“The Treeline: The Last Forest and the Future of Life on Earth”
By Ben Rawlence. St. Martin’s Press, 2022. 307 pages. $ 29.99.
The boreal forest, the ring of trees that orbit the globe at high latitudes, is the largest living system after the sea; it is also the “lungs” of the planet and thus the key to the health of our planet. Ben Rawlence, who lives in Wales and whose last book was about a refugee camp in Africa, has brought his concerns about human rights to the catastrophic consequences of climate change. From 2018 to 2021, he traveled around the northern forests – to Norway, Russia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland – to meet residents and scientists and to learn for himself what has happened to the trees farthest north and the life associated with them. .
How interesting can the tree line be? Incredibly interesting, it turns out, when the subject is in the hands of such a skilled researcher and author. A book about trees can, we discover, be a page turner. Partly travel adventure, partly deep dive into budding science, partly reflection on our history on Earth, partly philosophical questions about the fate of the Earth – “The Treeline” is a lively and beautifully written weaving of fascinating topics.
Organizationally, the book revolves around the globe, where each chapter focuses on not just another forest, but the tree species that are most significant to that forest. A map at the beginning, looking down at the North Pole, shows the forests, their northern range, and the great communities that the author visited.
Rawlence begins in his neighbor Scotland, which is considered to be the border of the Arctic tree line in Europe, although most of its trees were felled centuries ago. Forest order after the last ice age led to Scots pine once covering about 80% of the country. Today, “rewilding” efforts are aimed at restoring some of the big tree, but projections of global warming suggest that Britain’s climate will soon be too inhospitable for the pine trees.
In the next chapter, with Norway and the downy or European white birch, Rawlence visits the Sami reindeer herders in the far north. Here and elsewhere, the author makes very clear that forest health is directly related to human rights and the ability of indigenous peoples to maintain their cultural ties and livelihoods. Warmer and wetter weather has caused Norway’s birch to “race” across the tundra, reducing the habitat required by reindeer and their shepherds.
In the Russia chapter, with the lark, Rawlence visits several tree-lined areas in the winter and meets with both scientists and indigenous peoples. He travels hundreds of kilometers in a tank-like vehicle with huge tires to find the farthest northern trees in the world – slender larch that grows in extreme cold over thick permafrost. Elsewhere, thawing of permafrost causes rising water levels and “drowning” of larch. He learns that scientists predict that at least 50% of Siberia’s forest is expected to be transformed into a treeless steppe by the end of this century.
By the time Rawlence studied Alaska’s tree line and the dominant pomegranate, the world was deep inside COVID-19 lockdowns. Unable to visit in person, he did an impressive job of studying maps, photos and reports and talking to researchers and residents. As he points out, “Alaska is the most studied area in the Arctic; the United States has the resources and scientific weight that other nations lack … a limit to our understanding of what is happening both geographically and scientifically.” He describes his Alaska conversations with Ken Tape, who has studied how beavers have recently transformed the landscape; author Seth Kantner, who grew up along the tree line of the Kobuk River; and Roman Dial, who have been studying changing vegetative dynamics, especially spruce, in the Arctic for more than 40 years. He also describes the impact of fungal networks on forest health, the way warmer air affects photosynthesis, and the relationship between evaporation of Alaska’s spruce and precipitation in the Midwest.
In Canada, Rawlence spent time in Ontario with Diana Beresford-Kroger, “one of the foremost scholars in the boreal forest” – and, we learn, the model for a character in Richard Powers’ novel “The Overstory” – and then in and around Churchill on Hudson Bay. Here we learn how critical the northern forest is in terms of regulating water, air, soil, climate and ocean productivity. We also learn where the subtitle of the book, which refers to “the last forest”, comes from. Beresford-Kroger believes that the Amazon and other tropical forests are “probably done for”, threatened as they are not only by deliberate deforestation, but by desiccation and fires. By extending over a wide temperature range, the boreal forest may have the best chance of adapting. In Canada, its key species is balsam poplar or cottonwood.
Rawlence’s last stop – in the organization, not the actual time – is Greenland. As the island’s inland ice melts, the land becomes more habitable for trees, of which there are four native species, especially rowan or mountain ash. Rawlence joins a group planting trees and discussing the new area of ”strategic ecology”, which is not based on current climate conditions, but guesses about the future. “Assisted migration” is another term related to helping species, including trees, move into places where they can survive a warmer world.
Finally, by showing how the boreal forest interacts with all life on Earth, Rawlence paints a bleak picture of where we are headed. He does not offer false hope, but instead speaks to a necessary change in the way people live. “Curiosity and attention are the humble but radical preconditions for a new relationship with the Earth. Systems change when there is a culture that demands it. The revolution begins with a walk in the woods. ” Rawlence’s contribution to the cause includes the founding and management of Black Mountains College, a school in Wales dedicated to teaching skills to mitigate and adapt to climate change.