I cannot help but feel an inescapable sense of foreboding. I cannot recall a time when it has been this hot, this dry, so early in the season. We have come through a winter without snow, without rain, without any real cold to speak of.
There is no leaf cover yet, so there is no shade from the harsh sun. The early plants that were lured out by the preternatural warmth are already sun scalded and bleaching. The spring earth is light and dusty with no moisture to bind it. In contrast to many Aprils past, when we wait for the damp earth to dry and warm before planting it, now we worry if what we have already planted can survive this harsh trial—a concern more common to June and July.
The trees have not come on yet. When they begin their colossal transpiration, what little moisture remains will be sucked from the ground and given to the sky, draining that reservoir to its limits. We can only hope for a change that would be both unlikely and unrealistic. Once the dry season sets in, it creates its own paradigm and relinquishes its hold only in the face of great perturbations, changes that carry their own hazards—hurricanes and tropical storms that burst themselves against the ramparts of the mountains. And the streams already run low, in April.
What we are experiencing now foreshadows a summer of heat and drought. The wider risk is of fire, both in the present and well off into the future. With some effort, we can capture the few small rains and shunt that water towards our most critical needs: the vegetable gardens, the young, unestablished trees and shrubs. But drought means that there is no rain; the small storms become smaller, fewer and farther between. We watch them anxiously on the radar, popping up nearby only to fade and dissipate before quenching our desperate thirst.
We can care for the few and the dear, but each summer of drought—and we have seen more of them than we would like to acknowledge—pushes the forest closer to the edge, to a point where something will happen that cannot be undone. Call it a tipping point, call it anything at all. But what we will see is a slow diminution, a gentle reduction in the health of the forest canopy and understory, until one day a wind comes and takes it all down in a final act of loss and destruction.
It is not hard to stand on this rocky hill with its thin mantle of dry soil, and envision the steps to a dry and wide-open future—slow decline, death, sweeping fire, rain, erosion—and what was once the great eastern climax forest of mixed hardwoods, home to deer and black bear and wild turkey and bobcat, to raccoon and possum and pileated woodpecker and ruffed grouse and green heron and box turtle has become the great eastern savannah, home to whomever is left.
In lieu of the great cool forests that greeted the Europeans, where it was said that a squirrel could traverse the forest canopy from the Chesapeake to the Mississippi without touching the earth, we will bequeath to our grandchildren and great-grandchildren a vast, open grassland, a prairie spreading from the Atlantic to the Continental Divide.
I am at once glad that I will not be here to see it, and moved to grief for what we will leave behind for those who follow.