The study of trees requires a temperament that’s comfortable skewing toward the long game, which is perhaps why three of the following recently published or forthcoming books are also memoirs. Identifying arboreal patterns can take a lifetime – a tree’s or a human’s (which are sometimes of similar duration). But as the world’s forests increasingly become front lines in the battle over climate change – and the west burns and towns are literally bursting into flames – protecting trees has taken on global urgency. None of these authors entered their field with the intention of becoming an activist, but each has been forced to jump into the fray in some way.
Even a decade ago, the notion that trees communicate with each other would have struck many as a fringe, if not completely crackpot idea. That it’s now well established is thanks in no small part to Suzanne Simard, who can draw a straight line from the observations she made about the forests near her childhood home in British Columbia to the experiments she conducted as a professor of forest ecology. Those showed that trees of different species share resources, and even warn one another, through a subterranean “wood wide web” of fungi.
Simard, who comes from an impressively long line of loggers, got her first jobs in silviculture in the early 1980s, one of her first assignments being to determine why replanted clear-cuts were faring so poorly. Her discovery – that commercially valuable pine performs better when grown alongside native species such as birch – landed like a lead balloon with her bosses, who had gone all in on their belief that herbicides were necessary to give money crops the room they needed to thrive. That she was a woman critiquing the entrenched methods of a predominantly male industry didn’t help her cause either. Like so many who find irrefutable evidence only to have it ignored, she eventually became disillusioned and left for academia, a move that led, indirectly, to the implosion of her marriage.
Finding the Mother Tree (Allen Lane, 368 pages) artfully unspools what Simard herself sees as the uncanny interweaving of her personal and professional lives. A falling out with her beloved bull-riding brother went unresolved before tragedy struck. Later, there was a cancer diagnosis, possibly related to the pesticides and radiation she handled in the field. Readers will no doubt see a poignant parallel between Simard and the so-called mother trees that have been the focus of her recent work on forest regeneration: matriarchs whose role is to pass on wisdom to their offspring before they die (though Simard, to be clear, is still relatively young and vigorous). The book doesn’t shy away from hard science, and those who come to it ready to learn a little ecology will find themselves richly rewarded.
As a rare tree book to sells in the millions, Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees (2015) became a phenomenon. With success, though, came criticism. While the German forester often says similar-sounding things about tree sentience as experts such as Simard, or Diana Beresford-Kroeger, some view his relationship with science as less fully committed and more friends-with-benefits. (In The New Yorker, Simard recently confessed she found his anthropomorphizing “over the top.”) Sensitive, clearly, to such critiques, Wohlleben points to his rationalist bona fides early on in this follow-up volume, The Heartbeat of Trees (Greystone, 264 pages), noting that, as a child, he consciously eschewed church for science. And yet the title essay could be taken as a doubling down, asking, as it does, whether trees can be said to have heartbeats (not really), and whether they can feel our hugs (the answer, basically, is no, but the query does allow Wohlleben – future Scripps Spelling Bee participants take note – to work in the term “thigmomorphogenesis”).
The book reads as a kind of sampler, its brief chapters exploring, in the author’s relentlessly earnest tone, tree-related topics including forest-bathing therapy, the medicinal value of plants, how the destruction of old-growth forests fuels climate change, and Wohlleben’s visit with B.C.’s Kwiakah First Nation, who contacted him about their struggles with the logging industry in their traditional territory. Some will find the limbs he goes out on a little long. The contention that dogs’ sense of smell might not really be that much better than humans’, say, or that walking in forests at night heightens the senses (in Ontario, that sense being the insatiable itch from a thousand mosquito bites). But it’s hard to dispute the book’s overall message; namely, that time spent in nature can serve as both a balm for anxiety and a bulwark against despair.
As an undergraduate biologist in the early 1970s, Meg Lowman spent most of her time at ground level, measuring trees with a dendrometre in Massachusetts’ temperate forests. When she moved to Australia to do her graduate work on that country’s rainforest, however, her adviser told her that to get the data she wanted she’d need to go up. Way up. Thus goes the origin story of Canopy Meg, who fashioned herself one of the world’s first “arbornauts” when she jury-rigged a harness and, using a homemade slingshot, hoisted herself into a place she would come to call the “eighth continent”– a world of mind-blowing din, brimming with insect and bird activity completely different from that below.
In The Arbornaut (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 368 pages), Lowman details a career that embodies the word “trail-blazing,” both in terms of the science (when she started out, only spelunkers and sea divers had experience relevant to hers), and gender-wise, in her breaking of what she class “the glass canopy.” Frequently the sole female in her various pursuits, Lowman endured, seemingly, even more sexism than Simard (not to mention the gropings of a creepy taxidermist and an attempted assault), 1980s Australia not being known as a feminist Xanadu. And it wasn’t just men. After she and her sheep-farmer husband had children, Lowman’s mother-in-law (from whom she hid her copies of Ecology inside Woman’s Weekly) echoed her academic colleagues by insisting that mother and professor were mutually exclusive roles. The marriage, like Simard’s, eventually fell apart under the weight of these tensions, but it wasn’t until one of her boys told her that girls couldn’t be doctors that she decided she needed to bring them with her to the United States. From start to finish, the word that best describes The Arbornaut (forthcoming in August) is “spirited”: Lowman, who built North America’s first canopy walkways, partly to educate the public about the importance of forest preservation, is as unafraid of heights as she is of exclamation marks. She’s earned each one.
In her job as a lookout observer, Trina Moyles works a few elevator stops up from Lowman, in the cramped steel cupola of a fire tower 100 feet above Canada’s vast boreal forest. Moyles applied for the work when her life hit an impasse. She’d spent much of her 20s doing international development work, partly in Uganda, where she’d gotten engaged to a local man but reluctantly broken things off when the reality of a long sponsorship process sunk in. Despite growing up the daughter of a wildlife biologist in Peace River, Alta., nothing in Moyles’s past prepared her for the reality of living alone for months in a modest cabin, inaccessible by road, with only her rescue dog and the odd crew of on-call firefighters for company. Her daily interactions with neighbouring lookouts through radio and text became a lifeline.
In her engrossing – at times raw – memoir, Moyles elegantly unfurls an unanticipated personal evolution: After the humiliation of early false alarms that send crews scrambling unnecessarily, she slowly gains confidence in her smoke-spotting ability and, after alternating bouts of exhilaration and depression, comes to embrace her solitude. She surprises herself by returning to the job the next year, then again the one after. Lookout (Random House Canada, 328 pages) can feel novelistic in its combination of evocative descriptions of jaw-dropping nature and Jack London-esque touches: a lightning strike that hits the tower, a spine-chilling close encounter with a black wolf, and another with a mother grizzly that compels Moyles to grab her rifle (she used rubber slugs, the bear was fine). Most fearsome, though, are the fires themselves. Fire, Moyles notes, is as necessary to the boreal’s regeneration as rain is to the Amazon, but what’s happening now in dry-as-matchsticks forests is of a different order. Indeed, rarely has the term “baptism by fire” seemed so apt: In her first few days on the job, Moyles bears witness to the massive Horse River Fire south of Fort McMurray, Alta. That, before most of us learned what a “heat dome” was.
In some way, Simard, Lowman and Moyles bring to mind the so-called “Trimates” – Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Canadian Biruté Galdikas – three women who worked in isolation with primates in different parts of the globe, and whose passion eventually transitioned into activism (in the case of Fossey and Galdikas, with tragic results). What unites them all is their dedication to protecting the natural world from human-caused loss of habitat and diversity. What’s different now, of course, is the scope of the problem, and the fact that one of the species now facing its reckoning is us.
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