Thursday, July 16, 2015

Tree Line

In the late 1990s, I was on a group hike that nearly ended in disaster. About a dozen of us were above tree line on a mountain just as a thunderstorm threatened to move in. Our goal was to reach a small lake near the top, but the thunderstorm made it too dangerous to continue. A handful of people insisted on going anyway. Since it was an organized hike, the entire group needed to return to the trailhead together, so the rest of us waited at an abandoned mine so the others could find us when they returned from the lake.

We hunkered down in what little cover we could find just as the thunderstorm moved over us and began dumping torrents of rain. In the distance, we saw a couple of people become trapped on a rock face, and we were soon joined by a larger group of hikers who were less prepared than we were. We assisted the newcomers and debated just how safe we really were. The storm was bigger than we hoped, and it became clear to most of us that the risk of staying was too great. During a brief lull in the rain, we and the newcomers made a dash for the trees. Luckily, the rest of our group had made the same decision, abandoning their trip to the lake, and joined us at tree line. After hiking down the mountain as fast as possible, we encountered emergency vehicles waiting for the hikers we had seen on rock face.

I was reminded of this story recently as more bad news came in about humanity's sabotage of natural systems. Honeybees, critical to the survival of plants, are losing habitat because of climate change. Meanwhile, scientists have documented a mass die-off of seabirds that suggests serious problems with ocean ecosystems. Catastrophic seal level rise may now be inevitable, again due to climate change; and a new study indicates that we humans are critically reducing the collection and availability of energy necessary for ecosystems – and us – to function.

Like hikers determined to get as far above tree line as possible, we have defined "progress" as distance from Nature. We have done the equivalent of cutting down trees to fuel our ascent, altering the weather in the process and spawning the thunderstorm that threatens to maroon us, and then kill us. Heading back down the mountain is perceived as an act of cowardice, giving up on our dreams; so some people go ahead, while others compromise by waiting in the brush just above tree line until they come to their senses. Meanwhile, the risk is growing that lightning will cause the remaining trees to burn, cutting off escape, and that the thunderstorm will grow and last a very long time.

We can do the equivalent of retreating below tree line, and try to grow as many trees back as possible to reduce the risk; we could hunker down and hope the storm passes; or we could follow our original plan and keep going up. The option you choose depends on what you value; and if you value people's lives above arbitrary personal attainment, then the choice is obvious.

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