In Search of the Canary Tree: What a Disappearing Ancient Forest Can Teach Us About Resilience and Grace in a Changing World
“There’s simply no imaginable tomorrow — no modeled future scenario, no amount or shade of red — that could ever possibly nullify the need for unwavering care and thoughtful action today.”
By Maria Popova
“I love the cedar,” Walt Whitman exulted in his sublime Specimen Days, “its naked ruggedness, its just palpable odor, (so different from the perfumer’s best,) its silence, its equable acceptance of winter’s cold and summer’s heat, of rain or drouth — its shelter to me from those, at times — its associations — (well, I never could explain why I love anybody, or anything.)”
Whitman, who celebrated the wisdom of trees, might have been both gladdened and saddened to know that one particular species of cedar — Callitropsis nootkatensis, or yellow cedar, which his contemporary and admirer John Muir considered “a truly noble tree… undoubtedly the best the country affords” — holds deep and previously unfathomed wisdom on the greatest ecological challenge our civilization is facing, wisdom both devastating and strangely optimistic.
The story of this majestic tree and the improbable, urgent insight it provides into the parallel potentialities for grim and glorious planetary futures is what ecologist Lauren E. Oakes explores in In Search of the Canary Tree: The Story of a Scientist, a Cypress, and a Changing World (public library).
Both witness and survivor of epochs of change, the yellow-cedar tree has stood sentinel across the Pacific Northwest, revered by native mystics and exploited by industrialists for its lush golden wood, its growth-rings encoding a record of good and bad fortune dealt indiscriminately by the long hand of geological time. Kindred to the giant sequoia, it is not a true cedar but rather a cypress, also known as yellow cypress or Nootka cypress, after the Nootka Sound of Vancouver Island, where it first entered the annals of botany.
Oakes — one of those science writers who can rise, in her finest passages, to the rare category of enchanter — made the yellow cedar the focal point of her research not long after earning her doctorate. It would soon become her lens on the largest ecological problems — and their most auspicious solutions — of our time. She writes:
I came to Alaska looking for hope in a graveyard. Ice melting, seas rising, longer droughts — in a world seemingly on fire, I chose to put myself in some of the worst of it. The Alexander Archipelago in Southeast Alaska is a collection of thousands of islands in one of the scarce pockets remaining on this planet where thick moss blankets the forest floor and trees range from tiny seedlings to ancient giants. But I wasn’t loading into that Cessna four-seater to look for fairy-tale forests of spruce, hemlock, and cedar. I was flying in search of the forests I’d study — the graveyards of standing dead trees and the plants I so wanted to believe could tell me, through science, that maybe the world is not coming to an end.
Oakes describes her first embodied encounter with the specter of the yellow cedar as she hovers over the Alaskan coastline in a small jet plane, about to land and commence her research:
To the left, the verdant coastline broke off into inlets and side channels. To my right, I could see the steep hillsides covered in white skeletons of dead trees — standing on end like telephone poles, leafless ghosts of the towering cypress. Boulder-sized rocks on the beaches looked like little specks in relation to the large tracks of terrain with dying trees, the canopies of foliage in faded sepia tone.
I had been so focused on building a sound scientific study that wouldn’t get me or my crew killed that I hadn’t given much thought to what I would feel when I first saw the dead. 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 — an epidemic running rampant throughout the community in the largest remaining coastal temperate rainforest on Earth. I felt the tiny hairs on my forearms rise.
“We call it ‘Nature’; only reluctantly admitting ourselves to be ‘Nature’ too,” Denise Levertov wrote in her superb poem “Sojourns in the Parallel World” in recognition that such a response to witnessing the tragedy of another species is, of course, the only truly natural response — the response we cannot help but have the moment we unlearn our civilization-conditioned delusion that we are somehow separate from the rest of nature. Rachel Carson knew this in contemplating science and our spiritual bond with nature: “Our origins are of the earth. And so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity.”
It is from this deeply seated response that Oakes wrests her direction of research as a scientist and her direction of hope — that ultimate driver of transformation and survival — as a human being:
There was no driving on from the graveyards of standing dead, no going home, and no forgetting. I didn’t know it then, but those trees would change my life. In the moment, soaring above them, they made me feel vulnerable to our warming world in a way I had never felt before.
There’s a limit to the change we can tolerate, I thought. There’s a threshold and tipping point for every species — humans included.
