by Paul E. Nelson
As if the record heat and the smoke from B.C. wildfires was not enough to convince any remaining skeptics that humans are negatively impacting the very biosphere that supports us, there is news from a place close to the hearts of Rainier Valley residents that is troubling.
There is a fern die-off in Seward Park. A former Friends of Seward Park Board Member, Paul Shannon, is an amateur wildlife biologist who noticed the problem and is trying to do something about it. I caught up with Paul Shannon a few weeks ago to discuss the park and the issue.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity
Why did you get interested in Seward Park?
Paul Shannon: The years I spent in Virginia I would spend many Saturdays walking in the Blue Ridge Mountains. When circumstances brought me out here I was looking for some replacement and I took a couple of drives out to the Cascades. I found that with all the car travel in between there was no net gain. Then I discovered Seward Park, and though it’s small it’s an extraordinary place, and it’s been my go-to place. There’s probably a million acres of land in the Puget Lowlands, in the Puget Trough, and maybe 500 to 1,000 have intact forest that’s never been cut. A hundred of those thousand acres are here, and so there’s that part, and the geology is similarly unique. But I think it’s the forest community, old, and complex, and beautiful. That’s what draws me here.
When you say forest community you mean the actual old-growth forest as a community.
Paul S: Yeah, yeah. Absolutely.
Elaborate on that. When someone says community we think gathering of people somewhere. But you are calling this growth intact working old-growth forest a community.
Paul S: Yeah. I guess there have been some dramatic discoveries just in the last 20 years that make vivid, what I think has been more generally known. Which is that these plants and animals have co-evolved over billions of years, and developed commensal, and beneficial relationships across species lines. There’s certainly predation, and antagonism too, but there’s a wonderful compliment of collaboration and cooperation.
Using words like commensal, and predation it sounds to me like there’s potential for a science background. Am I reading into this, or what’s going on?
Paul S: Yes, I work in computational biology. I work on the genetics of Alzheimer’s disease. Yeah, I’m not trained in biology, but I read it a lot, and I hang around with people who have been trained.
You’ve picked up a bit here and there.
Paul S: Yeah.
It’s interesting you talk about Alzheimer’s, and you talk about the beauty of this forest. But these intelligence in this forest that can help people with all kinds of issues, do you agree? Do you feel a healing component here? I’m not just talking about a metaphor either.
Paul S: Yes. We live in a carpentered/engineered world that is actually quite structurally simple, and if you step into these woods here the complexity that is evident is huge. I think that if you spend all of your time in a built environment then you are naturally inclined to have a different self than if you spend time in a place like this. That certainly leaves me feeling better.
Do you believe there’s an inherent intelligence in this forest?
Paul S: I would say that it’s fully cognitive, but not conscious in a human way. There I think we can sort of complicate the picture of human mental powers, because a great deal of what we do is not conscious either.
Hence the drive by shootings in Columbia City last week, and things like that.
Paul S: Yeah. Actually, I’m thinking more about our breathing, the …
Autonomic nervous system.
Paul S: Right, and our speaking, our vision. It’s all done …
Rote, is that the word that comes up?
Paul S: No, I’d say incredibly adaptive, and sophisticated. On top of all of that sort of non conscious thought there’s a firm out of research in the last while about, that supports a position which just sort of takes us down the peg when you think of us being defined as sort of the Greek philosophical ideal of the rational animal. At our best we do reason well, but we have emotions, and we have grammatical structures that we learn, and we walk here along the path. With a great deal of cognition, we’re just not conscious how to place our feet. There’s just a whole lot of sensory perception and judgment that’s constantly going on. As you see that as sort of like the bottom seven-eighths of the iceberg.
The iceberg of consciousness?
Paul S: Yes. The conscious part rides on top, and all of these plants are fully cognitive and that they’re actively sensing all the time. In many different dimensions, they’re exquisitely attentive to all of the qualities of light. They take in that information, and they evaluate it, and they act. I think of that as cognitive. We’re a whole lot like them rather than this separate kind of creature that is identified with the rationality that we actually have sort of maybe a passive amount of on a good day.
Paul S: That’s right. The autotrophs are the amazing, the amazing animals that capture sunlight and produce it into sugar that upon which everything depends. That’s the intricacy, and the beauty, and the structures of that three billion year old molecular machine is way more complex and beautiful than anything that we’ve built.
