and Cops: An Eco-Mystery Thriller
by Peter Bane
If you'd just witnessed the crime of the century and you thought
you knew the culprit and the story, wouldn't you be eager
to tell it? No, I don't mean Dubya and the Twin Towers - that
one's already been figured out, but another story, from another
century, copiously reported but equally misunderstood.
Ninety-nine years ago, also in New York, officials identified
a sinister Asian invader as the cause of what would become
the catastrophe of modern North American history. Livelihoods
would be devastated, vast tracts of the country depopulated,
violence and crime would explode in the wake of the disaster;
whole communities were dragged into drug trafficking. Slow
at first to react, the nation soon grasped the full implications
of the tragedy. A crash program to defend the homeland was
launched with support of the government in Washington. Restrictions
on transit were imposed. Chemical warfare was initiated. A
scorched earth policy was attempted but ultimately failed
because the enemy was too wily. Escaping from the government
legions sent to hunt it down and contain its villainy, the
menace reproduced invisibly and spread rapidly throughout
the population, wreaking havoc with the economy.
For a more innocent and optimistic America, Cryphonectria
parasitica was the Osama bin Laden of its day. A cruel
and ruthless murderer, it would ultimately slay one in every
...trees. Chestnuts: the dominant tree of the Eastern forests.
Four billion in number, ranging from Maine to Mississippi
with outliers in the Midwest, they comprised 25-40% of the
mixed deciduous hardwoods. Called "Redwoods of the East"
because of their towering height and immense girth (some reached
20 feet in diameter, over 100 feet in both height and spread),
the trees formed the backbone of the rural economy over the
full length of the Appalachian Mountains and foothills. Valued
for their straight-grained, lightweight, and rot-resistant
timber; the tannins from their bark and wood; and for their
tremendous crops of sweet, delicious, nuts avidly eaten by
humans and wildlife alike; the Chestnut was without peers
in the vegetable kingdom. Today, all that remain are millions
of shrubby stump sprouts (some trees not killed entirely have
put up new shoots, but these succumb to the disease after
a few years), a handful of erratics in unique situations,
and a small number of declining groves in Wisconsin and Michigan
that were late to be infected: Victims of the blight, every
Every school child in America hears this story sooner or later.
It's been repeated in thousands of publications. It's old
news, a tragedy long past, if not forgotten: perhaps an early
harbinger of America's fall from grace. For the record there
are new and promising developments, too. Chestnut enthusiasts
began breeding blight resistance (from Asian chestnuts, the
presumed agents of infection) into American chestnuts in the
late 1970's and expect to have a quantity of blight-resistant
seeds and trees for planting out by 2005 or 2006.  Other
groups have been working to diminish the virulence of the
pathogen by inoculating infected trees with another fungal
agent from Europe that renders chestnut blight much less harmful,
thus allowing the tree to survive and reproduce, a process
known as hypervirulence.  There have even been attempts
to bioengineer the disease to limit its destructiveness. These
are worthy efforts and the individuals involved are dedicated
visionaries, but let's step back for a moment from the drama
of loss and recovery to examine what may have been behind
this shocking set of events.
To develop a full sense of the crime that happened to the
American chestnut (Castanea dentata), we have to
understand its life cycle and evolutionary history, its botany,
and its role in the vast biome for botany, and its role in
the vast biome for which it had become emblematic. We also
need to look at the chronology of its demise to learn what
we can about the roots of this epidemic. The pathways of our
investigation may take us in some unexpected directions.
When the chestnut blight (Cryphonectria parasitica,
sometimes called Endothia parasitica) was first identified
on American chestnut in 1904 at the New York Zoological Garden,
it's likely that the disease had already been at work for
as much as a generation. This is inferred because the spread
of the disease was very rapid after 1904.
