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We can’t change the past. But the future remains unwritten. And nothing evokes that potential like a baby tree that has centuries ahead of it

Arno Kopecky’s latest book is The Environmentalist’s Dilemma: Promise and Peril in an Age of Climate Crisis.

On my patio in Vancouver, I have a Douglas fir that’s outgrowing its pot. A friend gave it to me as a seedling four years ago, the arboreal equivalent of gifting someone a baby elephant. Its upper needles are now chest-high, and I need to find it a permanent home while I can still move it. But this species can grow 100 metres tall and live for more than a thousand years. So the question is, where can I plant such a thing to give it half a chance at a full life?

Thinking about this quickly becomes a meditation on the precarity of our historical moment. Disaster is everywhere. Between the turbocharged wildfires and droughts of a heating climate, breakneck urban development, geopolitical mayhem and the bottomless appetites of industry, it’s hard to imagine any piece of earth being left in peace for 10 years, let alone 10 centuries.

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Once his Douglas fir got too big for its pot, Arno Kopecky sought a new, more lasting home for it.

It’s a dangerous time to be a tree.

Consider Vancouver. A pretty city, surrounded by forest, you wouldn’t guess at first glance that trees are grappling with their own housing crisis here. This entire landscape was once a realm of behemoths; Douglas firs, western hemlocks and cedars, in particular, all utilized in countless ways by the Coast Salish peoples whose stories still recount how the first trees arrived when the ice left. Then Europeans came and logged it all to smithereens. A smattering of ancient groves survived the carnage, but you have to know where to find them. For the most part, our streets, yards and public spaces are graced by the children or grandchildren of those elders. Many are magnificent, but every so often you see a stump with four times their circumference and realize how diminished the current generation’s grandeur is.

This is especially true on the North Shore mountains that loom over the city. They’re blanketed in second-generation Doug firs – self-pruning pillars that grow ramrod straight and branchless for the first 30 metres or so; a loggers’ delight. Chainsaws aren’t allowed there any more and, like many Vancouverites, my family hikes and picnics in those woods. For a while, I considered transplanting my patio Doug among his brethren there. But Douglas firs need a lot of sunlight and don’t do well in shady undergrowth. Sorry, no vacancy.

Then there’s the wildfire. Douglas firs are among the most fire-resistant of trees, with gnarly, thick bark designed for that purpose. But they’re still … made of wood. One hot afternoon last July, I was staring out my office window and noticed a tendril of grey smoke rising from a distant hillside. It quickly thickened as I watched. Helicopters soon appeared with what looked like tiny thimbles dangling from their bellies; in fact they were massive buckets that doused the fire with ocean water scooped from Burrard Inlet. The North Shore is well guarded, but I thought of that brief conflagration one month later when mesmerizing footage emerged from the hills above Kelowna, utterly ablaze. Those slopes were well-protected, too.

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Arborists clear dead trees from Stanley Park in August, one of a series of dry summers that have taken their toll on Vancouver's green spaces.Jackie Dives/The Globe and Mail

What about urban parks, you say? Take Stanley Park, a beloved attraction for tourists and residents alike, one of the best neighbourhoods a tree could hope to live in. There’s plenty of old growth lurking just off the trail here. But late last year, Vancouverites were shocked to discover a sprawling clear-cut being carried out in the midst of our crown jewel – 160,000 western hemlock, more than a quarter of the park’s trees, were slated for destruction. In fact, they were already dead. A succession of freakishly hot, dry summers had weakened their immune systems to the point where they succumbed to a looper moth infestation and got devoured by larvae. Standing, highly flammable zombies.

This is happening all over Canada, as a warming climate lures new pests ever northward. The emerald ash borer, a beetle from Asia that arrived in Canada in the early 2000s, has killed millions of North American ash trees from Toronto to Halifax. The Asian longhorn beetle arrived at the same time; it loves maple trees as much as we do and poses a serious threat to the syrup industry.

Those are just two of dozens of insect species now chewing their way into Canada’s warming forests. Each year they destroy up to 20 times more trees than wildfires do. When I reported on this in 2022, I spoke to Christian Messier, the Canada Research Chair in Forest Resilience to Global Change. Thanks to new and endemic pests, “at least half of our tree species are at risk of disappearing within 50 years, in any particular region of the country,” he told me.

