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In Search of the Canary Tree
The Story of a Scientist, a Cypress, and a Changing World
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Several years ago, ecologist Lauren E. Oakes set out from California for Alaska’s old-growth forests to hunt for a dying tree: the yellow-cedar. With climate change as the culprit, the death of this species meant loss for many Alaskans. Oakes and her research team wanted to chronicle how plants and people could cope with their rapidly changing world. Amidst the standing dead, she discovered the resiliency of forgotten forests, flourishing again in the wake of destruction, and a diverse community of people who persevered to create new relationships with the emerging environment. Eloquent, insightful, and deeply heartening, In Search of the Canary Tree is a case for hope in a warming world.
THE SLOW BURN
One way to open your eyes to unnoticed beauty is to ask yourself,
“What if I had never seen this before?
What if I knew I would never see it again?”
ON MARCH 4, 2015, I stood before an audience of over a hundred colleagues, friends, and family members at Stanford University. It was my doctoral defense—the final hurdle to becoming a card-carrying scientist, to throwing Ms. and Miss (or Mrs. one day) out the door for Dr. I thought if I passed, an enormous weight would lift; I’d feel a great sense of freedom to launch into my scientific career. That wasn’t how it went.
Long before our real, measured understanding of climate change began to emerge, the ecologist Aldo Leopold claimed that “one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.”1 But today, the stark headlines in the news are doing the same for a much broader public as they paint a picture of a frightening future: “Climate Chaos, Across the Map,” “Greenland Lost a Staggering 1 Trillion Tons of Ice in Just Four Years,” “Oceans Getting Hotter Than Anyone Realized,” “Climate Change Is Killing Us Right Now.”2 But scientist or citizen, if you accept the reality of our current climate trajectory, I think we’re all wondering if there’s anything we can do and how best to live amidst this threatening sense of demise.
I had never given much thought to what spending six years studying the impact of climate change—on forests and on the people who depend on them—would mean for me personally. I’d never considered what it might be like to join the tiny pool of highly trained scientists living in that world of wounds. And what it would take to find a way forward.
It all started in 2010 with what I thought was a simple ecological question: How does the forest develop after the yellow-cedar trees die? While some of my colleagues outlined plans to project climate scenarios or predict drought—topics I consider among the hardest to pursue scientifically, and among the darkest to study in terms of their potential impacts for humanity—I actually thought my question was fairly optimistic. I wanted to know what species could still thrive amidst loss and change; what life could tolerate the conditions we’re creating, and how and why. A question that began on an isolated coast later unfolded in communities scattered throughout Southeast Alaska. By kayak and foot, I traveled for months to forested sites scattered over miles of ragged coastline. My quest brought me into the off-grid homes of hunters, naturalists, and Native weavers, and into the offices of forest managers who were once responsible for clear-cutting old growth in America’s largest National Forest. I was looking to document impacts, but I was also seeking solutions to a seemingly intractable problem.
When I’d entered graduate school, I’d never expected to find myself obsessing over a single conifer species, let alone one in the Alexander Archipelago. In fact, I’d always thought scientists who devoted years of their lives to just one species were pretty weird (so perhaps I was always destined to join their numbers). But don’t get me wrong. If you’re going to obsess over a tree species, Callitropsis nootkatensis is an awesome one to pick.
Majestic in form, monumental in size, C. nootkatensis is related to other cypresses, such as the giant sequoia of the western Sierras, and the towering alerce in the Chilean coastal range.3 It’s not a true cedar, like Cedrus trees in the pine family. But distributed in sparse patches and pockets, the yellow-cedar has persevered through centuries, even millennia, of change in the Pacific Northwest. No one knows exactly how. Marked by rings of growth, the record of every individual tells a complex story of good and bad years. The core of a yellow-cedar tree registers a long history of life events that the human eye can behold but only science can decipher.
