This is another excerpt from a novel-in-progress set twenty years after the end civilization and, with it, the end of the Age of Oil. The project is about exploring what might come afterwards, both in terms of society and in terms of climate. The mountain described here is Mount Monadnock, in New Hampshire. Thanks to Peter Palmiotto for his projection of how the forests of Monadnock might look in the future.
“This was once the second or third most climbed mountain in the world,” commented Andy.
“What rank does it have now?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know who climbs what mountains anymore.”
“We climb this one.”
“That we do.”
“This college is focused on forestry and climate change. That seems an odd pair. The mountain is forested so I can see having a forestry school here, but why climate change?”
“See if you can figure it out while we’re here.”
“Ok, I will.”
The day was warm and the path gentle and scenic. Elzy kept an eye out on her surroundings as she walked, expecting a quiz at any time.
She had grown up thinking of global warming as a problem of the past. No one used fossil fuels at all anymore and most people ignored problems larger than their own farms and counties anyway. In college, though, she had learned that anthropogenic climate change was not over.
Warming takes time, so the carbon dioxide released twenty years ago was still heating the sky. And although the age of fossil fuel was over, old gas wells, landfills, and melting permafrost still leaked methane. Forest fires and volcanoes liberated carbon dioxide. On the other hand, at least in North America and probably elsewhere, the forests were re-growing, sucking up carbon. Did the rate of sequestration equal or exceed the rate of emission? No one knew. The old research satellites had all deorbited or stopped worked, mostly years ago, and even many of the ground-based sensors were still offline. In any case, And with few scientists left and less money, no one really had a clear picture of how living systems were adjusting to all these changes. But Elzy could think of no connection between all of that and a mountain in New England. She had a feeling the answer was staring her right in the face.
But then Andy led her off trail to search for a study plot he remembered and could not find. He couldn’t find the trail again either and Elzy forgot about climate change in her fear of getting lost.
“Getting lost is when things get interesting,” Andy reminded her, and set out confidently uphill. Of course, on a mountain, they only had to go up to find the summit and a trail.
As they kept going up, the forest began to change.
The first thing Elzy noticed was a kind of disorganization or ratty-ness. Somehow, the forest reminded her of an old, worn rug. The impression puzzled her until she realized that a lot of the trees around her were dead or dying. Most of them were spruces. There were living spruces as well, sometimes large clumps of them, plus old, tangled blowdowns of indeterminate species, victims of summer squalls or maybe Hurricane Odette. But the dead and dying spruces predominated, standing skeletal and draped with lichen or sometimes still clothed in brown needles. And wherever the canopy was thus opened up, young, deciduous trees, their buds just starting to open, were coming up, knee high, waste-high, or taller, according to the age of the opening. It was this variability, the seemingly disorganized decay and regrowth, that made the woods look ratty. Elzy would have asked Andy what had happened to the trees, but she knew he’d only ask her to figure it out so she puzzled over the matter in silence.
But then, almost between one step and the next, they walked into an unusually large patch of healthy spruces, one so big that Elzy could not see any other kind of forest, except by looking back the way she had come. The place had an utterly different feel, all cool black shadow and primeval reserve. Thin patches of old snow persisted in the shade.
Elzy stopped and looked around and Andy watched her look. After a moment, her eye fell on a particular tree. It was not a spruce, though its needles were just as short. It had smooth grey bark scattered with small oval swellings.
“It’s a sap-tree!” Elzy exclaimed. She reached up to grab a branch and inspected the twigs and needles. Back in Pennsylvania she had learned a lot of species in a herbarium from twig samples and drawings alone, so she needed the twigs to find the tree’s name in her mind.
“Balsam fir, Abies balsamea,” she announced. “I didn’t know balsam fir was the same as sap-tree!” She reached for the trunk with her hands. “I used to love these!” she exclaimed, glancing at Andy. “Me and my brother used to…”
[Here the characters have an interaction that is important to the plot, but unrelated to climate change]
Up on the summit cone a cold wind swept around bare rock and shrubby, young trees. They ate their lunch perched on angular fins of grey granite and Andy told Elzy about the fire that had killed the forest on the peak and the tourists whose trampling feet had kept it from re-growing for generations. It was starting to re-grow now, but the young trees were still small enough to leave an open view, three hundred and sixty degrees of forest, farm-fields, and a few isolated clusters of buildings. Clouds were moving in, the weather starting to change. They headed back down by a different trail so they could see another side of the mountain. It was an advantage of not having to return to a car, of having time and freedom to walk.
It was only on the way down, when they walked out of the snowy spruce-fir forest and back into the deciduous woods of spring, that Elzy suddenly realized what the mountain had to do with global warming.
Red spruce and balsam fir are cold-climate trees, she had known that already. That’s why they grow on top of mountains. So, of course, the dying trees she’d seen were the mark of warmer weather moving up slope—climate change. But, she also remembered that spruce and fir don’t actually grow very well in cold climates. They dominate such places where other trees can’t grow at all. Left alone, the spruces and firs would have prospered in a warmer world, but they could not fight the insects and the competition from faster-growing broad-leaved trees and pines that the milder conditions unleashed. An entire community, the spruces and firs and all the plants and animals dependent on them, was collapsing in the new and gentle world.
Elzy thought about those plants on her way down the mountain, and how surviving, even thriving, does not mean you don’t get hurt.