Sep 262011

Driven by a warming climate and human intervention, hordes of tiny beetles have devastated North America’s great forests over the past 20 years.

In this edited excerpt from his new book, Calgary author Andrew Nikiforuk examines how one quirky homemade invention provided some insight into ways of controlling a seemingly unstoppable beetle outbreak

During 2005, David Dunn often wandered the hilly outskirts of Santa Fe looking like a medieval plague doctor. Armed with headphones and a tape recorder, the avantgarde music composer and violin player poked the thin bark of pinyon trees with a special homemade device.

The odd contraption consisted of a meat thermometer and a piezoelectric transducer from a Hallmark greeting card. After inserting the modified thermometer-cum-microphone into the tree’s inner bark, Dunn patiently listened to the voices inside the tree. The bespectacled artist made an ungainly apparition in the desert forest as he perched against trees for hours on end.

Dunn became a tree whisperer after New Mexico started to lose half of its famed pinyon trees to an unprecedented beetle outbreak. Anxious landowners wanted a clear diagnosis on their trees before they pulled out their chainsaws.

Because Dunn had the listening tools, he got recruited for the job. Whenever the sound engineer heard noises that resembled running water or creaking winds in a pinyon, he’d give the tree an all-clear for beetles. Such a diagnosis inevitably invited two possible prescriptions: the landowner could water the tree more often, to build resin resistance, or he or she could spray the pinyon with the pesticide carbaryl. If Dunn heard squirrel-like pops and clicks, that meant the beetle had taken up residence and was now building its own magical sound universe.

Such a diagnosis invariably resulted in someone pulling out a saw. When people offered to pay for his unique service, Dunn gracefully accepted a donation on behalf of his non-profit Art and Science Laboratory. Dunn, after all, was collecting data on one of the world’s most remarkable animals for one of the strangest and most unlikely of science experiments.

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