In 1879, when the naturalist John Muir traveled from California to Alaska, he sketched yellow-cedar trees in his journals and described their branches as “feathery, dividing into beautiful light green sprays.”4 Native people have cultivated intimate relationships with these trees for thousands of years, using its bark in their weavings, its wood for totem poles and canoe paddles. Today, they are among the most economically valuable trees in the Pacific Northwest.
As fascinating, beautiful, and useful as the yellow-cedar is, it became the center of my study for one reason: the species, which had survived so much, was dying in large swaths on the landscape.
The earliest known report of the dead patches comes from a hunter named Charles Sheldon, who, in 1909, noted them in swampy areas.5 Toward the end of the twentieth century, scientists observed high rates of tree death, inciting concern among Alaskans.6 At the time that I began my doctoral studies, a team of researchers led by Dr. Paul Hennon had recently uncovered climate change as the culprit.
Places close to our poles are getting hotter quicker.7 Temperature increases in Alaska have doubled the global average since the mid-twentieth century.8 Warming—and all its consequences—are already lived experiences for Alaskans in reality, today. So focusing on the yellow-cedar for the yellow-cedar alone wasn’t my drive. Simple curiosity about biological processes and species evolution wasn’t enough for me. I wanted to do more than discover. Like most environmental scientists, I wanted to solve problems. I thought perhaps the ways in which Alaskans were coping with their changing environment and the loss of this majestic tree might offer a glimpse into my own future—into all our futures—as the effects of climate change continue to cascade across the planet.
CHANGING LANDSCAPES HAVE long intrigued and concerned me. As a young girl, I liked framing complicated relationships between people and the natural world through a camera’s lens. My father gave me my grandfather’s Kodak Retina camera, a relic of the 1950s, when I was fourteen. I filled my earliest contact sheets with images of an old maple tree in my backyard, documenting the scars of the many trimmings that had reshaped its ragged limbs over time. Later, with my father’s 35mm Olympus, I photographed roads cut through fields, shrubs pruned in cultivated gardens, and urban sidewalks planted with spindly trees in squares of exposed soil. I was fascinated by the ways in which people shape the natural world, and that fascination led me from one altered environment to another throughout my twenties.
I traced sources of water pollution through flooding streets in Rhode Island. I witnessed communities and desert landscapes transformed by oil and gas development in the American West. I confronted mining development in pristine watersheds in Southwest Alaska, and road construction through the temperate forests of Chile. I worked as an environmental advocate, a documentarian, and a policy researcher. But I decided to become a scientist to learn how to assess the consequences of environmental changes more precisely and systematically. In retrospect, that maple tree in my backyard was probably the harbinger for the cypress that unexpectedly seized my life as a young scientist.
When I traveled north to Alaska, the biggest questions on my mind were about despair and hope. Should we all throw our arms up in the air and admit defeat? Is there anything that any one of us can do that will actually make any difference? What will make a difference? More and more, people are grappling with these questions as awareness of climate change increases. The big picture of the warming world feels overwhelming, unwieldy, and out of our control. Temperature projections show a planet turning red over the course of decades to come. Most scientists today show graphs and numbers, complicated models, and statistics that basically say, “We are too late.” Even if we stopped all emissions and halted the pace of the life we’ve created, we are just too late. The trajectory still follows the arc of a wave until it crashes down on us.
But from 2010 to 2015—the years leading up to my defense at Stanford—I lived in a world of cautious hope. I studied what happens to other plants in the forest community after the yellow-cedar trees die, and how Alaskans were adapting to the changes in their local environment. On the outer coast, I encountered many dead trees, but even in the forests affected by the dieback, I found survivors. I wondered what had enabled those particular yellow-cedar trees to live on, and what had allowed other species to take over. Numbers and observations led me to some answers. Other truths came only from the people who knew the forests best.
My research was a blend of ecology and social science. Talking to people was just as important to me as measuring plants and recording temperature data. Sure, I formulated hypotheses and sought answers through systematic methods like all my colleagues were doing, but as a human being living in a world that faces all kinds of threats from climate change, I also searched for a way out of my own sense of fear and helplessness. I haven’t talked much about that part—until now. As scientists, we are taught to be impartial and precise, and to avoid, at all cost, the personal. That goes in the black box, along with all the intricacies of the scientific process itself.
