How trees can be a bellwether for climate change — and what comes after
For all the love he had for California, John Muir held some of his highest arboreal praise for a tree in much farther north.
With its stately, dropping boughs, the yellow-cedar is “a truly noble tree … undoubtedly the best the country affords,” Muir wrote in 1882. But this beautiful species, sporadically distributed along the coast of the Pacific Northwest, British Columbia and Alaska, is not coping well with climate change. At the northern end of its range, an ever-earlier spring thaw is leaving the trees’ root systems without the insulation provided by a layer of snow. Then the cold snaps that often follow early bouts of warm weather can do fatal damage.
For her doctoral dissertation at Stanford University, scientist and author Lauren Oakes wanted to look at what happened next: what species will thrive in the ecological niche the cedars are leaving behind? And how will the people who depend on the trees adapt?
From the bird’s-eye view, the giant trunks looked like thousands of toothpicks stuck in the earth. If trees were people, anyone would have called it a tragedy
To find out, Oakes spent five years studying the yellow-cedar trees in southwest Alaska’s Alexander Archipelago, the smattering of jigsaw-like islands that lie just off of the narrow strip of the state that borders British Columbia.
She earned her doctorate and published academic papers based on her research. But as she recalls in the opening of her new book, “In Search of the Canary Tree: The Story of a Scientist, a Cypress, and a Changing World,” when she first flew over the islands and saw the “steep hillsides covered in white skeletons of dead trees,” she had to come to grips with what it felt like to come face-to-face with the effects of climate change. “From the bird’s-eye view, the giant trunks looked like thousands of toothpicks stuck in the earth,” she writes. “If trees were people, anyone would have called it a tragedy.”
There’s no room for such feelings and language in science, and so Oakes ultimately turned to narrative nonfiction to tell a story that went beyond the data. In her book, the cedar — and the attending question of adaptation — became Oakes’ “looking glass into the rapidly changing world.” While the cedars made Oakes fearful of the changes that are already happening around the world today, the trees helped her to “believe the future isn’t on fire everywhere.”
“In Search of the Canary Tree” is an effort to push past the vulnerability, fear and helplessness that many — scientists included — feel in the face of climate change. The book shows, through both the data and more philosophical arguments, that we too can both change and adapt, and perhaps ultimately survive a changing climate.
But just as Oakes felt that translating “eloquent words into data points” buried the essence of what people living alongside the trees had to say about them, her basis in scientific methodology doesn’t always serve her well.
The book repurposes her scientific research as the raw reporting for a piece of narrative nonfiction. In the middle stretch of the book’s three section, Oakes turns to the second part of her research, in which she interviewed numerous Alaskans who were somehow tied to the yellow-cedar, and would be affected, financially or otherwise, by its decline. She follows a deliberate protocol that doesn’t allow her to introduce the scientific understanding she has about why the trees are dying, and what it might mean. It’s an approach geared at building a dataset and drawing conclusions through the patterns of experience that arise. The process is so repetitive that researchers like Oakes eventually hit what’s called the saturation point. After which, she could continue to interview people about yellow-cedars, but the conversations were unlikely to reveal any new overarching themes. As a reader, I hit the saturation point before she mentions the term on page 156.
Work is needed less on the red-colored globe and more on the changes occurring in local environments. What’s happening in my home habitat?
There are fascinating moments in the interviews she spins out into scenes in the book, especially in the conversations she has with Tlingit weavers and carvers (the wood is used for totem poles), for whom the yellow-cedar is intimately tied up in myth, tradition and identity. But Oakes only went back to Alaska to re-interview one of her study subjects specifically for the book, a lumber mill owner named Wes Tyler. As such, a section built off of her scientific interviews doesn’t have the same degree of vivid firsthand detail as earlier chapters detailing how Oakes and her team gathered data in the dense, damp forests of the archipelago.
We hear Ernestine, one of the Tlingit weavers Oakes interviewed, reveal that her people were the original tree huggers: wrapping their arms around the centuries-old trees, measuring to find those that are larger around than a human’s embrace, and could thereby survive having strips of bark harvested from the trunk. We hear Wayne Howell, a National Parks Service archaeologist, describe a grove of ancient trees bearing scars from bark being stripped off by both metal tools and stone tools. But we don’t see the women actively engaging in this ancient practice, which the current generation is being forced to adapt to as the climate changes. Groves that had once provided the Tlingit with clothing and shelter for centuries is now turning into graveyards.
The Tlingit have been here before, in a way: During the Little Ice Age, when glaciers extended as far south as they had since the Pleistocene, the tribe and other native people in the area were forced to pull up stakes and move, pushed from their ancestral homes by the advancing ice. Today, native weavers like Teri, who Oakes interviews, are shifting from cedar bark to roots from far more abundant spruce trees, while loggers like Tyler are working to utilize standing dead trees instead of felling live ones. Climate change is affecting their lives and their livelihoods, and they are figuring out how to cope.
If there’s a prescription in Oakes’ writing, it is that both citizens and scientists should look at climate change in these more local, intimate terms.
“Work is needed less on the red-colored globe and more on the changes occurring in local environments,” she writes. “What’s happening in my home habitat, whether it’s a city by the rising sea, a landlocked town in the sweltering heat, or a community bordering forests at risk of flames?”
Instead of the existential angst of imagining the future on fire everywhere, we need to look at the environment around us, understand that we’re part of that ecology, and begin in earnest to figure out how to adapt.
Blackmore is a freelance journalist who covers food, culture and the environment. He lives in Maine.
Basic Books, 288 p.p., $27
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