A few years ago, I went camping with a buddy in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest that surrounds Mt. St. Helens, home to 2,000-year-old lava tunnels and old-growth trees of Douglas Firs. It’s a magical woodland; a real-life diorama you’d only find from Ridley Scott’s 1985 film, Legend.
There, we sat on the forest floor surrounded by giant clovers and played Magic the Gathering on a log. And all around us were these enormous sentinels of trees, giving life to hundreds of species. If you’ve never exposed yourself to an old-growth forest in person, you must do it. There is something unsaid about it; something extremely humbling meeting a living organism that is older than any person you’ll ever meet in your life.
That said, I can’t imagine what it would feel like meeting a tree stump that is 280 million-years-old! That is precisely what Erik Gulbranson, a paleoecologist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, found in Antarctica. Not the place you’d expect trees, yet that was common for the period that tree grew in. The tree was a now-extinct species called, Glossopteris; a typical tree of its time that grew up to 131 feet tall with broad-flat leaves that are larger than a man’s forearm. This tree grew in the Permian period when Earth’s continents were once a large mass of land known as Pangaea and the area had a much more temperate climate. These were prevalent just before the Permian-Triassic mass extinction that happened about 252 million years ago, when 95% of the planet’s species died out, including this species. What later followed were evergreen and deciduous trees, including an ancestor of modern ginkgos. Scientists believe this mass extinction was likely caused by a spike in greenhouse gases from multiple volcanic eruptions that warmed the Earth and acidified the oceans, not unlike today’s climate change, albeit a little less extreme.
Though the severity of current global warming does not parallel the Permian-Triassic extinction precisely, there is still a severity that should not be ignored. May the fossilized Glossopteris stump be seen as a prehistoric reminder of what history can teach us. In today’s world, global warming and climate change are topics that are hard to avoid. The news, politics, social media, and people at the nearby café all contain current talk of the rise in greenhouse gases and the acidification of our oceans. As dire as these messages of “humans destroying the Earth” sound, one thing needs to be clarified: We are not destroying the Earth; the planet will survive us. It may take thousands of years, if not more, to balance back to a new normal again, but it will. The actual question before the court, however, is whether or not we’ll be around to see this. Most scientists today all agree that the rapid rise in global temperatures is anthropogenic, starting around the Industrial Revolution, and 15,000 of them just released a severe warning of our current environmental state and where it’s headed.
Though the slight rise in global temperatures might not seem very scary to us, what it causes is scary. Global warming not only melts the polar ice caps with threats of rising sea level but it also creates more catastrophic storms that can now reach more inland and thus, unprepared communities. With winter being milder, hundreds of pests that would normally be dormant from freezing temperatures now stay active and eradicate trees and crops for miles. The acidification of oceans doesn’t just cause coral bleaching; it also makes it harder for delicate fish species to survive which disrupts the food chain, the health of the oceans, and our food source as well as resources we extract from the sea. A healthy ocean also acts as a carbon dioxide filter which could help lower greenhouse gases to a more sustainable level. And the list of degradation continues. We are not independent of this planet; we are biological of this planet. We depend on it to supply us food, health, hygiene, shelter, transportation, energy, and all the little things in our day to day. If we continue with our harmful habits and routines that maintain the current path toward global warming, then we will become another fossilized tree stump. But if we can learn from the history of what this can do, and stop our mistakes from continuing, then we will someday look back at this and be grateful to have the chance to camp in old-growth forests again.
Kansas Stanton is a Naturalistic Neo-Pagan who resides in Seattle, Washington. He belongs to, and practices with, a local group of Reform Pagans and blogs at https://leavesontheroad.wordpress.com/. He also volunteers every year at the Esoteric Book Conference in Seattle and regularly attends various Pagan festivals and events.
He is a full-time student, earning his degree in Environmental Science and a Certificate in Sustainability, after which time he will move on to law school to receive his Juris Doctor in Environmental Law. When Kansas is not in class or working his job in the art industry, he also attends heavy metal concerts both locally and internationally. He is also a vegan outdoorsman who frequents the trails and whitewater rivers of the pacific northwest and loves to spend his time with friends over a cold, dark beer.