“It’s complicated” probably best describes the relationship between humans and trees – and between trees and the underground fungal networks that support them – as four recent books on the subject demonstrate. And in yet another summer where we watch the world’s forests burn, all offer nuanced and, in some cases, surprisingly hopeful views about nature’s resiliency.
The title of Fred Pearce’s engrossing A Trillion Trees (Greystone, 352 pages) refers to the ambitious global campaign to plant that number of trees by 2030 to help combat climate change. A U.K.-based journalist and environmental consultant who has visited forests in dozens of countries, Pearce agrees with the initiative’s well-intentioned aims, less so with its methodology. Planting trees, he says, is expensive and hard to do successfully (a forest planted in the wrong place can even release more carbon than it absorbs). When done on a mass-scale, it can also entail “riding roughshod over local rights.”
On land that’s abandoned or denuded by humans, most of those trillion trees will plant themselves better and more quickly, he maintains, than we can. His book offers myriad inspiring examples of why this is the case while also tackling common misconceptions about forests, the prime one being that we’re losing them globally at an alarming rate.
Statistics suggest things are actually improving. The planet, overall, has more trees today than 10 years ago; Europe has a third more than it did at the turn of the previous century. The Northeastern U.S. is significantly more forested now than when Henry David Thoreau was waxing poetic about life in the woods from his cabin (in a clearcut) on Walden Pond. A major part of that gain is the result of humanity’s ongoing migration from rural to urban living, and the fact that we farm more on less land than we used to.
To which you will naturally counter with, what of the Amazon rainforest? Pearce acknowledges that the rampant deforestation taking place there under Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro is less than ideal, but notes that it’s also not the first time. The “virgin” Amazon encountered by post-Columbian European settlers, for example, only looked that way. The Amazon River had been densely settled, cleared and farmed for thousands of years, until settler-brought war and disease decimated the majority of its inhabitants. What those settlers happened upon was in fact regenerated wilderness, wherein lies the hope: In a post-Bolsonaro world, it can, theoretically, happen again.
Indeed, most of the wilderness we romantically describe as “pristine” and “untouched” – especially in Canada – isn’t. Humans have been cutting down and managing forests forever, though none so successfully, Pearce contends, as Indigenous peoples. He points to national parks, which often have less biodiversity than forests where Indigenous custodians are in control.
A Trillion Trees abounds with interesting, sometimes counterintuitive information like this, and with stories of places where things are headed in the right direction. Like in Cameroon, where agroforestry – the planting of crops under the canopy of soil-enriching trees – has been practised with huge success, or Puerto Rico, which, proportionately speaking, is enjoying the largest forestry recovery in the world. It’s an energizing, highly recommended read.
Cal Flyn covers some of the same territory as Pearce in her sublime Islands of Abandonment (originally published a year ago, now out in paperback, Viking, 384 pages), which details her travels to a wide variety of global sites that – due to war, oil spills, abandonment or economic collapse – have been divested of humans (she cites the same story about Europeans in the Amazon). The message here is similar, too; namely, that benign neglect may be an even better model for wilderness than it is for parenting.
Indeed, some of Flyn’s most miraculous and encouraging examples are in Earth’s most toxic locales. In the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, 70 per cent of which is now forest, she hears the “elephantine” scream of elk who have reclaimed the territory. In her native Scotland, massive remnants of the country’s shale mining industry (mountains, really) known as the Five Sisters have, similarly, become hot spots for a diverse array of wildlife and rare orchid species. And when the former Soviet Union collapsed, leading to the abandonment of thousands of collectivized farms, it inadvertently created “the biggest man-made carbon sink in history.”
Flyn is particularly interested in the psychological hold abandoned places have over our psyches. (Online photos of abandoned areas of Detroit, a site she visits in the book, are sometimes called “ruin porn,” but surely our obsession with such decrepitude is more about mortality than sex?) She’s a journalist, but writes so evocatively – ancient linoleum is “like the skin of a rotten apple, the skin of a corpse” – that it’s easy to forget that this book has (almost) no photographs.
