Cambrian: Opinion

Monterey pines aren't the only casualties of prolonged drought

This maple tree has taken is looking weathered and dry thanks to the effects of a prolonged drought.
This maple tree has taken is looking weathered and dry thanks to the effects of a prolonged drought. Special to The Cambrian

Here in Cambria’s backcountry, we have a sprinkling of native maple trees that have always graced us with weeks of the warm colors of autumn. The beauty was something we anticipated with excitement and experienced with joy each year. Over the past few years, our maples seem to have lost the energy and strength they’ve needed to provide the color extravaganza we took for granted during our earlier years here.

Until I looked at a 2010 photo of the maple tree on the bank behind our house, I don’t think I fully appreciated the toll the drought has taken on the native trees in our immediate vicinity. We know our beloved Cambria pines are in big trouble, along with some of our higher elevation coulter pines, but we’ve been hoping that the native deciduous hardwoods would somehow weather the drought with less difficulty. Every year, we look forward to the leaves changing on the beautiful maple that is visible from our living room. At the end of October in 2010, this maple tree was just starting to lose its glorious golden leaves. This year, it had lost the majority of its leaves before October began.

Having grown up in the East, I couldn’t wait to see the local trees make their gradual change from summer green to autumn reds and golds. The brilliant trees that surrounded us brought visitors from all over the country to the Mid-Atlantic and New England states to marvel at the profusion of color. Breathtaking autumn color has always been my normal, but the East Coast has rarely had the kind of drought problems we experience in the West. My new normal here is a rapid change from green to a hint of yellow, quickly turning to shriveled brown. What color we’ve seen the past few years has been in the late summer while the heat is still so intense that the autumn show has been brief and disappointing.

As I sit here and mourn the normally golden leaves of our maples, I keep trying to remind myself that this is a cycle that may be eased with our supposed upcoming El Niño winter. Obviously, a drought so long in the making will not be erased by one wet winter, but I hope this winter will not disappoint and will begin a healing trend toward a return to our normal winter rain pattern. 

Maybe, down the road, our exquisite maples will be strengthened and will once again dress themselves in the beautiful gold of autumn.

In the big scheme of things, with the drought seriously impacting people’s water supply for farming, household use, and the support of our native flora and fauna, a colorful autumn is a pretty insignificant issue. It is, however, a visual reminder of the drought and how vital it is for us to conserve our precious water, even in the bounty years.