I did, in fact, make scientific discoveries. From thousands of plant measurements along the rugged outer coast, I found forests flourishing again. From hours of interviews with Alaskans who value this tree, I found a community of people developing new relationships with the emerging environment. On the day of my defense, I presented tables and graphs detailing all the ways in which people were responding to the death of the tree and coping with change. They had found substitutions for the yellow-cedar, and had developed ways of using dead trees. They’d sought opportunity, recovery, and innovation in the face of defeat.
My research had been published in one scientific journal already.9 Other articles would soon follow.10 But something was missing. In crafting concise, scientific language, I had stripped away the humanity.
“We measured 2,064 trees and 882 saplings”—in five words and two numbers I removed months of my own experience—living and feeling, listening and breathing, amidst those dead trees. In distilling 1,500 pages of interview transcripts into a single, elegant table, I’d left out the way a logger runs his calloused hand across fine-grained wood in admiration, or the silence that fills the room before an Alaskan describes an impressive yellow-cedar. I’d cut the stories from naturalists like Greg Streveler, or Tlingit Natives like Teri Rofkar, or loggers like Wes Tyler—the people I’d met who had found ways to benefit from the emerging environment while losing a species they used, valued, and loved.
When I’d asked people to describe a yellow-cedar tree, these were some of the words that broke the silence of reverence: sweet-smelling, rare, beautiful, alluring, breathtaking, strong, sturdy, sensual, mysterious, wise. One Tlingit Native explained to me how building a close relationship with nature, the kind most people only cultivate with another human being, enables one to cope with change. There wasn’t space for those details in science, so I translated her eloquent words into data points. I remained true to what she shared in my analyses, objective in my interpretation, but the scientific process buried the essence.
The PhD “defense” was something I knew little about until I was required to do one. The process varies across institutions and countries, but the general gist is the same: a young scientist publicly presents his or her research, fields general inquiries, then proceeds to a private question-and-answer session with senior scientists who will judge the work’s merit. At the end of it all, I paced the hallways alone outside that room, waiting for the verdict from the deliberation.
When the committee invited me back and referred to me as Dr. Oakes for the first time, I was surprised I didn’t feel closure. I felt relief, yes, but not the closure I’d expected. Instead, I had this gnawing, urgent sense that there was more to be done. Something felt unresolved, and it was far more personal than scientific.
I had pushed hard to earn a place among high-level scientists, but I needed my work to exist outside of a professional echo chamber as well. Despite having written 223 pages on my research—which was soon to be signed, sealed, and delivered—I knew I was about to write as many for this book. I returned to my office not long after the defense with a box of journals and papers and started digitizing years of notes to resurrect the buried essence, to figure out, for myself, how best to live in the rapidly changing world today with what I’d learned.
Herein lies the story that felt untold.
This book is about a species—a tree called Callitropsis nootkatensis, how I fell under its spell, and how it inspired my search for people and plants thriving amidst change. It chronicles my effort to answer what happens in the wake of yellow-cedar death, not only to uncover the future of these old-growth forests, but to share lessons that apply to people on other parts of the planet. It is a book about finding faith, not of any religious variety, but as a force that summons local solutions to a global problem, that helps me live joyfully and choose what matters most in seemingly dark times. If we start looking at the local picture and the various ways in which we all depend on nature every day, solutions emerge. I witnessed this in Alaska.
THE CAMERA I carried on the outer coast to photograph the ancient trees looks nothing like my grandfather’s old Kodak, which rests, unused for many years, inside a plastic storage bin. Megabyte files and thumbnails have replaced film and contact sheets. I am still focused on trees and landscape changes, but I have changed as well. We create and re-create narratives throughout our lives to make sense of what happened, to process experience, to interpret and reinterpret our view of the world as life unfolds. I believe that beautiful and difficult process is what it is to be human. So although the research I conducted shapes the narrative of this book, the writing and reporting in subsequent years were also part of the journey. The scientist I am today influences how I explain what I knew (and didn’t know) back when my research began, as well as the details I’ve added since. How I personally responded to the challenges my work presented, and what I learned from the many people I interviewed, directed the most poignant events and conversations I chose to portray.