What I didn’t know then was that these dead trees would eventually give me more than just hope. They’d give me a sense of conviction about our ability to cope with climate change. They’d motivate me to do my part. They’d move me from pessimism about the outlook of our world to optimism about all we still can do. As we made our way back down Slocum Arm, I stopped focusing on the dead trees and started looking around them. I could see green peeking up and around the barren trunks. I wondered if there was a new forest forming and what individuals could survive amidst the changes occurring. They were there. I could see them reaching toward the light through the broken canopies. I was committed to finding an answer — but for more than just the fate of the trees.
A century and a half after the great naturalist John Muir so memorably and poetically observed that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” Oakes set out to investigate the interleaved fates of trees and people, of the local and the global. On foot and kayak, she traveled across Alaska’s coastal forests to speak with hunters, Native weavers, naturalists, climate change deniers, and foresters, fusing ecology and social science in an effort to understand why a species that had survived the tumult of eons was dying so rapidly, what could be done about it, and how both the problem and its improbable solution might illuminate a new path forward for us as an ecologically responsible species. It is a matter of both science and storytelling, reason and reflection — “Attention without feeling,” Mary Oliver wrote, “is only a report.” Our search for truth, after all, is inseparable from our hunger for meaning — a hunger we feel at the core of our being, inside the rings of our varied experiences. Oakes writes:
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.
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. 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.
The kind of optimism Oakes cultivates in the course of her yellow-cedar research, both ecological and sociological, is not a blind and passive hope but the kind Walt Whitman saw as our mightiest force of resistance — a sane and sane-making optimism best articulated by a naturalist named Greg Steveler, whom Oakes interviews along the way. He tells her:
A forest is a concept. A forest is an actuating algorithm that we are catching at a moment. But the beauty, to me, one of the principal beauties is to try to imagine the stream of matter and energy through this moment from where it’s coming from to where it’s going. So that’s the forest.
I don’t do hope.. One of the reasons I think geology has become important to me is that it helps me pass the pain I just mentioned to you. I’m getting better at visualizing deep time in both directions. It makes me realize that the present moment of human depredation is definitely going to be fleeting. Other things will change in ways that I can’t imagine. But there will be ancient things again in the world at some point, and there have been. So it gives my spirit respite to live in remote times, either future or past… Here’s the substance of it: In the modern world, I think it’s intellectually dishonest to be hopeful, but it’s equally stupid to be hopeless. You can’t live out of a hopeless life.
In consonance with Zadie Smith’s insight into the necessary interplay of optimism and despair, he adds:
What occurred to me a few years ago was that I don’t have to get caught in that trap. The best thing for me to do is to develop my inner voice and to steer as close to that as I can and to act as if what I do matters. And allow the future to decide what comes of who I am… There was a fairly brief period in my life when I was pretty well philosophically prostrated by this because I couldn’t bring myself to play these little hope games and say, ‘Oh, see that little thing over there, notice now that the car is using a few gallons per hour less,’ or, ‘Look, someone just put a solar panel on their roof. And so things are getting better!’ Well, they’re not getting better. I didn’t want to play that game with myself, and yet I didn’t want to be trapped in the abysm of being depressed over it. I want to live a more joyful life than that.
Grace is what we decide to take with us and what we leave behind.
Half a century earlier, conservationist Mardie Murie had drawn on her enchantment with Alaska to help craft the language of the landmark 1964 Wilderness Act — possibly the most lyrical piece of legislature in human history: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man* and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” But in the course of her conversations with the various human stakeholders in the plight of the yellow cedar, Oakes is jolted into the realization that the wildness as such doesn’t exist and never existed — “instead of a physical reality, it’s a state of mind.” Or, rather, it is different states in different minds.
Two of the people she encounters — a Tlingit weaver named Kasyyahgei, who goes by the English name Ernestine, and her niece and apprentice, Cathy — would articulate this notion with staggering intensity. The forest, they felt, gave their people their identity. “Wilderness is a curse word,” Ernestine tells Oakes, then Cathy adds:
I would rather educate the people and see — have them learn the value of what they’re using, as opposed to set aside and make it all stop… Because once you’ve set that in motion, it becomes political football. Who wants to rape the land the most? We’re a minority here. We’re a small voice trying to say there’s true value in this land. This is one part of it that you’re checking, the cedar.
