Saturday, July 25, 2009
This Carboniferous Life
In a sense, carbon has always been the problem. When there were not many of us and there were so many trees, it went unnoticed, not noted, no nota bene, like a fire built in an old fire pit, just another fire. As time went on, rings in the wood counting the years, there were fewer and fewer trees. Once where there were millions, perhaps billions of trees for every human. Currently, the ratio is down to about 60 to one, sixty trees for you and me, to inhale the carbon dioxide we exhale and give off precious oxygen we inhale. How soon will we outnumber them?
My back against a big oak, I can feel the solidity of centuries, slow determined growth that exemplifies survival, the strength of the sun. I also have a slab from an old cherry tree, more than 50 inches across, cut down after a storm had broken it beyond saving. I hope to make a table. This wood is made from light, the same radiant sun that warmed my great grandfather, the water he drank and air he breathed abides in this wood. The sun trapped in the wood, every day of every season, a record of time is added incrementally to every ring of wood. Pipelines of nutrition flow up and down inside the bark; the languid limbs lift up to the sky, bristle with branches and burst with leaves, each leave breathing in the carbon dioxide, breathing out the oxygen; drinking in the water and soaking up the sunlight. This tree like all trees is, in a sense, time itself, a record of growth and weather in flood and drought, in heat and cold.
The chemical composition of wood, of cellulose, is carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and high-energy bonds combined in the solar furnace of the sunlight over many years. Each fat or thin ring records the conditions in that year. As it dries, wood hardens and tightens, the cells becoming less moist and stronger. Each time we build a fire, we release the sum of the sunlight, the history of days, and leave in its place timeless ashes. The process produces carbon oxides, unconsumed ones that we call carbon monoxide and dioxide.
After trees got scarcer, (as they continue to do,) coal, more efficient but even dirtier. became the source of energy. Extracted in every cruder ways, coal has always been a killer from a hundred mines where men still lie buried to the mountain tops stopping up the runs and hollows with "overburden" that leeches pollutants. After coal and the darkened skylines of the industrial age, came the age of oil. Just a different carbon compound with more captive suns to for incomplete combustion to fill the sky with sulfurous and carboniferous compounds. Our multiplying tailpipes and chimneys and smokestacks have turned our planet into a laboratory. We are experimenting, as we have since the first fire, with how much we can alter our atmosphere. It is dangerous and foolish modernity when the world creates its own extinction.
I fear a future when trees are kept in closed off, perhaps bubble-domed "preserves," similar to zoos, where one can actually observe a willow or an oak, "in the wild" and where children point in awe, the way they do now at tigers and elephants. Look at Haiti or Easter Island, where the trees were stripped from the soil and eroding masses of mudslides grow larger each year.
The basic carbon unit is the root of the world itself. We are carbon-based life forms. We play with our future and our grandchildren will live with the consequences. Think of that the next time you sit in the shade.