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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Ice lady Cometh

Air Date: Week of

Along with claiming more than 20 lives and causing billions of dollars of damage to human structures, the greatest impact of this winter's terrible Canadian and border storm may be on trees. In some parts of Canada, the forests may not be the same again for decades. Near the town of Merrickville, south of Ottawa, one woman is on a mission to save a rare biological museum a sort of treasure-house of living things she wants to preserve for the future. And she has been braving the elements to realize her goal. Living On Earth contributor Bob Carty paid her a visit and sent this report.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
Canadian climate scientists say the ice storm that battered parts of the northeast US and central Canada had a clear El Niño signature. Instead of the usual cold wave from Canada assaulting the United States, a dramatic change in circulation patterns caused moist air from the US to invade Canada. The resulting storm has so far claimed more than 20 lives and caused billions of dollars in damage to human structures. And electric power has yet to be restored to all areas. But in the long term, the greatest impact of the storm will be on trees. In some parts of Canada, there is damage to every deciduous tree. Entire sugarbushes have been wiped out. And the forest may not look the same again for decades. Near the town of Merrickville, south of Ottawa, one woman has steadfastly refused to give in to the elements. She's been constantly stoking a wood stove in order to save a rare biological museum, a treasure house of living things she wants to preserve for the future. Living on Earth contributor Bob Carty paid her a visit.

(High winds)

CARTY: It looks like something out of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and I feel a little bit like Ichabod Crane. The farm lane is darkened by a canopy of trees, and they are covered by a 2-inch coat of ice. They creak inside their crystal chains. The wind howls and branches reach out toward you like tortured limbs.

(Footfalls in snow)

CARTY: It took 16 men a full day to clear the broken trees from the farm road and the lane so that the owners of this farm could get out. If they wanted to. But at the end of the lane, where it opens up to a snow-covered garden by the farm house, the owners are surveying the damage.

KROEGER: Oh my goodness, look at this. It's just a devastation zone here with the trees. It's like they're like toothpicks. The elm, the ash, the hickories are probably the worst hit, I would think. (Ice tinkles) Lift the weight of this ice. You can't lift it. The Manchurian apricots, they're absolutely down, down on the ground. It's just a disaster zone, look at it.

CARTY: The disaster is what Diana Beresford Kroeger and her husband Chris call Carrigliath, Gaelic for Grey Stones Gardens. Diana Beresford Kroeger is no ordinary gardener. She's a classical botanist, with a PhD in molecular biology, plus a background in heart research and some experience as the host of a radio gardening show. Nor is hers an ordinary garden. Every year, thousands of plant lovers and agriculture students come here to see one of the biggest organic gardens in Canada.

KROEGER: What is special about this is the huge collection of endangered and rare and heritage species that I have here. Like, I have collections of old varieties of gooseberries, cherries from Siberia, the chocolate peony, chocolate-smelling black peonies.

CARTY (Laughing): Smells delicious!

KROEGER (Laughing): They are, they're wonderful! Wonderful species.

CARTY: Diana Beresford Kroeger has been building her garden for 20 years. She scouts the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes forests looking for rare tree or plant species long thought lost to deforestation. She's been breeding them here and giving out the seeds to try to rebuild natural populations. But then, the ice storm of '98 hit.

KROEGER: When it first started freezing rain I thought well, this is all. Heck, this is going to be one horrible day, it's going to be very difficult to get out of here. But when it kept going for about 10 hours, no this was not normal freezing rain. The partridge were trying to walk up the walls of the house, and they don't do this. There was an ocean of wildlife, of birds, in front of the house, and they were behaving in a very extraordinary way. They had lost their territoriality towards one another. They were all coming together in a great group of flying creatures, and I saw this phenomenon, and I have only seen it personally once before when we had a small tornado coming through here.

(High winds, footfalls on snow)

C. KROEGER: See the cedars in through the forest. You see how the tops have broken and split right down. This stand of cedars in behind here are in excess of 125 to 150 years old, and it seems 90% of the cedars, the tops are broken out. And unfortunately it will take another 150 years to grow them again.

D.B. KROEGER: Course, the wind catches them, swings them, and off they go. They're snapped.

(Wind whips)

CARTY: It's cold, that wind!

D.B. KROEGER: It is freezing cold.

C. KROEGER: Let's get you back inside.


CARTY: Botanists say the forest is where we will see the long-term consequences of the ice storm. Damage to the crowns of trees could mean that traditional varieties will not be the ones to reproduce. It may take 100 years before the forest looks like it did before. There's little Diana Beresford Kroeger can do right now about the damage outside. The reason she has stayed here without electricity is the plants and seeds inside the house.

(A door creaks open, shuts. Fade to a roaring fire)

D.B. KROEGER: A nice big old clock [word?], no, that's a bit of maple. All right, that will burn well, got to keep that fire going. (Laughs)

CARTY: Inside, it's only 43 degrees. You can see your breath. We take off just one layer of clothing, and then Diana reaches into the oven and pulls out a towel.

D.B. KROEGER: There are no, you see, look now here.

CARTY: What are you doing? Oh!

