The canary trees are speaking to us; of climatic changes, snow cover, root frost, die-off, economic disruption, cultural and spiritual loss and uncertainty about the future.
The ranger parked his four wheel drive vehicle across from our campsite and wandered over. He was a seasoned bush worker diplomatically ensuring everyone was camping in the right spot and had paid up. We started talking about the bush fire risk.
The forest we were in camping was full of towering eucalypts that had experienced the deadly 2009 Black Saturday fire storm that is scorched into the minds of all Victorian Australians. This landscape evolved with fire and, eleven years on, seems to be making a comeback.
I wondered if this is what resilience looks like.
Our mobile phone coverage in the forest valley was virtually zero. I asked: “What’s the forecast?” “Well, it will be a pretty hot one tomorrow, into the 40s [Celsius], high winds and a good chance of a dry lightning storm at night”.
I hadn’t heard of ‘dry lightning’ but didn’t need an explanation when we were camping in a tinder dry forest at 40 degrees with potential high winds.
“We’ll keep an eye on any warnings and come and clear the campsite” he said, not very reassuringly, “though we can’t guarantee to get through if something does spark up”.
I thought about trying to sleep through the night in our camper trailer with the wind howling, worrying if that distant rumbling was a firestorm tearing down the valley towards us. With wind speed and temperature rapidly rising the next day, we packed our gear and headed home. I wasn’t sad to leave. Fortunately the fires did not come to our forest.
But elsewhere, come they did. The Australian bush fires of 2019-2020 were staggering on any level. They took my breath away. They burnt over 20 percent of Australia’s forests, killed 33 humans and over one billion other animals. Informed as I am, I struggle to know what my reaction to all this is.
As I try to make sense of the scale and significance of this catastrophe I keep wondering what to do in the face of such loss; of people, homes, communities, of an unspeakable number of animals, of ruined landscapes, many of which will never return to what they once were.
As with all overwhelming human tragedies, the beautiful and compassionate side of people can always be found.
In February 2011 I waited in line for two hours to buy milk and bread at the only operating bakery in my elderly parents’ suburb in Christchurch, New Zealand. The after-shocks from the catastrophic earthquake were literally rumbling underneath us as we slowly shuffled forward in the snake-like queue that ran far out into the street.
Normally such imposition brings out the worst in us. But disasters reshape our immediate expectations and behaviour. There was a strange and unfamiliar calm, some laughter, people chatting with strangers and a shared understanding that something had changed. At least for a while people were looking out for each other with greater than normal grace and more than usual patience.
We saw the same human response to the 2019/2020 bush fire season; a huge initial outpouring of support in the form of food and clothing. Then came the multiple fund raisers, concerts with musicians generously donating their time, companies promising a percentage of their monthly profits, and universities encouraging staff and students to give. Then the calls for new climate protests and petitions to sign demanding the government take immediate action on climate change.
Taking action is what we do in such times. Yet …
Yet, I find myself strangely resistant to this flurry of activity. It feels like something is missing. We act so we can repair and restore normality as quickly as possible. There is nothing wrong with that fundamental desire for the comfort of the mundane and familiar.
Yet, these devastating fires are not a normal tragedy because the environment in which they occur has changed. And it will keep changing, taking us into even more uncharted territory as the climate continues to heat up. How much change are we able to tolerate?
That question led me back to conservation scientist Lauren Oakes’s 2018 book In Search of the Canary Tree. I came across it serendipitously in a university bookshop in Cambridge, MA. What I thought would just be an interesting read about the death of the Yellow-Cypress forests on the Alaskan coast turned out to be much more; it is a powerful meditation on loss and transition.
I was hoping to pick us some information about the impacts of climate change on this part of the world and Oakes’s book didn’t disappoint; it is full of fascinating science data, facts and insights. But science facts on their own don’t tell the full story; facts need a home. They exist in the complex living systems of forests and the emotional universe of people’s lives, in their lived experiences of place, meaning, hope, belief and identity.
Oakes’s tale of science and surveys quickly morphs into something far more entangled and emotional; a tale of succession and what this means for people and forests. She skilfully weaves a story of love and loss in a deeply personal account of her PhD research seeking to understand why these forests were dying and what it means to the people who rely on them and love them.
It takes courage to ask what comes next. It means acknowledging that something is changing. Yellow-cedars are the ancients of the forests with some individuals living for a millennium. But now vast swathes of these trees are dying and until recently scientists did not know why.
The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the global average and this is reducing snow cover in these forests. Yellow-Cypress have shallow root systems that freeze if not protected by seasonal snow cover. The warming climate is reducing the amount and frequency of snowfall, and this is decimating many of these forests. Not everywhere yet, but the trend is clear and deeply concerning.
What happens when these trees die? This question is not just about ecological succession but also about sacrifice, loss, self-doubt, patience and grace. It is about the ecology of these forests and the meaning they have to countless generations of Alaskan natives, to foresters, and to the small communities that have grown up in the shadow of these extraordinary trees, and to researchers who immerse themselves and their lives in these entangled, complex living systems.
Ecological succession is not always rapid and the death of the trees not uniform. The way people in these forest-reliant communities respond to this rapid decline is also diverse. Some found new uses for the bodies of the dying trees. Some experienced financial and commercial hardship and others great cultural or spiritual loss. Some were accepting and others searching for solutions.
Transition is not linear or unambiguous. It moves slowly, incrementally then suddenly jumps forward surprising us because we are unprepared.
