Blight, Fires, and Balor

Ohi’a blossom

As I write, fires rage out of control in Northern California not far from my former home. In the San Francisco Bay Area people wear masks because of the smoke, and air quality is more like what is common in Beijing and Delhi. Over the summer vast areas burned from British Columbia and Washington to Greenland (!) and Siberia.


Across the northern hemisphere conifer forests have become more vulnerable to bark beetle infestations leaving wide swathes of dead trees as temperatures rise. Pine sap is normally full of volatile chemicals that fend off pests (and trees communicate to other in the forest when they are under invasion, so their neighbors can mount their defenses too), confusing their pheromones, disrupting their reproduction. But the increase of droughts weakens trees, stressing them and they can’t produce as much sap. 85,000 acres of conifer forest have burned in the western US since 2000. Of course, dead forests are carbon sources, a negative feedback loop created.


Then there are the spreading blights. Phytophthora, which means plant destroyer or plant ruin, is a genus of oomycytes, fungus-like plant pathogens, sometimes called water molds. One species P. infestans was the ‘late blight’ that devastated Ireland during the colonial-caused Irish potato famine of the 1840s (an event that brought some of my ancestors to North America). Phythopthora ramorum causes Sudden Oak Death, the disease that has wrecked havoc on California’s iconic oak trees. Many other species including bay laurels are victims. It was first identified in California in 1995 infesting tanoak trees and has spread to Oregon too. I hardly need write that the oak is a tree especially associated with Druids; dair meaning oak is an ogam meaning steadfast, enduring, foundations, stability, justice, and a threshold to other worlds. The oak is a tree able to survive lightning blasts. Sometimes I see these blights as the Fomorians of Irish myth, beings destructive and inimical to our interests, whatever their own may be, like Balor of the Evil Eye whom Lugh killed. Though, it’s important to remember that the god Lugh was part Fomorian himself.


In Hawai’i forests there is a beautiful, signature tree called the Ohi’a—Metrosideros polymorpha. It is sacred in Hawaiian indigenous culture and is aptly named the ‘many formed” as it can grow on inhospitable lava beds as a small shrub and can reach heights of 100 feet in wet mountain forests, where it is a canopy tree. It has beautiful red flowers called lehua. Yet it too has recently come under attack from a disease named Rapid Ohia Death, caused by a fungus called Ceratocystis fimbriata. Plant pathologis, “Keith says that the pathogen causing the ‘ohi‘a blight is a heretofore unknown strain of the well-known pest. The fungus clogs the vascular system of the trees, making them wilt and die as if from a drought, sometimes in a matter of weeks after infection. It appears to get into the tree through wounds in the bark, like those inflicted by big windstorms, which have become more frequent in the past few years on the Big Island”.


People don’t think about trees getting stressed, but like humans they do show signs of stress, just as they also show the ability to learn. Stressed by changing rainfall patterns, their defense mechanisms from pests are lowered. In locations throughout the world, prominent species are being attacked by pathogens, further undermining forest health, and often leaving more dead wood for forest fires, on top of the amount of fuel that has often grown due to modern (mis)conceptions of managing for fires, that is fire suppression. In California, various tree species can only have their seeds sprout after begin submitted to a fire, including the sequoia. But these fires are so far beyond any natural fire cycle.


Unfortunately, we’re like to see more and more of these disease phenomena as the climate continues to heat up over the coming years. As in many places summers become drier and winters wetter, conditions favor the blight organisms and stress out the trees more.


It’s easy to imagine at some early point in prehistory, primitive humans staring in awe, in a mixture of self-importance and fear, at the fires they managed to start. The management of fire is considered to be a marker for the development of modern humans. The cooking fire is the generator of storytelling, providing besides easily digested nutrition, safety on the ground (the ability to leave trees for sleeping). A core of spirituality is still seen in bonfires and the fire of druid circles, and sacred hearth fires, yet fire remains a weapon too, one that go very wrong. Fire haunts the human imagination; speaks in the drive to create weapons of unimaginable destructions; it lit the caves where Paleolithic artists painted their wounds of separation from the animals. The people listened for the gods in the fire from heaven—and sometimes got fried. Last night the lightning flashed on the mountain, thunder rolled, and the rain pelted down.


Can we possibly step out at this point in humanity’s cycle and see the great destruction, the disruptions, and find the resolve to change our ways, to challenge those determined to keep the destruction going for their profits; can we hear the voices of the gods and spirits calling us to act against the capitalism-made greater blight that threatens to overtake our entire planet? In the disruption of the great storm, under the oaks, drawing the ogam dair we step into the nemeton. Listening attentively in this ruptured space the voices of the gods can be heard: ‘Balor can be defeated’.

Sudden Oak Death (Wiki)

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