The writer, environmentalist, and historian Wallace Stegner once wrote, “If art is a by-product of living, and I believe it is, then I want my own efforts to stay as close to earth and human experience as possible—and the only earth I know is the one I have lived on, the only human experience I am at all sure of is my own.”11 In bouncing between California and the Alexander Archipelago for all those years, I focused, scientifically, as intensely as I could, on this rapidly changing world, then, emotionally, on the struggles that experience triggered. I discovered parallels between the scientific and the personal as I confronted loss in my own life and found ways to move forward.
Scientific facts rely upon assumptions; they are blocks built upon one another. But what I learned in the archipelago came from a mix of science and the act of doing that work; of striving for another layer of understanding in lived experience. Our own truths, felt in the heart and known in the mind, are transient as we create the storied landscapes of our lives, again and again and again. So this is me, at this point in time, finding my way into tomorrow in a world destined, as some argue, to become uninhabitable.12 It is a story of refusing my own fear of what a warming world will mean for me in my lifetime; a story of becoming an unexpected optimist against a backdrop of dying forests and in a profession where pessimism is often the common response.
A FEW DETAILS—
This is a work of nonfiction. The people, places, and events are real, and I came to them through my research in Southeast Alaska and at Stanford University. I haven’t changed any names, except that I gave nicknames to every Paul that came after Dr. Paul Hennon—the lead scientist, who had linked climate change to the dying trees. Some, like Paul “P-Fisch” Fischer, officially received nicknames during our work together. Other Pauls received nicknames only in my head while I was writing this book. Forest pathologist Dr. Paul Hennon, field technician Paul Fischer, forest ecologist Dr. Paul Alaback, plant physiologist Dr. Paul Schaberg, bear-hunting guide Paul Johnson—what are the odds of so many Pauls in a forest so few people know? Surely, you would stop reading in a fit of confusion if I called them all Paul.
Many of the people I met and worked with as a young scientist likely never imagined that I would write more than academic papers, or that their names and our professional experiences together would become public. I’ve done my best to portray them and the events accurately, writing from thousands of pages of field notes, transcripts, research papers, email records, letters, and journals I kept and others my field technicians shared with me. Often, scientists told me about study results long before they were published. So, in some instances, I describe their research at the time—true to the chronology of the events—that ultimately preceded publication dates. Some conversations I reconstructed from my notes and memory, then fact-checked them as a reporter would do. When possible, I went back to the people who were there to reconcile perspectives in an effort to recount conversations and describe what happened as accurately as possible.
The forty-five Alaskans I interviewed for my doctoral research consented to being part of a scientific study, knowing the perspectives they shared would be reported anonymously as data points and excerpts and one day, possibly, published in a book—and that they would be fully attributed and identifiable. I thank those people for their trust and hospitality and for sharing a window into their lives. Some opened their offices to me. Others opened their homes and offered me a place to stay in remote communities. Some I waited patiently for days to meet. Others I spent days with.
From the conversations I recorded and transcribed, I’ve edited quotations for length, and occasionally for clarity. Given the extensive length of each formal interview, condensing conversations in the service of the narrative was unavoidable. I conducted those interviews with the full approval of Stanford University’s Institutional Review Board (IRB), which oversees a review process designed to protect the rights and welfare of people in any research study. The IRB uses the term “human subjects,” but I never thought of anyone I interviewed as a subject. I approached every person partly as a scientist and partly as a concerned citizen on a sojourn, seeking sage advice from someone who might just have a solution to a wicked problem. Did I find, in their words and in my research, the one, big solution to climate change? I did not. But I found something that will help get us there and enable each one of us to live more purposely in these times.
