1 of 3
Disappearing giants. In 10 years, researcher Will Blozan has only found 29 living eastern hemlocks more than 160 feet tall.
2 of 3
Will Blozan. He’s climbing, documenting and preserving trees.
3 of 3
Ashley Lamb. The Virginia Tech postdoctoral student is rearing hardier beetles to fight the hemlock woolly adelgid.
That sucking sound? Well, you can’t hear it at all, but the massive scale of the woolly adelgid’s work on the hemlock trees of the mountains of the South is carried out by tiny insects via even tinier sucking tubes. And perhaps the worst part is the news of just the past several months: The small, relentless, deadly non-native pest is showing up in places where it’s never been seen before, on majestic host trees that were expected not to be hit for at least several years. Experts say the region faces an ecological tragedy that parallels the Chestnut Blight.
Just before Christmas, Will Blozan told me about a grove of giant hemlocks – six trees, each more than 160 feet tall – that he and his Tsuga Search partner Jess Riddle had found the day before in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Ground measurements indicated one tree was more than 170 feet, a height that Will calls “The Holy Grail for eastern hemlocks.” Blozan’s passionate about saving hemlocks from the ravages of the hemlock woolly adelgid. In more than a decade of searching, he’d found only 29 eastern hemlocks more than 160 feet tall – and never a 170-footer. Why wasn’t this man smiling?
I found out soon enough. None of the trees was alive. Since September 2005, I’ve been working on a book about the battle to save the East’s hemlocks from the adelgid. The research has brought me into contact with people whose devotion to hemlocks is extraordinary. Blozan’s one of them. He launched Tsuga Search to find, document and treat the 10 tallest and 10 biggest (by volume of wood). He and Riddle have focused on the Smokies since last summer because the park service is underwriting their research there. Riddle and Blozan do the scouting and climbing; park employees treat the individual trees and groves that Blozan recommends. Though GSMNP is doing more than any other unit in the national park system to fight HWA, it will be able to save only a tiny fraction of its hemlocks. Among Blozan’s recommendations for treatment are two “insanely beautiful” hemlock/Carolina silverbell forests – an extremely rare forest type – that he and Riddle found on LeConte and Lowe’s creeks, forests that, without treatment, he says, “would disappear from the face of the earth within a few years.”
They’re documenting the conditions that nurture behemoths “so that in 50 years people will know to the inch what these trees can do,” Blozan says. “This species is not going to go down unrecognized.” Though Tsuga Search’s work for the park ends in August, and Riddle will be going off to graduate school, Blozan says he will continue the search for big hemlocks “as long as the trees are alive.” Working on the HWA problem from another angle is Ashley Lamb, a postdoctoral student at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. Lamb, who grew up in the Canadian Rockies, is a small woman with dark brown hair that falls to her waist. She came to Tech in 2001 for a master’s degree and wound up earning a doctorate. Her Ph.D. work involved developing protocols for lab-rearing Laricobius nigrinus, a small beetle native to the Pacific Northwest that preys on HWA. Now she’s working with a Japanese Laricobius, an as-yet unnamed beetle she calls Samurai Lari. Beetles she’s working with in VT’s quarantine lab are offspring of beetles she collected last March in Japan. Although closely related to L. nigrinus, the new beetles are “full of surprises,” able to survive at lower temperatures, are more voracious and quicker to develop than their American cousins.
Lamb barely had time to unpack from Japan before she had to leave again – on a 29-day collecting trip to China. Her experiences in the two countries were totally different. In Japan she collected in urban settings along roadsides; in China, she and her cohorts braved roads washed out by streams and buried in landslide debris, then trudged miles to collecting sites. The food in China was full of things she didn’t recognize. Everyone ate from shared bowls. A colleague, who had hepatitis, tried repeatedly to feed her with his chopsticks. That, and pretty much everything she encountered for the first week, scared her.
“I was afraid I was going to catch some dread disease and die – or never be allowed to go home because of it,” she told us.
Lying in bed one night, she got a grip on her fear. “What would be so bad about dying in China?” she asked herself, Nothing, she decided. You have to die somewhere.
“Once I was okay with dying in China, I was okay with everything else. After that, it was a great trip,” she said. She told us this story in a crowded restaurant in Blacksburg. I knew right then I was in the presence of someone extraordinary. After lunch, she took us to her lab, where she opened the doors to the “environmental chambers” (they look like big refrigerators), shelves full of plastic containers in which beetles had begun emerging from soil in which they had been aestivating (a kind of summer hibernation) for months. She’d raised 7,000 larvae from the eggs of the 309 beetles she’d collected. Of the 7,000 that went into the ground, she needed 500 to 700 to conduct her studies. Beetles that aestivate in soil are very hard to lab rear, but Lamb was spectacularly successful. By Christmas she had 1,500. Descendents of these beetles may one day make a life-or-death difference to eastern and Carolina hemlocks, trees that make a life-or-death difference to many living things: to brook trout, Blackburnian and black-throated green warblers, and to blue-headed vireos. You’ve probably never seen a really tall eastern hemlock. I never had until I watched Blozan climb a 167-footer last July. At its base, the tree’s circumference measured 13 feet, one inch; 100 feet up, it was still 9’2” around. The day he climbed the Jim Branch Giant, Blozan treated it with adelgid-killing chemicals. Even with that treatment we may lose the Giant.
I think a lot about Blozan and Lamb. Their dedication to difficult work inspires me. Just before Christmas, reading depressing stories about brawls in big box stores over must-have gifts, I wrote a letter to Blue Ridge Country Editor-in-Chief Kurt Rheinheimer; he passed it on to our publisher Richard Wells. I mentioned how proud I felt, listening to praise for the excellence of work being done at Virginia Tech and by Tsuga Search. Couldn’t we help?
Blozan needs money to continue looking for and saving big trees; Scott Salom, who heads the HWA research effort at Virginia Tech, needs to replace the $5,000 he diverted from other HWA projects to amass the $40,000 needed to add a “cold room” to the quarantine lab for Lamb’s beetles.
Wells has a cause of his own: Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Friends has “been generous to us in the past,” Salom says. That’s because it recognizes the part that hemlocks play in the parkway experience. If you’ve visited Linville Falls – what Blozan calls “the epicenter of the universe for Carolina hemlocks” – you know what I mean. Wells suggested that we appeal to readers to support the Friends’ “Save Our Hemlocks” campaign. Donations will be forwarded to Tsuga Search and to Virginia Tech for their projects.
I’ve been thinking too about my sweetheart’s three-year-old granddaughter Elizabeth. We took her to Linville Falls last August. Her parents, who live where there aren’t any hemlocks, much less big ones, were amazed by the towering trees we walked among. They’ll remember them, though I doubt Elizabeth will. She’s just too little. She’ll need to see what trees like these can do when she reaches her parents’ age – and mine. That’s what I want for her. If we fail to recognize the greater value to our children and grandchildren of gifts like big trees – gifts that enlarge the understanding and feed the spirit – it won’t matter how many presents we pile under Christmas trees for them. We’ll have robbed them of magnificence that no man or woman can create. We can’t all do what Blozan and Lamb do for hemlocks, but we can all do something. In Elizabeth’s honor, I’m making a donation to Friends to save our hemlocks. Please join me.
To help, send donations to: Friends of the Blue Ridge Parkway, P.O. Box 20986 Roanoke, Va. 24018, 1-800-228-7275. (Specify that the gift is to go to “Save Our Hemlocks.”) You can also donate online at: www.blueridgefriends.org. Click the “Donate” button, and, on the page that comes up, click on “Preserve the Hemlocks.”