The first Japanese chestnuts were imported to the United States
in 1876 for the nursery trade. Japanese chestnuts (C.
crenata), which have very large nuts, are the most blight
resistant of the main chestnut species. Their Chinese cousins
(C. mollissima) share some of this resistance. The
European species (C. sativa) was susceptible, and
was infected by the blight in the 1950's after its American
cousins had already collapsed, but surprisingly, a hypovirulent
(less potent) strain of the fungus appeared in Italy and spread
through European groves. After about 15 years of infection
the European chestnuts seemed to have recovered; they continue
to bear commercial crops.
Not so lucky the American chestnut. Soon after the blight
was discovered in the Bronx, infected trees were found in
southern New England and New Jersey. The blight began its
slow, deadly march south along the Appalachian chain.
Chestnuts were more than an important tree in Appalachia -
they had been the ridgepole of the economy. Chestnut lumber
was far and away the greatest part of the economic value of
the hardwood forest. It was used for everything from barns
to caskets. The trees provided the nations's main source of
tannin for leather processing. Animals, including large herds
of domestic hogs, fattened on the nuts, and perhaps most socially
significant, the chestnut provided a ready cash income to
millions of rural dwellers. In an era when the daily wage
averaged $1.75, chestnuts sold for ten cents a pound. A man
working the harvest could easily gather 100 pounds in a day,
and could put by a year's savings from a few weeks work. 
The subsequent loss of the chestnut, simultaneous in most
places with Prohibition, drove rural mountain dwellers to
"moonshining," converting their corn into mash and
thence to bootleg whiskey, as the only way to derive a cash
income from the land and to pay the taxes. Later tobacco would
join alcohol as a principal replacement for the chestnut in
the region's cash economy.
About 1911, as it became obvious that a catastrophe was in
the making, the federal government began funding efforts to
avert the impending disaster. Plant quarantine legislation
was passed in 1912. Fungicides were tried unsuccessfully.
Chemical treatment proved ineffective. Attempts were made
to cut a wide "firebreak" barrier to prevent the
advance of the disease, but the blight jumped past it, spreading
as much as 50 miles a year. By 1938, most of the chestnuts
In the early years of the 20th century, scientific forestry
was in its infancy. Evolutionary biology was still a relatively
new science, and ecology was scarcely known. Although the
chestnut emergency stimulated scientific research into the
etiology of the fungal disease, and breeding work based on
this research appears promising, a holistic view of the phenomenon
has yet to emerge. A crisis and bottom-up action appears,
through these same tools of analysis, to be random and chaotic.
Its true meaning may only be understood by taking a systems
approach or top-down view.
Chestnut first appeared in North America about 40 million
years ago. It is a member of the beech family, Fagaceae, to
which belong also the oaks, all relatively long-lived, crown-bearing
nut trees common to the forests of Europe, North America,
and east Asia. These trees are all "mast" bearers,
that is, they throw large crops of seed every two to three
years rather than annually. Their highly nutritious nuts are
rich in carbohydrates and less oily that the walnuts and hickories,
to which they are more distantly related. The mast provided
seasonal food for a huge number of birds and mammals, as well
as humans, and the irregular pulsing of the tree's reproductive
cycle was an adaptation to this heavy seed predation, a strategy
biologists call "satiation." A periodic dearth of
mast suppresses populations of the deer, turkey, squirrels,
pigeons, and others who prey upon the tree's seeds. This ensures
that when abundance returns a year or two later, some of the
billions of seeds will survive the (much reduced) onslaught
of hungry seed predators.
of a Forest Giant
Among the chestnuts, the American produces the smallest but
the sweetest nut, a food that was highly prized by native
Americans, the European settlers in the region, and by a plethora
Within the 200 million acres of its native range, American
chestnut dominated the forest. At the time of its collapse
it was at least one in every four trees throughout the eastern
U.S. Favoring north- and east-facing cove slopes where it
comprised over half of the forest, it often occurred in pure
stands. Dominance was supported by it ability to persist shrub-like
in the undergrowth for many years (the reason it has not been
eliminated biologically from the forest), its habit of rapid
growth following disturbance, and by the production of allelopathic
chemicals in its leaves and bark. These substances, leachates
of which were constantly dripped into the surrounding soils
by regular rains, suppressed the seed germination and growth
of other trees such as white pine and hemlock which might
otherwise have competed successfully for the same niches chestnut
favored.  Great height assured its ability to photosynthesize
and bear seed, while rot-resistant wood allowed the tree to
persist in the constantly moist environments of its native
The chestnut, unlike its cousins the oaks and beeches, with
which it was often associated, is a shallow-rooted tree. It
achieved its towering heights and great spreads by the use
of lightweight wood and a massive reach of lateral roots.