Oakes and her team meticulously surveyed plots of dying cypress and recorded what was rising in their place: “Every bit of it pointed towards a story of survival amidst loss and death. It was a forest letting go of what was and becoming something new. Some members of the community were finding ways to make the best of their shifting surroundings.”
Yet the loss is palpable; while forests will change and new forms develop, many of the ancients will be gone. The implications for the ecological systems and human communities remains unclear.
Forests are deeply complex and intertwined life forms. To think of them as consisting of collections of individuals locked in competition with each other is an unworthy anthropomorphism. Recent decades of careful and detailed research has uncovered the depths of human ignorance about forests.
The extraordinary underground life of forests with their communication systems and interspecies collaboration to the strange exotic creatures and plants that live in the canopies of old forests overwhelms even the most imaginative of us. Being in the presence of an old stand forest is a profoundly different experience from standing in a ‘new’ plantation forest.
The question of what happens when forests die on a large scale is not trivial. It has profound implications for the future, for the climate, for ecological diversity, for humans.
Oakes deeply understands this: “Everywhere on the planet, every society has a deep connection with trees, particularly old ones. There are special trees, sacred trees, historic tress, memorial trees. They are embedded at every level in human cultures. But in many cases these big old trees, the sacred trees … will not survive — at least not without special tending — the types of temperature change we are expecting.”
I was not at all surprised that changes in climate were the primary cause of these dying forests but that niggly question of what comes next is much more troubling. I wanted a story of hope, of the triumph of nature fighting back, of scientific solutions, of clear policy to protect these vast wonderful forests.
If they continue to die, I want to know that what comes after is a worthy replacement. But instead, losing these trees felt to me like a downgrading, a tragic loss that will take millennia to repair.
“There is a limit to the changes we can tolerate … there’s a threshold and tipping point for every species — humans included.”
Many years reading the science and tragic politics of climate policy has slowly eroded the naive hope I used to bolster optimism. Now, in my worst moments, I feel despairing. Oakes’s book does not give an easy way out. It documents the decline and death of something magnificent, an ancient and living wonder that has survived so much over many millennia.
Yet, the story is more complicated than just death. Thankfully there are pockets of these ancients that are still intact, despite the odds. Perhaps they will continue to survive in their entangled ecological communities, not succumbing to the ravages of climate change.
Back in Australia, vast tracts of forest, some of which never evolved to cope with regular burning, have been torched by such extraordinary heat that they are now just grey dust landscapes. In time, something will grow back. But the forests many of us knew and loved are gone, their future changed forever.
As the forests are forced to change, we also must change. I am increasingly convinced that neither hope that is attached to particular outcomes, nor despair that all is doomed are adequate responses to the crises we face. Oakes provides neither.
The story she weaves is painfully honest about loss. Her father dies during her research. A relationship ends by satellite phone in the forest, the call painfully cut short by the appearance of a bear at the campsite. She and her team continues on, documenting a forest’s death.
It is hard to live inside all this pain. One of her interviewees, a forest scientist who has spent much of his life working and living in these forests, expresses this most starkly: “Every trend in the world that I care about is not only going in the wrong direction, but it’s accelerating in the wrong direction…. Murrelets [a small Pacific sea bird] are in trouble. And eventually we’re in trouble.”
I know we are in trouble. We have been in trouble for a long time, but now we really get to smell the smoke, witness the death, and feel the grief up close.
But we are also in transition to a new future. While we have little control over parts of this future, there is still much we can do. We cannot return to the ecological past so we must accept this new, emergent and perhaps tougher nature and embrace a new future, whatever it may bring.
No-one welcomes the profound disorientation of witnessing the disappearance of what we know and love and are deeply attached to. It disrupts our deepest identities. It undermines our confidence and certainties.
Yet, ecological systems are living and constantly transforming the world, although not normally in timeframes of human lived experience. The canary trees are speaking to us; of climatic changes, snow cover, root frost, die-off, economic disruption, cultural and spiritual loss and uncertainty about the future. Everything is connected to forests: “The water we drink, the trees that exhale the air we breathe, the soil that feeds the plants that feed us”.
Near the conclusion of her book Oakes narrows in on the key question: “If people are going to adapt to the coming changes, the first step is accepting that we are not separate [from the rest of nature]. So, then, what are the healthiest relationships I can create?.”
Maybe it is not about looking for a hope that says it will all be OK. Rather, we let go of this notion and seek to build healthy relationships, regardless of what the snowfall does or the bush fires bring.
Recently my partner and I were considering buying a block of bush land from a Conversation Land Trust. This block has high ecological value and part of the deal is that it remains protected in perpetuity. But since the bush fires I was seriously questioning the point. If we did buy it and work in protecting, replanting and restoring it, at some point it will burn, our work will burn, given the ongoing increase in bush fire risk. The fires are going to get worse.
I shared this one evening with a friend who reproached me for my lack of courage: “If it burns, replant. The animals need a home. Care for it as long as you can, not because things will get better but because it is the only right thing to do”.
It is easy to succumb to despair in face of a burning planet. But there is another way to live, one that, as Joanna Macy puts it, does not insist we must believe in a positive outcome in order to act. Build the healthiest, most courageous and creative relationships we can, whatever the circumstances. Maybe that is what the canary trees are trying to tell us.
I highly recommend this magnificent book. Oakes style is always fluid and open and sometimes poetic. It’s hard to weave together the dynamic complexity of forest ecology, sociology and anthropology but I think she pulls it off admirably.
Dr Simon Kerr is an honorary research fellow in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia, and the producer of the multimedia climate project Music for a Warming World.
Image: 18 Trading 24, Wikipedia.