Aware that their positive takes might be perceived as giving a free pass to polluters, warmongers and loggers – why worry when nature can Roomba-up our messes? – Pearce and Flyn both make repeated caveats against complacency. Reforestation, after all, is just one prong of climactic recovery. They’re cognizant, too, that nature has “tipping points” – the Amazon may be at one now. Final takeaway: We must do our best, but we also can’t be defeatist.
Nature may regenerate better, in the main, without our help. But there can also be unexpected, unpleasant consequences when we shut ourselves out of nature – as if we weren’t a part of it in the first place, as writer and National Geographic Explorer Lyndsie Bourgon shows us in Tree Thieves (Greystone, 304 pages), a thought-provoking study of the billion-dollar practice of tree poaching in provincial and national parks in the Pacific Northwest.
Bourgon began with a simple question in mind: Why would anyone cut down the precious, ancient trees some have dubbed the “rhino horn of the American west”? The answer she got was complex, and more related to class and economics than to ecology. People steal trees, she discovered, to survive, but also as an act of identity-confirming resistance.
She centres her narrative on a tiny California town where the collapse of the logging industry in the 1990s, combined with the expansion of nearby Redwood National Forest – which failed to bring promised tourist dollars – induced anti-establishment resentments and social problems like drug dependency in its residents, many of whom were multi-generational loggers.
Like any criminal enterprise, poaching has an ecosystem, and Bourgon gives us its many facets, past and present, from the 19th-century American land barons who sought to “conserve” national parks to function as their personal hunting grounds, to the Chinese manufacturers who buy illegal timber then turn it into napkins, to the park rangers who risk their lives chasing down poachers, to sanctimonious environmentalists who, during the Timber Wars of the eighties and nineties, vilified loggers as “an amoral force.” Put in all that context, the poachers themselves end up coming off less like criminals than victims.
We’ve recently come to understand – thanks to ecologists like BC’s Suzanne Simard – that there would be no trees to poach were it not for the subterranean fungal networks – the so-called “wood-wide web” – that connect and sustain them.
When it comes to fungi, the lines between good and bad, competition and cooperation, can be particularly slippery. As anyone who’s had dandruff or a yeast infection knows, fungi can be hard to live with, and yet they’re far, far harder to live without, as Canadian mycologist Keith Seifert lays out in The Hidden Kingdom of Fungi (Greystone, 296 pages), a look at the ubiquitous, invisible fungi that dominate our world.
In forests and humans, fungi are critical to decomposition, regeneration and digestion. They’re also key to certain medicines and foods (including the “sacred fungal trilogy”: alcohol, bread and chocolate). They can also wreak havoc in the form of the excellently named blights, smuts, mildews and rusts. (In Flyn’s book, we learn that Detroit locals use the term “blight” to refer to the insidious way abandonment can spread in neighbourhoods if it’s not contained). Our biochemistry is so similar to that of fungi – which are more like animals than plants – that any attempt to eradicate them can backfire: Poison them and we risk poisoning ourselves.
Unlike the other titles in this group, The Hidden Kingdom of Fungi is straight science – it includes, for example, an 11-page appendix of fungal taxonomy – and as such makes an excellent primer for the ecological and forest-interested layperson. As our guide, Seifert is engaging verging on goofy (“I didn’t plan to be a fungus guy – who does?”) and brimming with Fun(gal) Facts. We learn, for instance, that lichens are traditionally used in the manufacture of Harris Tweed in an extractive process that involves human urine, and that fungi can have up to 23,000 possible genders. Imagine the culture wars.
“The future is fungal” isn’t a catchphrase I ever thought I would embrace, but Seifert makes a compelling case for it in his final chapter, where he gives us a glimpse of a possible mycotechnology-based future, one where fungi are harnessed for everything from degrading plastics, cleaning up oil spills, to growing the building materials for the Martian colony where, assuming we somehow manage to turn this earthly ship around, we’ll hopefully never have to live. Fingers crossed.
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