It typically grew on well-drained, sloping soils, in moist
microclimates under high rainfall regimes, all factors consistent
with its rooting habit.
So, we should ask: How did this tree, which grew so fast and
bore copious crops of nutrient-rich seeds, feed itself?
Like other deciduous species in the Eastern North American
forest, chestnut dropped its leaves each autumn to blanket
the soils at its roots, and these droppings over millennia
built up deep humus-rich soils which, like a battery, were
able to hold the vast quantities of nutrient needed to feed
the trees. But what charged the battery? Soils in the southern
Appalachians (where the chestnuts reached their greatest glory),
despite present forest cover, are heavily leached and nutrient-poor.
The trees still drop their leaves, but the soil battery has
been run down. Some of this, to be sure, is a historic consequence:
logging throughout the Appalachians was ruthless and soil
erosion losses were immense. But we have to see past this.
Chestnuts grew on slopes where soils were always thinner and
less fertile than in the bottomlands. Rainfall of 50-60 inches
per year promotes soil acidity which in turn ties up some
minerals, and together with warm summer temperatures stimulates
rapid leaching of the rest. Are we facing a paradox?
The heaviest logging and the most destructive erosion occurred
after the chestnut blight began to spread, in the 1920's.
In part this was an effect of the blight, which encouraged
landowners to cut chestnuts for their wood before, or shortly
after infection. With one of every four trees removed from
the forest, some in pure stands, a shock wave rolled over
the mountains. In the wake of this logging and with the loss
of the chestnut gutting the local cash economy, massive depopulation
took place throughout rural Appalachia.
Our question remains, however, what was at the root of this
collapse, the end phases of which were so grim? Human activity
without a doubt: The chestnuts fell victim to foreign imports.
They were an early casualty of global trade: a host of helpful,
noble, innocent natives felled by a dastardly foreign villain.
That story played well to a society grappling with endemic
racism, but it's rather too simple. Something is missing.
Let's consider the heroic success of the chestnut.
Following the last glaciation and southward retreat of the
hardwood forests, the chestnut began to spread out of the
southern Appalachian coves where it had taken refuge, back
into the Ohio Valley and New England. Pollen records indicate
that it reached Connecticut and Massachusetts in large numbers
about 2500 years ago.  A parallel but even more pronounced
spike in New England chestnut populations appears to have
followed on the arrival of Europeans in the area some four
hundred years ago, suggesting that disturbance favors its
We appear to be dealing with an opportunistic and aggressive
tribal tree species that was at the same time long-lived and
dependent on relatively high levels of available soil nutrient.
It both suppressed unrelated competitors in its own niche
by the use of allelopathic chemicals, and outstripped the
growth of those close relatives, oak and beech, which could
tolerate its chemical effusions. What sustained it?
Plants that produce fruits are always interested in attracting
bird or other animal seed dispersers as part of their reproductive
strategies. The energetic investment in fruit is paid back
by the manifold opportunities to reach distant niches with
one's offspring delivered in a high-nutrient packet of fertilizer.
But chestnut seems not to have adopted this evolutionary approach;
rather it depended on the scatterbrained habit of squirrels
to plant its seeds nearby and forget where most of them went!
Since the tree was tolerant of understory conditions and content
to live in pure stands, distant spread of its progeny apparently
wasn't needed, while the advantages of growth close by the
protective boughs and chemistry of the tribe were considerable.
