Sometimes biodiversity hits close to home

August 06, 1999

If you ask me about global warming, you'd better be prepared for a lot of hot air. Like everybody on both sides of the issue, I don't know the answers. About the only thing I can tell you personally is that the sun seems a lot hotter on my skin than it used to.

[cont. from lifestyle]

Global warming is like most environmental issues these days. It seems so massive in scope and far away from me, that it's hard to relate to it.

The same also has been true for biodiversity. I keep reading that we're wiping out natural habitats and driving thousands of plants and animals to extinction, but all I can say for sure is that I've only seen one monarch butterfly this year. Usually by August I've seen dozens.

However, I recently got a better grip on biodiversity, thanks to my godson and his wife, who bought a house in Frederick, Md. On moving day they proudly showed me their lovely back yard, bordered all around by a high hedge of Canadian hemlock trees.


Alas, I noticed some bits of white foam on the twigs of the trees, and I broke the news to them: Their whole hedge was infected with the dreaded woolly adelgid, which means curtains for hemlocks.

"You mean they're all going to die?," my godson asked plaintively.

I told him I'd see if they could be saved.

The next day I called Sandy Scott, the horticultural consultant for Maryland Cooperative Extension Service in Hagerstown. She said the woolly adelgid can be treated, but it would be difficult to spray a lot of high, mature trees.

She said she'd send me the hemlock adelgid fact sheet, telling how the hemlocks could be treated, which is available from her by calling 301-791-1604. Then she added, "That sure goes to show the benefits of biodiversity."

My ears perked up at that, and I asked her to explain.

"If the people who planted that hedge had used a variety of trees," she said, "the hemlocks could die and there would still be a hedge there."

Suddenly biodiversity had moved from the rain forests of Brazil to Western Maryland. I was ecstatic. I could relate.

It actually sounded very similar to what Jim Holzapfel, my stock broker, is always telling me about my investment portfolio. "Diversify, diversify, diversify" is his mantra. That way if one stock goes belly-up, I won't find myself living in a shelter for the homeless.

I got another lesson in diversity a couple of weeks later, when I was watering the 30-some trees I'd planted at the top of my property as a privacy shield. Several of the white pines appeared to be affected by some sort of borer.

Though I was distressed, I was comforted to know that I'd also planted white spruce, eastern red cedar and several deciduous trees in the same area. Even if all the white pines died, I'd still have my privacy.

There was biodiversity in my own back yard.

Mixed plantings such as this will be especially handy if, indeed, we are experiencing the effects of global warming and the climate is getting warmer here. The trees and other plants that thrive in colder temperatures might die off, but the warmer-weather types still will be around.

By thinking about that on a local scale, it now is a lot easier for me to picture the value of biodiversity in the rain forests and all the benefits it offers to this planet. "Vive la difference!"

Dennis Shaw is a former Herald-Mail editor. Write him at P.O. Box 276, Clear Spring, Md. 21722, or call 301-842-3863.

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