Right. Or could ever build.
Paul S: Yeah, I expect, yeah.
These plants also adapt and a certain kind of plant here has not been adapting well, and we’re talking about is it sword fern specifically?
Paul S: Yes. That’s the only problem.
That’s the only problem?
Paul S: Yes, that’s the only problem we have, or the only dramatic one.
Tell us about the problem when it was first noticed. It’s a sword fern die off.
Paul S: Yeah. I think it was the Fall of 2013 a daily visitor and self taught naturalist, Katherine Alexander noticed that a patch of ferns was looking a little peaked, and then she noticed the next Spring that those same ferns were not by large putting out fiddleheads. Then she watched, and saw the ferns die, and told me and a few other people and so we started to try to gather enough skill and time to figure out what was going on. We’ve acquired a lot of skill, and spent a lot of time, and now three years later we have no understanding at all of what’s going on.
You have no understanding at all?
Paul S: No.
You’ve been looking at this three years and you run a blog about this. You have looked at other parts of the Puget Sound region where this is happening, so to say you have no understanding of it at all is being a bit modest. Don’t you think?
Paul S: We have no understanding of the mechanism.
The why of it, what’s the best theory so far? First of all, how much of the park is affected by this, how serious is this in other words?
Paul S: By the summer of 2014, three years ago, it was about a quarter of an acre, and it’s been more than doubling each year. We measured off 12 acres last September and it’s even larger now. We’re about to walk past a new patch.
What is the leading theory so far?
Paul S: It sure seems like a pathogen. Pathogens are likely to take hold when there’s already stress on the plant community, and so people always think of drought, because we’ve had some dry times here. But that may be a contributing factor. But it’s certainly not the cause, because there’s lots of ferns here that are doing great. We think maybe that possibly a pathogen that may have come in from elsewhere in the world. That’s what happened to the chestnut trees, and the Hemlock. We all travel around so much that things get a chance to spread into regions where there’s not defenses against them. Those are the pretty vague ideas. We’re hoping to raise money, we’ve had a little bit of intermittent support from Seattle Parks, but no money, and it’s a little troubling that they aren’t taking the lead on this that they depend upon an untrained volunteer like the group I work with.
To figure out something, and so here you can start to see the dead ferns, and we’ll get to what we call ground zero soon. In a sort of signal event the dianthus jumped the trail, and now it’s on this side now.
What about the dog shit theory?
Paul S: I don’t think that there’s any particular concentration of dog shit there.
You threw that one out right away.
Paul S: Yeah. It seems not yet a strong theory. People have speculated that maybe the Blue Angels dumped fuel in here, and that’s an interesting idea. But I don’t think that we have the evidence to support it.
You sort of smile when you say that, but isn’t Seward park a place where the Blue Angels are instructed, in an event of a dire emergency to crash land?
Paul S: Yeah. But they haven’t done so, and to dump fuel I think is something you do just before you crash, and I don’t think we’ve had any events like that.
There are two other die off spots in the Puget Sound region, so you have something to compare this with.
Paul S: We have this interesting fellow traveler, his name is Al Smith, and he’s a carpenter, now retired, he’s 70. Not only does he not own a car, he’s so dislikes the experience of riding a car that he rides his bike everywhere. He is not single handedly, but primarily responsible for all of the ivy that got pulled out of here. He’s an incredibly devoted hard skilled worker, and so he volunteered for a couple of years at the Upper Luther Burbank Park on Mercer Island, and saw some die off there. In a private section of forest on the Kitsap Peninsula ferns started dying in 2010, before we saw it here. It’s got the same pattern in that it’s an area that used to be replete with ferns and now all you have is dead crowns.
This was all dying up here, it’s really getting worse year by year, and so most of the ferns here are dead.
When we say die off, fern die off a scientist would suggest that there ought be criteria to be able to use something like that. Are there criteria that you can tell us about?
Paul S: Yes, I can, and I have to be candid I invented them. It’s from a non professional, but a very fine field ecologist says indeed he thinks that they’re useful. It’s not going to be an exhaustive, but it’s a very conservative statement that if you find a place like what I’m about to describe then you can say with high confidence that, though we don’t know what the cause is that something extraordinary is happening there. The criteria is that it’s about 400 square feet.