Most of the animals that fed on chestnuts were seed predators:
deer, turkey, and the now extinct passenger pigeon. While
deer populations at upwards of 10 million may now exceed historic
levels (because of the increase of patchiness in the landscape
and the absence of large predators), and turkey numbers are
recovering from a low of 30,000 a century ago to nearly a
million and a half today, in sheer numbers, in total biomass,
and in the rapidity of cycling of food resources, these surviving
creatures were completely dwarfed by the passenger pigeon.
It is to the saga of the pigeon's glory and final days that
we must turn for clues to the nutrient base of the chestnut.
Bird Made for Flight
There was never a sight in all the world we humans have known
to match the splendor of the passenger pigeon in its flights.
Vivid in their red, gold, and purple plumage, with long tails
and streamlined bodies, they were grace incarnate as they
sped by overhead in veritable torrents of birds, wheeling
and turing, rising and diving with a thunderous flapping of
their wings, as if the whole were an avian embodiment of the
aurora borealis. Perhaps the great herds of wildlife moving
over the Serengeti may inspire a similar feeling of awe.
Numbering, like the chestnut, about four billion individuals
in the early 19th century, the passenger pigeon may have been
the most successful social bird ever to have lived. Completely
dominating the skies within its range, it may have been as
much as 40% of the bird population of the continent, the most
numerous higher animal species on earth at the time.  Intensely
gregarious, it massed in numbers beyond comprehension. J.J.
Audubon describes a flock that passed him over Kentucky. He
began tallying groups as they passed overhead but soon gave
up as the sky was darkened with their vast number for more
than three days. Hundreds of millions of birds in each mass
may have flown together. The largest roosting of passenger
pigeons ever recorded was seen in Wisconsin in 1871: it spread
over 850 square miles, and was estimate at 136 million, over
250 birds per acre. This, however, was after their numbers
had already begun to decline significantly.
The pigeons were adapted to prime functions: they fed voraciously
and systematically, and they flew like mad. Having effectively
escaped the limits of predation, they drew strength in sheer
numbers and great speed, overwhelming the ability of any predators
(save ultimately humans) to seriously dent the size of the
colony. Audubon again reports that birds taken in New York
had undigested grains of rice in their crops, seed that could
only have been eaten fresh from the fields in South Carolina
or Georgia. Since the power of the bird's digestion is great
and complete passage of food takes no more than 12 hours,
he concluded that they must have exceeded a sustained speed
of 60 miles per hour in their marathon flights.
With keen eyesight they could survey the countryside at high
speed to assess the availability of large food resources.
After locating a sufficiently rich country the colony would
roost in dense forest, settling into the upper branches at
such densities that large limbs regularly fell crashing through
the masses of birds perched below, and "many trees two
feet in diameter, I observed, were broken off at no great
distance above the ground..."wrote the master artist
and naturalist. On their departure the roosting areas would
resemble "very much a section of country over which has
passed a violent hurricane," noted Col. David Crockett
Once roosted, the colony would range, en masse, up to 200
miles a day in search of food, returning at night to the woods.
They ate like the whirlwind, observers commenting on the rolling
wheel of birds that would move through an area. The colony
would land and the lead birds would move systematically through
the fields or wood, eating seeds, nuts, berries, earthworms,
grasshoppers, and even burrowing with their beaks for tubers
and legume nodules. As the front exhausted an area, birds
in the rear would rise up, swoop over the flock, and settling
to earth just ahead of the colony's advance, take their place
on the feeding line. This continued patiently throughout the
day or until predators menaced, then the whole mass would
take wing and speed off to another area. They continued harvesting
until the resources of the whole region were depleted;
then they would depart to find the next landscape of surplus.
In their migrations they never took the same path twice, but
always sought territories rich with food.
Undaunted by cold (they ranged north to Hudson's Bay and to
the south end of Lake Winnipeg, 58 degrees and 62 degrees
N. latitude respectively), they were recorded moving north
in early March while temperatures hovered at -20 degrees F.
Winters were spent in the upland of Louisiana, Mississippi,
Alabama, Georgia, and the Carolinas. They reached the Atlantic
only sporadically, but inhabited both flanks of the Appalachians
and ranged west of the Mississippi River and south to the
Texas Hill country.