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During its Stanley Park cull last August, the City of Vancouver also doused trees with water cannons to limit the risk of fires.Jackie Dives/The Globe and Mail

For some species, the heat alone is enough. Coastal cedars, our sweeping beauties, grow their roots wide and shallow, evolved for soil that gets regular, year-round rain. A rough patch here or there is one thing. But six of the past eight summers have brought several months of dry spells to this coastal rainforest. Cedars are now dying off throughout the southern coast, their needles turning red, dropping bumper crops of pine cones in a desperate last gasp to reproduce before expiring.

You can still find healthy cedars around here if you know where to look: in shaded hillsides and valley bottoms where the sun’s evaporating power is veiled, especially if a stream is near. But Vancouver doesn’t have many streams left. The city wrapped them in pipes and buried them underground long ago – more than 100 creeks are now entombed beneath the concrete jungle.

Building that underground labyrinth was a herculean feat of urban engineering that took decades to complete, part and parcel of implementing sewage and potable running water for a 20th-century city. By the time they were almost finished in the 1980s, city planners started realizing there were some downsides. Aside from the impact on biodiversity and aesthetics, it turns out watersheds are better at absorbing heavy rains than pavement and storm drains, which tend to back up and flood, or get mixed in with our drinking water, all amplifying the very havoc engineers meant to alleviate.

It’s thanks to this belated awareness that one last stream at the eastern edge of the city was (mostly) spared: Still Creek, though partly buried, still sees daylight for much of its length.

One of the most prominent daylighted sections is now a protected city park known as the Renfrew Ravine. It so happens that my daughter’s elementary school abuts this very spot. Twenty metres from her soccer field, a trail leads down to the water. There are no ancient trees here, but the cedars and cottonwoods someone planted a few decades ago are big enough to create a powerful sense of stepping into the past: a quiet, shaded valley with a burbling stream meandering down the middle; ducks swim, bald eagles and owls visit the branches above, along with 60 more species of birds and untold wingless critters. Invasive Himalayan blackberry bushes had swarmed much of the bank, but the city recently mowed them all down, opening wide sunlit spaces near the water.

You see where this is going.

Mr. Kopecky and his daughter collect water for the Douglas fir in Renfrew Ravine Park, home of Still Creek, the only above-ground stream left in the city.

I swear I didn’t know anything about the ravine when I started out. I didn’t even know the watershed is called Still Creek, let alone that it has an inspiring rehabilitation story.

Once a prolific salmon-bearing watershed, the creek was treated as a garbage dump for much of the 20th century. It became a lifeless open sewer by 1960, shot through with toxic waste from its downstream passage through Burnaby’s industrial parks.

But in the 1970s, the first glimmerings of an environmental ethos saw community groups gradually take an interest in its revival. Over decades, volunteers removed all manner of accumulated trash and sealed off the industrial pipes. They started a salmon hatchery. Twenty years ago, an artist named Carmen Rosen moved into a house three blocks from the Renfrew Ravine. She enrolled her daughter in the same school mine goes to now, fell in love with Still Creek, and founded the Still Moon Arts Society.

Ms. Rosen has been organizing art projects and stewardship events ever since. Through Still Moon, her small army of volunteers (which now includes paid employees) run everything from guided tours and restoration projects to full-moon lantern festivals. Every April, Ms. Rosen collaborates with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to release thousands of salmon fry into the Renfrew Ravine. In 2012, for the first time in more than half a century, huge adult chum salmon returned to spawn in Still Creek. They’ve returned every year since.

There isn’t much most of us can do about climate change, or foreign wars, or Donald Trump. “The problems are too big,” Ms. Rosen writes in her book, What Comes To Light: Stories of Still Creek Lost and Found. “But when you see the salmon return, you think, ‘Oh, I could just go and clean up garbage for a couple of hours and I’m part of the solution.’”

Not everyone can or wants to pick up garbage. But there are other ways to act. Vote in your local election. Attend a community meeting. Plant a tree.

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Vancouverites enjoy March's cherry blossoms in David Lam Park. By 2050, the city hopes to raise its tree canopy by 30 per cent.Chris Helgren/Reuters

Of course, there are protocols. Like most major cities in Canada, Vancouver has realized the value of leafy shade and is aiming for a 30-per-cent increase in tree canopy coverage by 2030. Trees are being planted everywhere. Most of the good spots are already taken, and there’s no better spot than a permanently protected creek tucked behind a school.