Paul S: Yeah, and that the density of ferns, of dead crowns is I think between 20 and 60 in that area. Such that what used to be there was completely ferns, and now they’re all dead, or I think I said 90 percent dead.
There’s nothing else that’s coming up to replace it, it dies, and it looks rather brown.
Paul S: Yes, and this year because we’ve had so much rain, the maple seedlings are lasting months longer than they usually do, and so actually this looks much better to the eye due to all the green of these, I believe soon to keel over, big leaf maple seedlings. In photographs you can see that this used to be covered with ferns. Healthy, green, just like the one we looked back there, and now they’re all gone.
You got some help from the Andrew’s Experimental Forest to begin to realize what’s going on here.
Paul S: I read a book from there, yes, and that’s a hypothesis only, that has not been tossed out yet, but it’s not a leading contender.
That there is…
Paul S: That when a forest starts out, after fire, or after logging, or after a glacier that the early succession plant, several of them are nitrogen fixers, and so with bacteria attached to their roots they put nitrogen into the soil. That is usually enough for maybe 150 years. After that the forest needs a new source of nitrogen, and the two ones that have been studied a good bit are salmon, and a lichen. It grows up high in 200 year old and older Doug Firs, Lobaria it’s called, and it constantly fixes nitrogen way up high, and falls in a steady rain to the ground, contributing maybe 15 pounds of nitrogen per acre per year. Wow. Then the salmon thing is startling, and seems crazy, but studies I think have been done on Vancouver Island where the isotope ratio of nitrogen from salmon that picked it up in the sea is found in the trees.
The bears eat the salmon, and does a bear shit in the woods, okay. Apparently not THIS woods.
Paul S: We have no salmon to speak of in the lake, we have no bears, and Lobaria is, and this is all highly …
Paul S: Yeah. But Lobaria is known to be very sensitive to pollution, and so there’s been none ever reported here. We have, these are those sources, and I did some testing of the soil again working as a rank amateur. Using a good kit that I borrowed, and found out that indeed at least to a first look that the levels of nitrogen are very low, and so it’s not yet revealed to be a bad idea, but it seems, it’s probably not the real story of what’s going on. It could be that the forest is a bit weakened by a lack of those usual nitrogen sources.
You’re compelled to follow this, and to love this park. I get that you love this park, I love this park too. But why should the average person give a shit if they can go to PCC and have a nice diet cola, and new age asparagus or something like that? Why should they care? Is there something deeper here? Are we seeing the beginnings of the crash of the biosphere, or what’s going on?
Paul S: It’s tempting and maybe accurate to say that this is a very local, and dramatic instance of things that we’re doing in general to our planet. That’s not a crazy idea, but why people should care it’s easy to understand why lots of people don’t ever come here. Here we are in a early evening in summer, and it’s cooling off, and there’s nobody here. I’m here a lot, but that’s probably only three times a week. I can certainly understand when your life is too busy, and you have to make it. But for the, yeah. This is a beautiful place, and it’s suffering.
This is a cannery in a coal mine isn’t it?
Paul S: It certainly seems like it.
Is there a man-made way that you could fix the nitrogen here?
Paul S: Absolutely. Just plant food from Lowe’s is a good way to do it, and it’s been suggested by a friend that if we got salmon meal that that would be perhaps a more complex mix, and that would be good. I think that we’ll be planting a bunch of plants including a large number of ferns into the dead zone in the fall, and track them over a few years to see how they do.
What are the probable next steps?
Paul S: Our lab and field work has come up empty so far. I’ve talked to some of the genomically-skilled biologist I work with, and so the plan is, if we can get the funding, is to do what’s called either environmental sequencing, or meta-genomic. We would collect tissue and soil from an area that’s actively dying, and then a contrasting area that’s nearby, do what’s called long reads DNA sequencing, and there’s probably 100 million species that we’ll be able to see. We might be able to see that there’s a different balance, and that that will be a possible clue to the pathogen that we suspect is the main active force.
Are you still maintaining a blog?
Paul S: Yeah. Irregularly.
Paul Nelson is a poet, interviewer, father and literary activist engaged in a 20-year bioregional cultural investigation of Cascadia. He currently lives in Rainier Beach.