Long-lived (the last passenger pigeon died in captivity at
29 years of age), the birds bred in affectionate, talkative
pairs, nested clumsily, and raised one or two squabs per nesting,
most typically one male, the other female. The nests, made
hastily of coarse twigs, were so poorly constructed that often
one of the two eggs laid or the two squabs hatched would fall
to the ground inadvertently, there to make a meal for some
eager animal. The breeding cycle took a little less than a
month and was repeated several times each season. Audubon
estimates their increase to be two to four times their number
per year. Since the population had probably peaked near the
capacity of the subcontinent to support their profligacy,
it can be imagined that several billion passenger year (at
10-12 oz / 280-335g each, some 10 to the 9th power kilograms
of protein) were consumed by various organisms, and that they
converted an immense amount of vegetable and insect matter
into meat and dung.
"...and their dung would fall like hail." 
"The dung fell in spots not unlike melting flakes of
"The dung lay several inches deep covering the whole
extent of the roosting places."
They favored beechnuts, chestnuts, and oaks, eating so avidly
that on swallowing a particularly large acorn, a bird might
be seen to gasp for some time as if choking. Undoubtedly they
preferred the smaller beech and chestnut mast for its ease
of consumption. They harvested not only fallen nuts but those
still on the tree, having perfected a method of grasping the
nuts in the husks and flapping their wings backwards to extract
What the observers imply, but do not record, is the action
of the birds in concentrating nutrients from the surrounding
territories onto the soils of the larger forest tracts. For
the birds always sought out large unbroken woodlands for their
roosts (so much so that late 19th-century deforestation together
with commercial hunting almost ensured the pigeons' doom).
No more perfect description of a nutrient pump ideally matched
to the demands of the shallow-rooted deep-forest dominating
chestnut could be conceived. The birds, which began their
nesting in mid-May, would lay down a thick mat of mineral-rich
manure just ahead of the chestnut's June-July bloom, a delivery
of trace elements well-timed to support the chestnut's profuse
flowering, its white blossoms giving the mountains the appearance
of freshly fallen snow at mid-summer.
In addition, the devastation wrought by the pigeons' roosting
would have been an advantage for young chestnuts growing understory,
opening holes in the canopy that probably allowed the trees
to consolidate their hold on an area.
But the flocks Audubon had observed in the 1830's began to
diminish after the Civil War. By the 1870's clearing of forests
for farmland accelerated their decline as the telegraph and
railroad networks allowed commercial hunters at last to compete
with the birds' prodigious speed. Markets in teeming eastern
cities made wholesale slaughter financially attractive and
literally trainloads of pigeons were shipped to the cities.
Huge volumes were fed to hogs. Michigan recorded its last
large nesting in 1878, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania in
1886. By 1890 the passenger pigeon was functionally extinct,
though isolated birds were still seen in the wild for another
ten years. The last wild pigeon was shot about 1900. 
Though they had bred successfully in captivity since the 1870's,
efforts to raise the pigeons artificially failed when they
disappeared from the wild. The first phase of the crime
was complete. "Martha," the last captive pigeon
in the Cincinnati Zoo, took with her to eternity the heartbeat
of this remarkable race on September 1st, 1914.
The thesis that these two great American extinctions may be
causally linked appears to have received little attention.
Popular historians and ecologists of every stripe list them
in virtually the same breath as landmark, human-generated
events, yet the ornithologists seem to not be communicating
with the forest biologists. Ecologists might seem a likely
group to have given this notion a passing glance. Surely a
few have at least entertained the thought.
This hypothesis, which, absent one of its main components,
is not susceptible to ironclad proof, could nevertheless be
tested by exploring in greater detail than has been done heretofore,
the link between mineral availability and blight infection
in chestnut. My brief researches turned up some references
to present-day blight-free (though stunted) populations of
chestnut in association with mineral tailings from a zinc
mine in Pennsylvania. If zinc tailings (containing who knows
what, at undoubtedly hideous levels of acidity) can keep chestnut
blight-free, what about two or three inches a year of bird
Forest clearance has been widely understood as contributing
to the demise of the pigeon, but the bird's pre-eminence -
let me now call it a keystone species - in cycling nutrients
over the eastern half of the continent cannot be underestimated.