D.B. KROEGER: Onto your carotids.

CARTY: That's lovely! What did you just do?

D.B. KROEGER: I put a warm towel around your neck and I held it tight so that your carotid arteries would be warmed.

CARTY: That feels wonderful.

D.B. KROEGER: Aha! And I'm going to do it to myself.

CARTY: It's just like a wave of warmth.

D.B. KROEGER: Yes, 10% of the flow in your body is going up there.

CARTY: The view from the woodstove is a traffic jam of chairs and a row of large buckets of melting snow and water. Over in the adjoining room, the floor is covered by potato sacks and plants. Hundreds of plants. When the ice storm hit, Diana could only sit by her window and watch her precious trees fall to the ground. But inside, she and Chris divided their farm house in half, sealing off the bedrooms to keep all the heat in the 2 rooms near the fire. Then they marshalled all the plants and seeds from storerooms, porch, and bedrooms into the area that gets some glow from the stove. Diana takes me on the tour.

D.B. KROEGER: And now we're going into the, into my garden room. It's totally packed. In fact, you probably can't walk around here. In fact, it's been an awful lot of work looking after all of these and getting them in and making sure that they're in the right position so they don't freeze. So the species that I know that I can hang about plus 5, plus 4, plus 5 degrees are in a 4 or 5 degree area. That's the area right in front of you. Those that are nearer the windows can take a degree of frost, like the cacti can take a few degrees of frost.

CARTY: And you have some very rare plants here.

D.B. KROEGER: Yes. I've got some geraniums which are 150 years old. These are very, very old geraniums. And next to this, then, we have the gladiolas that I have bred. They are insect-resistant gladiolas. They are resistant to thrips, those beautiful white daisies, that's from South Africa and it is also a medicinal plant. In fact, coming to think of it, everything in here is medicinal.

CARTY: And this is the main reason Diana has been putting up with the cold and the lack of electricity. As a botanist she loves her plants. But it is her medical background that makes her passionate about preserving and propagating rare and old species. There are potato sacks and plastic bags on the floor. Diana opens one up to show me the nuts of a black walnut tree.

(A bag opens)

D.B. KROEGER: Black hennae, hen's eggs. Now, what --

CARTY: They're enormous!

D.B. KROEGER: They're enormous, yes. They're like, they're bigger than an egg, actually they're about a 3-ounce nut. And the oils in this nut are very, very good for heart metabolism. Very, very good for young children. Very, very good for brain development in children and in older people.

(Plastic crinkles)

CARTY: Why are you keeping them going?

D.B. KROEGER: Because I think it's important that we have genetic material. We keep genetic diversity going from year to year. We may not need them from a health point of view this year or next year, but your child and my child might need these in the times to come. Fifty percent of all of the medicines in the multinationals come from vascular trees and plants, and that's why I am keeping these.

CARTY: And there's one more reason Diana is putting up with the heated towels and lack of a good shower. She's put a lot of effort into finding and breeding species that are disease-resistant, like the damaged elm tree in the front yard that is impervious to Dutch Elm Disease. She believes her collection could help Mother Nature through another ice storm. Ice storms are natural. But the forest they affect is not. In this part of the country a lot of tree cover has been cut. Almost none of what remains is virgin. And everywhere, species diversity has been highly reduced. That lack of biological diversity should be a concern, Diana Beresford Kroeger contends. Because global warming could dish out weather like we've never seen before.

D.B. KROEGER: What I worry about is the unpredictability of the climatic changes. Today may very well be the ice storm. Maybe in a week's time we'll have the grid down again. So consequently, what we have to have, is we have to have an eye to this variability. So you cannot plant, for instance, trees in this area which will not take frost. We have to put in disease-resistant and frost-resistant species back into the forests. Because if we don't do that, everything will go.

CARTY: Shall we get warm?

D.B. KROEGER: Yes, let's go and get warm. Go by the fire again. (Calling) Okay, Chris, coming up another cup of tea. Orders for tea.

CARTY: Are you getting tired?

D.B. KROEGER: Yes. I have battle fatigue. I think my brain cells aren't working very well, such as they are. Right now my feet are like lumps of ice, and I'm going to have to make another hot water bottle to warm them up. And my kidneys are getting cold, so I'm going to have to wrap myself again.

(A fire roars. The wind howls outside)

CARTY: Diana and Chris accompany me back outside to the wind and the ice. I apologize that I'll be getting into a warm car while they go back to a 43- degree home. They are tired, but their spirits are still high. They invite me back in the summer. And as we walk down the lane, Diana notices that not all is lost.

D.B. KROEGER: These are all walnuts called Gananoque walnuts.

C. KROEGER: A few branches off.

D.B. KROEGER: A few branches down but I'm very pleased with how the walnuts have stood. So you know, I'm -- there are disasters, there are things that warm your heart. And all and all you just have to take the good with the bad.

CARTY: Will the garden survive?

D.B. KROEGER: Nature has a second hand, and the second hand of Nature is greening. The first hand is destruction, and the greening of Spring is really my one hope.

(The wind howls)

CARTY: For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Carty in eastern Ontario.



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