until it burns.

I’ll never take a green tree for granted again.

Digging Aphid Eggs

That’s what I’ve been up to for the past week, digging aphid eggs. Now that the “chia seed” cysts have hatched, mated and eggs are being laid, they can be found. The Internet wasn’t able to give me much hope for saving trees, but my hands-in-the-dirt research has yielded some gems. Today I not only used a chainsaw for the first time (yes!) but I gathered these details about piñon scale:

  • Standing water will catch quite a few flying adult males. They drown themselves.
  • Eggs laid at the end of April will be in tree crotches on more mature trees
  • Younger trees (under 5′ tall and without large crotches) will have clumps of eggs laid around the collar
  • Because it’s easier to clean out all the scale eggs at once in the collar, younger trees seem easier to save.
  • The last generation’s nests are white and dry. The current generation has clumps of green eggs which are moist. Looks a bit like army green/drab green dryer lint. These blend in a little more with the dirt and duff which makes them hard to find at first but once you get the eye, you’ll know it.
  • A 12-16″ piece of rebar makes a great tool for cleaning crotches and opening up nests around tree collars. Because it is ribbed, it is great for loosening loose bark and scale eggs.
  • He says the blowtorch is pretty nice to use on them but it sounds like some sort of controllable flame thrower might be better because the blowtorch gets too hot to hold quickly.
  • We’ve been running burn barrels. Aphid eggs make a prolonged sparkly crackling sound on the fire. I’m not sure I feel bad saying that.
  • Downed wood (which is most of what we are burning) makes the wood ash which is great for spreading at the base of trees (at the collar). While this can be basic (wood ash + h20 ≈ lye) and these trees like it acidic, it is also good fertilizer, and bottom line is it’s devastating for small moist insects trying to nest. Diatomaceous earth will work similarly.

Piñon scale has a convoluted life cycle which can repeat several times a year, but they generally work like this:

  1. Be born. Climb up tree to needles as little green bug. Cover yourself in impenetrable brown mantle. SUCK THE TREE DRY.
  2. Hatch into a flying insect or a green lady aphid. Mate.
  3. Crawl to crotch or collar and lay eggs under cover. Be dead.
  4. Repeat

Literature says you can really only fight scale with insecticide during the crawling stage. It also says you can use blasts of water to knock eggs loose. (No go. We are off grid with no running water.) It then says you have to catch the water-dislodged eggs otherwise they’ll just hatch and crawl back up the tree. What’s the point of that?

In my grief (and yeah, maybe rage too) I went next level and started “The Great Easter egg hunt” of 2021. I first thought I was finding egg clumps under pine cones and sticks. They were white and looked like what the Internet shows. White webby stuff. But we all agreed they are dry, and don’t seem to be fresh eggs. Maybe that’s last year’s eggs. I collected a lot of that for a few days. What I think happened is the lady aphids only just started building their nests and laying eggs a few days ago. So we had an “aha” moment when we started discovering pockets of squishy green around the trees. A pocket microscope revealed exactly what you will see at Bug Guide: Matsucoccus acalyptus. If you’re easily grossed out, maybe don’t look. I know I personally relished watching a female stuck on her back, only slowly able to turn herself upright after wiggling her short legs frantically. But once I looked closer at nests I found her in, I saw she had been surrounded by hundreds of perfectly egg-shaped little eggs. Did I mention these make a lovely sound on the fire? Sorry not sorry. I will choose a tree over thousands of these aphids ANY DAY.

I don’t dig these aphids at all.

Matsucoccus acalyptus

Matsucoccus Apocalypse, more like. This bug brings me the kind of heartache I’ve never felt before. It’s different, perhaps worse, than a breakup. It’s maybe like to losing a loved one — if we are talking about watching a loved one die slowly and not being able to do a thing to help. This gets a little meta for a second, but are the aphids watching while their nests burn? Anyway, it’s sad. Pathetic attempts at humor do little to help. It’s not revenge and I don’t actually hate the aphids. In fact I really try not to kill much of anything in my life, but in the big picture these insects will be causing destruction on the scale of mosquitoes and locusts and fruit flies. AND NOBODY KNOWS ABOUT IT.

We’ve called around to the forestry department and ranger stations and reached some entomologists and aren’t getting call backs. I guess either they don’t know what it is, had their departments gutted by the previous administration, and/or are just too busy. Or maybe they’re feeling about as paralyzed as we are about it. Today when I should have been excited about learning to use a chainsaw, I felt worn out and sad to be cutting trees who were already hurting. I did paint limb sealer on them; though, because I know they can’t afford to lose another drop of sap. Maybe tomorrow we will have more energy; all this digging and cutting and burning and painting is exhausting. But the trees bring joy, and they bring the rain, so we will keep trying!

Ideal world

But the way I feel, if I were Queen of the World, there would be firefighters dispatched out here digging and making burn piles — that way they wouldn’t have to wait for fire season for paid work. The locals who love trees would be out here too, if only to hop out of their Jeep or off their horse or side-by-side for a few minutes and save one baby pinyon tree by digging out the aphid nests at its base. And I don’t know if the Queen of the World can boss around God, but God would smite these bugs, and the bark beetles that follow them.

What else can I do but do the good work and bury my head in the sand a little? We gotta do our best. It’s hard times, and the challenges are unique, but as was pointed out over a nice dinner last night, times aren’t necessarily worse than any other time on Earth. There’s just a lot more people to share it with, and it’s a lot easier to share a lot of stuff with them. Which is what I’m doing right now: sharing. This is a dose of reality from my dream off-grid world, which isn’t as dreamy as some people might think, obviously! I know forests die and burn, but this is literally close to home*, and it’s tough. It’s definitely practice in letting go of attachment and adjusting to change, and a lesson in biology. BUGS! Who knew?

If you can’t come out and help (it’s paid work), please do some sort of spirited rain dance for this forest. I’d appreciate that.

* My fire plan literally consists of driving out if it’s possible and if not, sheltering with a 5 gallon bucket of water inside a shipping container. Heh.

Afterword: A conspiracy theory

The BLM, likely on behalf of cattle ranchers, want to do away with pinyon/juniper (PJ) forest under the guise that these forests were not endemic. :eyeroll: They actually believe that PJ forest is encroaching on sagebrush ocean (and invasive grasses that cattle graze) and poses a risk for fire because… it burns when lit. So their plan was to chemically treat and burn and raize 40 million acres of PJ forest. BLM poisons and traps the animals which eat the most inflammable (heavy fuel) plants. Mindless. I can’t help but think they’re stupidly enjoying this scale explosion and the easy loss of so many piñons throughout the American Southwest. (But they’ve gotta burn, first! And then you’ve gotta clear them if you want the grazing.)

Remember: Eat a free range burger = grow a barren desert bigger.