Writers have noted, in the context of pigeon extinction, the
"inexplicable" shrinkage of the beech forests since
early colonial times, but have made little of it. I posit
that the chestnuts (which did indeed succumb to the blight
organism, truly imported from the Orient)were rendered dramatically
more susceptible than they might otherwise have been by the
choking off of a main nutrient flow in the generation immediately
preceding 1904. Indeed, the blight, probably present from
the 1870's onward, may have been kept in check by the residual
effects of the great nutrient pump. I suspect that European
chestnuts weathered the attack of the blight and survived
because of agricultureal cycling of nutrients in the orchards
by the sue of swine, a creature whose manure is even higher
in zinc than that of poultry. We must ask ourselves: Might
not more of the American chestnuts have survived had the pigeons
still been roosting in them, and had the trees not been mowed
down in a kind of "salvage-logging" hysteria, which
surely eliminated any evidence of native genetic resistance?
These surface-feeding trees required a powerful replenishment
of mineral nutrient for their steady production of mast and
their rapid growth. In the high-rainfall environments of their
native range, soils are readily leached of these nutrients
unless continuously "topped up". The balance is
a delicate one.
Though no one cognizant of modern ecological theory was able
to record the interactions of pigeons with chestnut trees,
I have personally observed parallels with other surface-feeding
Macadamia nuts were established in Hawaii from about 1964
to diversify an agriculture heavily dependent on sugarcane.
These large nut plantations, managed by the Big Five sugar
companies throughout the islands, were treated to the full
range of conventional agro-technology: chemicals and mechanical
harvesting. By the early nineties a mysterious fungal organism
had appeared which caused many macadamia trees to die suddenly,
within 90 days of infection. I witnessed in one orchard the
harvesting of nuts by mechanical vacuum acton that sucked
everything of the orchard floor up to and including stones
the size of golf balls. Simultaneous with the pillage, a scientist
on the other side of the orchard was explaining earnestly
to a group of tourist about the grim fate of trees growing
sick with this mystery fungus. Since the macadamia is a surface-feeding
rain forest species, it should have been no surprise that
30 years of abuse to the roots of these trees, even on rich
volcanic soils, would result in nutrient depletion, and weakening,
for which the mystery fungus was only the cleanup crew.
Restoration of the chestnut proceeds and I await it as eagerly
as any, but the eventual re-establishment of chestnut groves
would be greatly supported by the incorporation of an element
of rapid nutrient cycling such as the pigeons once supplied.
Our confounding by the germ theory of disease and a century
of phony medicine has crippled our civilization's ability
to understand biological phenomena holistically, especially
in the arena of death.  The same focus on actors and objects
rather than processes and energies has crippled our political
understanding as well. But let me conclude with a brief consideration
of the concept of key species.
A Keystone of
the Continent's Arch
I believe that the passenger pigeon was a key nutrient cycler
that maintained forest health on a sub-continental scale throughout
the eastern forest biome. By the nature of its scale it could
have but few parallels. Two others that come to mind
immediately are the bison, which numbering in excess of 50
millions maintained the tall-and short-grass prairies over
a million square miles of the mid-continent - and which were
also ecologically extinguished in the late 19th century; and
secondly, the salmon, whose final days we may be tragically
fated to mark soon. These anadromous (ocean-living, river-spawning)
fish translocated huge quantities of marine minerals and protein
to the headwaters of western rivers where they form a key
link in the food web, supplying, with the help of top carnivore
bear and birds of prey, phosphorus, calcium, and trace minerals
of inestimable value to inland ecosystems.  These minerals
moved not in the salmon's feces, as did the nutrients harvested
by the bison and the passenger pigeon, but as their bodies,
which are sacrificed annually by the millions of pounds.