Ghosts and Graveyards
I FIRST HEARD about the dying yellow-cedar trees nearly thirty years after the first scientific attempt to discover what was killing them. I was standing in the pouring rain with John Caouette, a forest statistician, outside the Paradise Café in downtown Juneau. Rain dripped over the hood of his bright red jacket. John hardly seemed to notice that we were both already soaked, and he was far more interested in talking about forests than seeking refuge inside.
“I found a place I loved,” he said. “I’ve watched people come and go, but I never wasted any of my time wandering. I just stayed.”
John was known among researchers in Southeast Alaska for changing the way the Forest Service assessed its stands of trees. He’d figured out in the late 1990s that volume, a simple measurement used for decades of planning timber harvests, failed to capture the true character of a forest.1 A matchstick forest packed with slender trees could generate the same number of board feet for lumber as a grove with widely spaced giants. Mathematically, the amount of wood was the same, but ecologically, the differences in structure made for distinct communities of plants and wildlife. Using volume to inform management decisions overlooked the other characteristics that could make an old-growth forest home for black-tailed deer, the coastal wolves that prey upon them, and nesting birds.
Rivulets of water slid down John’s jacket, slowly saturating his cotton pants and turning them from blue to darker blue. Across the street on the dock, tourists wearing yellow plastic ponchos emptied out of a cruise ship bigger than any building surrounding us.
“People spend years dreaming of a trip to Alaska,” he said, nodding toward the crowd forming. “You know where we are?! We’re in the heart of the Tongass—the largest National Forest in the United States!”
At seventeen million acres of land, the Tongass covers about 80 percent of the Alexander Archipelago. Boxed in by National Forest, ice fields, and ocean, Juneau, the capital city of Alaska, is accessible only by boat or plane. The population hovers around thirty-one thousand people. One main road, commonly called “The Road” by residents, runs thirty-nine miles along the coast. It ends, on both sides, against thick forest—ferns, blueberry brush, spruce, and hemlock trees.
IT WAS LATE June in 2010, and I had arrived in Southeast Alaska on the MV Columbia, a ferry coming up from Bellingham. With Stanford’s approval for “exploratory research,” the summer’s goal was to find a topic for my dissertation. I didn’t want to focus on refining our climate predictions, uncovering crucial differences between future changes of a tenth of a degree or two-tenths. Many of my peers were eager to study the consequences of various climate scenarios. But to me, the more interesting questions were about the present, the current effects of a changing climate—and they pointed me to the north.
My parents aren’t scientists; I don’t know of any blood relatives who also earned a PhD. My mom taught high school chemistry for ten years and then worked in elementary school administration. Her father emigrated from Italy through Ellis Island at age eleven. He was alone and couldn’t speak a word of English at the time, but later became a medical doctor at Yale–New Haven Hospital. He died before I was born, but the stories my mother told me portrayed a persistent man who created a life centered on compassion for others. My own father was the only child of a middle-class family in Ohio. Recruited from the land of cornfields to Harvard in 1963, he was the first in his immediate family to get a college education. As a little girl, I watched him strive for success in the corporate world, then set out on his own as an entrepreneur; he wanted to start businesses that would endure. Some did well; some did not. Stress in my family came, in part, from the lack of security in his work.
Others in our East Coast community led more affluent lives. Their values seemed at odds with the ones my parents held for less materialistic living. New cars raced around six-lane highways, but my father kept his beloved 1979 classic running for years. I thought I could help alleviate the undercurrent of financial strain in my family, which I felt keenly at times—especially in later years—by wanting and needing less. I grew up in a saltbox home built in 1774, the last house on the border between Connecticut and New York, and I watched modern homes replace the green fields where I played down the street. I was acutely aware of the growth and consumerism I was witnessing in my hometown, which had disproportionate effects I couldn’t yet grasp.
By the time I went to college, I was into the environmental classics—Thoreau’s Walden, or Life in the Woods, Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring
- A finalist for the 2019 National Academies of Science, Medicine, and Engineering Communication Award
- On Sale
- Nov 27, 2018
- Page Count
- 288 pages
- Basic Books