Echoing Rachel Carson’s courageous insistence that the designation and administration of nature “is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics,” Oakes reflects in a sentiment that highlights the complexities and inner contradictions of any ecosystem, including that of human society:
To sit there in Ernestine’s home by her loom and hear her call wilderness a curse word, to claim the designation itself is to blame for the imbalance we’ve created on our planet, that struck me.
Our separation from nature stems from our early efforts to protect it? And that separation is the cause of our problems today? There was an irony and unexpected twist — the once well-intentioned act of protecting wild places had broken the relationships needed to sustain the larger whole over a much longer time frame. It was the exact opposite of what Stegner and the National Park Service would have wanted. What I had once fought for, she was fighting against, but I didn’t feel defensive. I felt like I had something to learn.
Formally designating lands as “Wilderness” had severed the relationships she and her people had cultivated with the natural world. Ernestine said their relationship to the land and trees had always been one of balance and respect. Just as a curse word divides two people in conversation, setting aside nature tore it apart from humanity. For someone like Ernestine, drawing lines on a map and preserving places for people to connect with “nature” made no sense. This approach was only logical to people who had lost that connection and already severed relationships.
Teri Rofkar — another Tlingit Native, also a weaver — highlights this predicament with the insightful insistence that the term natural resource only furthers this artificial divide and the framing of nature as an exploitable commodity. Rather, replacing the term with the word relationship would begin the repairing of our bond with nature. (We know, after all, that relationship is the forest’s fabric of life.) “When we resource, we don’t make the ties of what was lost in order to gain something,” she tells Oakes, who echoes Carson’s insistence that “it is not half so important to know as to feel“ and writes:
There’s an objective world of the measurable — one where I can identify the species and count the saplings and run the statistics on a large dataset of forests affected by climate change. There’s an objective world where the patterns from interviews reveal that the people most connected to nature are also the ones most prepared to act and respond as it changes around them. Then there’s a whole realm of the immeasurable that’s deeply intertwined with the measurable. Where adapting requires collaboration and working across the boundaries that climate change ignores; where mitigating the damage requires both restraint and bold action. Where what I feel is just as important as what I know. It is what comes with intuition based on knowledge.
With an eye to the intricate interchange between relationship and responsibility, Oakes frames the central question animating her work:
At what point will adaptation become triage, caring for the people most affected? Like an epidemic, an extreme weather event can devastate whole communities of people, but when do we start investing in getting out in front of the next one? … Waiting for the top-down approach is an excuse for doing nothing from the bottom up. Adaptation requires me to stop thinking about climate change as someone else’s problem and accept it as my own. It requires me to stop thinking about the global risks and to start seeing what’s happening in my own community, and then to reach out to others. It requires me to consider the more vulnerable places and populations to ask, “What can I do to help?” These are the things this cypress, and all the people connected to it, have taught me. What happens at the local scale matters when it comes to climate change because that’s where people’s lives are carried out.
The most beautiful and moving gift of Oakes’s story and her approach is how, by contracting the focus of attention and awareness to the pinhole of the local, to this one living dying species, it radiates insight into the largest global problems, widening the field of vision for possible solutions, widening the locus of lucid hope. A century after Hermann Hesse wrote that “when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy,” Oakes reflects on what the yellow-cedar tree has to teach us and what it asks of us:
I can observe the changes occurring around me and embrace the struggle to accept them, to respond to them, to adapt to them. I can look ahead and live today holding space for tomorrow. I can fight for what we can still curtail. I can play a part, not live apart, and I can act with care for others when the floods hit, when the seas rise, when the snow melts, the rivers run dry, and the flames rage. Defeat may only be a failure to adapt.
If fear is the absence of breath, and faith is a positive force, I want to breathe into an uncertain future. If this tree species and all the people connected to it gave me one great gift, it is this: the realization that there’s simply no imaginable tomorrow — no modeled future scenario, no amount or shade of red—that could ever possibly nullify the need for unwavering care and thoughtful action today. To me, that is thriving. To me, in this rapidly changing world, that is grace. It is how I choose to live with what I know.
Complement In Search of the Canary Tree — a splendid belated addition to my favorite books of 2018 — with forester Peter Wohlleben on the astonishing science of what trees feel and how they communicate, biologist David George Haskell on what a dozen of the world’s most interesting trees taught him about life, and Henry David Thoreau on the prayerful language of trees.