Of course the bison and the pigeon all fed large numbers of
carnivores and small consumers. Nutrient flows from the pigeon
may have reached 10 billion kilograms / year or more (concentrated
on the forests); from the bison herds, two or three times
as much, though more uniformly spread across the grasslands.
In aggregate these volumes approach the scale of modern commercial
fertilizer use (much of which is wasted anyway). Salon harvest
(over a smaller though still significant territory) may have
reached approximately 500 million pounds annually in Washington,
Oregon, California and Idaho; we can only guess what prehistoric
quantities were involved, to say nothing of the Canadian and
Alaskan streams. 
Toby Hemenway has written in the magazine (PcA #48) of the
profound role played by beavers in shaping North American
river valleys. To encompass the full suite of ecological functions
now derelict (not merely species extinct), we must look beyond
the beaver, the pigeon, the bison, and the salmon, to see
the key role of elephants (gone a mere 10,000 years) in maintaining
the nearly vanished American savannas of the southern plains,
and of camels (more distantly removed) in cycling nutrient
through the deserts of the Southwest.
We are looking out at a landscape bereft of its most dramatic
living forces. If we are seriously interested in restoring
North American ecosystems, we must at least admit the abundance
that once was here and that humans have destroyed, before
we can hope to reclaim it. We might also entertain, as ecologist
Paul Martin and others have proposed, the return of a few
elephants.  It might give the California condor
(our top-order avian scavenger, which once ranged to New England)
an invitation to move east again.
Ecologists argue over the meaning of the term keystone species.
Strict constructionists prefer the definition they attribute
to R.T. Paine, a biologist who coined the term in 1966, which
insists that keystone species are predators whose selective
predation helps to maintain greater diversity at lower trophic
levels (that is, among smaller prey organisms).  The other
school of thought holds that keystone functions can be played
by many actors on the ecological stage: prey species, habitat
modifiers, predators, and more. I prefer the latter view,
as it invites free play of the imagination; we are in a situation
where the scientific method alone will not save us. Great
engagement by the public in scientific inquiry is desperately
At the level of events and organisms, ecological systems are
inherently chaotic. To understand the dynamics of North American
ecosystems we must lift our view. We can't afford to neglect
either history or the system's fundamental organizing processes.
Upstream, upwind, and antecedent factors are frequently decisive.
Where once the surplus energies of the continent were channeled
through animal bodies, great storages that have been squandered,
today they are harnessed to human constructs, the greatest
of which are our cities. And just as we have seen the collapse
of the largest-order populations of the crucial birds, ruminants,
trees, and fish due to sporadic action based on the bottom-up
fragmented, or strictly social thinking, we are likely seeing
the incipient collapse of our largest-order settlements from
the same kinds of action; this time I fear, from a very different
kind of thinking. [14, 15]
Camels, elephants, pigeons, bison, and salmon. These are the
keystones. Now, where are the cops?
to a friend
1. American Chestnut
2. American Chestnut Cooperators Foundation. www.accf-online.org
3. Judy C. Treadwell, Mar. 1996 NC Natural
4. D.B. Vandermasta, D.H. Van Lear, B.D. Clinton. "American
chestnut as an allelopath in southern Appalachians",
in Forest Ecology and Management (2002) pp. 165,
5. F.L. Paillet. "Chestnut: history & ecology of
a transformed species: in Journal of Biogeography,
6. Chipper Woods Bird Observatory. www.cwbo.org.
7. Illinois Natural History Survey Reports, May-June '98.
8. David E. Blockstein, "Passenger Pigeons, Lyme Disease,
and Us: the unintended consequences of the death of a species."
9. Adeha Feustel, "Bacteria: Pathogens or Agents of Decay,"
in Permaculture Activist 45, Feb. 2000 10. Associated
Press, "Salmon are Natural Recyclers." March,
11. Brock Dolman, personal communication, October, 2000
12. Connie Barlow, Ghosts of Evolution. 2000
13. R.D.Davic, 2000. "Ecological dominants vs. keystone
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