One e-mail to the Parks board set off a bureaucratic flurry of correspondence. A month later, I was walking through the Renfrew Ravine with a friendly Parks worker named Dana. “We actually get quite a few of these kinds of requests,” she said. “It’s probably time to streamline the process.” I recalled my own tree-planting days, when I would stomp up to 2,000 seedlings into the ground a day, and tried not to feel too precious.

Dana helped me identify an ideal spot for my Douglas fir: a grassy patch near the ravine bottom, close enough to the water table to help it survive those first vulnerable summers when its roots have yet to grow deep. Ample sunlight, but also some western cover, so that late afternoons (the most punishing time in a heat wave) will be shaded.

At least, until it’s 1,000 years old and 30 storeys tall. By then it won’t need shade, but provide it.

Once the Kopeckys planted and watered it, the Douglas fir could begin to settle into its new environs.

Forget how unlikely that is for a moment. Put aside all that could go wrong to spell Doug’s early death. Instead, imagine: one thousand years.

Ease yourself into that time scale. Cast off the digital pace we’re all enveloped in, this era of frenetic news cycles, hit singles, text messages and quarterly reports. We’re calling the prepandemic period the Before Times. That was four years ago.

One thousand years ago, the world’s great civilizations were mostly unaware of each other, separated by geographic barriers that struck them as the end of the world. For Europeans, rocked by constant feudal wars and devastating plagues, it was a dark age. For China, for the Incan empire, for the Polynesian wayfinders and coastal First Nations and the Iroquois Confederacy, and many more, it was an age of explosive creativity and growth (often accompanied by staggering violence).

One thousand years later, their descendants are inextricably entwined. That’s us, hurtling toward a collective climax our ancestors could never have envisioned. Fuelled by airplanes and smartphones, supertankers and satellites, we’re both watching and participating in an unprecedented collision: every society on every land mass on Earth integrating into one superculture. It’s beautiful, barbaric, bewildering. We wipe each other out. We wipe ourselves out. We exchange technology, music, food, philosophy. I can nibble pomegranates in February and sip coffee from Nicaraguan beans while reading a Japanese novel about climate change; some Ethiopian jazz might be playing on the radio; the leader of a nuclear power might be gazing at his precious red button. If he doesn’t push it, AI will let us speak to whales before taking over.

My home office overlooks a homeless shelter across the alleyway; we watch each other go about our days. This morning as I sat down to write, I listened to a man scream bloody murder at his demons for 10 uninterrupted minutes. Once he’d got that out, he calmly walked inside the shelter to lie down in a free bed. His shattered, redeemable life is separated from my own by two panes of glass.

What does any of this have to do with a tree? Well, time. Ancient trees embody the past. I mean that literally. The breath of our ancestors helped build their bark. All the things they said and did – the things that led to this wondrous, atrocious moment we’re stuck in – are embedded in the mass of an ancient tree.

We can’t change that. But the future remains unwritten. And nothing evokes that potential like a baby tree that has 1,000 years ahead of it.

What might the next thousand years bring? We can no more guess at that than Chaucer could have divined the internet. But I’ll make one bold prediction for the year 3024: we’ll either make it or we won’t.

To put it another way, we’ll either change our ways and learn to live sustainably, or we won’t.

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The tree's new spot is close enough to the water table that its still-shallow roots can nourish it through the first summers.

Instead of talking about resource depletion, climate change and escalating geopolitical violence, let me tell you about a friend of mine. Ten years ago, when we were in our mid-30s, he was living an incredibly fast life. He’d party through the night, work all day, go skiing or biking after work, then shower and do it all over again. He’d been accelerating for years, always one-upping himself. “You’re burning too hot,” I told him once. But I was drunk too when I said it. He was enthralling to be around, his lust for life contagious. He kept accelerating. Finally, one warm September afternoon, 15 hours after he got kicked out of a bar, he paraglided off a mountain top and clipped a wing on a cliffside tree and plummeted to his death.

Either we’ll succumb to our addictions, or we’ll get over them. The former seems likeliest, most days. But stories like Still Creek, and people like Carmen Rosen, remind me that the latter is possible, too. I’m not talking about utopia – that’s a contradiction in terms, because what would there be to write about? I just mean I can picture a time, 1,000 years from now, when our descendants look back on the 21st century and say, Damn, that was close.

Planting a tree that could live to see that day feels like a vote for that day. Like any single vote, it won’t make much difference on its own. For now, it’s just a little thing.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article stated that Vancouver is aiming for a 30-per-cent increase in tree canopy coverage by 2050. In fact, the city is hoping to meet this goal by 2030. The article has been updated to reflect this change.

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