What trees can teach us

Community and relationships are an integral part of arbor life.

 

A big tree can seem monolithic and solitary — several armspans of girth, a towering crown. Trees, though, often live in community. Through a network of roots and fungal threads, they can warn each other of danger and even feed a lopped stump. They nourish and house countless creatures, which nourish them in turn. Trees, in other words, embody the power of relationships to sustain life. And forming a relationship with trees, two books by first-time authors suggest, can lead people to help do the same on a grand scale — from stumping on behalf of old-growth temperate rainforests, to fighting climate change.

Journalist Harley Rustad centers his exploration of this theme on an unlikely catalyst: a single logger meeting a single Douglas fir. Dennis Cronin was marking a grove for harvest in 2011 when he came upon the giant, 217 feet tall. On impulse, he wrapped it with a ribbon that spared it as the rest of the trees fell. So was born Big Lonely Doug, a nickname that Rustad adopts as the title of his book — a sweeping natural and human history of logging on Canada’s Vancouver Island, and the movement to save its vastly diminished woods.

As Rustad’s protagonist and carefully researched prose show, the battle lines in such fights are rarely clear. The Pacheedaht First Nation both defends its ancient forests and logs parts of them for the economic benefit of its people. The loggers who worked the region’s forests, meanwhile, became as familiar with them as any treehugger. The trees’ size and steep footing meant that they could only be cut by hand with saws. And in this closeness, some loggers came to revere them.

Environmental groups built trails and marketing campaigns around the last giants standing to help average citizens understand the stakes, winning protections in the process, but also alienating First Nations by acting without regard for their deep knowledge of place. Ironically, Cronin’s fir gives conservationists their perfect icon: An astounding tree, marooned in a blast zone of stumps.

Rustad’s book is more nuanced explanation than call to action, though the implication is clear: The intimacy of direct experience draws people to act. Scientist Lauren Oakes picks up this thread from a more tender vantage and takes it further in the direction of advocacy. Her book, In Search of the Canary Tree, blends research and memoir, chronicling her own quest to understand global climate change through a single species, Alaska yellow-cedar.

Other researchers found that the trees were paradoxically freezing to death at lower elevations because of rising temperatures; spring frosts burn their shallow roots as insulating snowpack vanishes. So for her Ph.D., Oakes documents what happens to some Southeast Alaska forests after their yellow-cedars die, and how people respond. Though occasionally bogged in detailed scientific process, Oakes is lovely and lyrical in her fieldwork descriptions, and her interweaving of ecological and personal loss.

Illustration by Sarah Gilman

With the help of some tenacious techs, including Kate “Maddog” Cahill, whose illustrations grace the book, Oakes thrashes through the rainy woods of Chichagof Island and Glacier Bay National Park, gathering data, falling into a treewell, talking down a grizzly. Each night, she backs out of her sodden clothes and into her tent, and each morning, she climbs back into their moldering embrace. She and her crew are so hungry at the end of their first two-week stint that when they return to town, Cahill bursts into tears over an omelet.

Through the coming seasons, a picture edged with complicated hope emerges. Saplings are alarmingly sparse, and the study forecasts a grim future for still-healthy yellow-cedars, but a different forest is growing up around the dead, one dominated by Western hemlock.

As Oakes prepares to interview Alaskans who use yellow-cedar to see how they reckon with this change, her father dies suddenly in his sleep. In her grief, she finds insight in her subjects’ answers. People like Tlingit weaver Teri Rofkar, who advocates giving the trees a break even from harvesting bark traditionally used in yarn. The loggers who experiment with cutting standing dead yellow-cedar instead of live trees. The ecologists who commit to telling the story of change. In the end, she finds resilience and new growth here too, beyond the pain — an opening for healing, for new possibilities, for action.

A Tlingit weaver named Ernestine Hanlon-Abel tells Oakes a story that sums it up well. It’s about a man running for office, who comes to see her father. “See how the mountains are? A lot of avalanches, huh?” Hanlon-Abel’s father asks the man. “You’re gonna have to learn how to hold hands the way those trees do. … They send out all these roots, and … pretty soon, the avalanches aren’t gonna be able to … wipe it out. That’s your job. To hold hands.”

In this time of environmental crises, these books imply, maybe holding hands with each other, and with other species, is our job, too. To learn to connect differently with the growing world. To move beyond “natural resource,” as Rofkar tells Oakes, to “relationship.”

Sarah Gilman writes and draws from Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Hakai Magazine, BioGraphic, Adventure Journal Quarterly, and others. She was a staff and contributing editor at High Country News for 11 years.

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