The study of trees requires a comfortable temperament leaning toward the long game, which is why three of the following recently published or forthcoming books are also memoirs. The identification of tree patterns can take a lifetime: that of a tree or of a human being (which are sometimes of similar duration). But as the world’s forests increasingly become the front line of the battle against climate change, and the West burns and cities literally burst into flames, protecting trees has become a global urgency. None of these authors entered their field with the intention of becoming an activist, but each has been forced into the fray in some way.
Even a decade ago, the notion that trees communicate with each other would have seemed to many a fringe idea, if not completely farfetched. That it is now well established is due in large part to Suzanne Simard, who can draw a straight line from the observations she made of the forests near her childhood home in British Columbia to the experiments she conducted as a teacher. of forest ecology. Those showed that trees of different species share resources, and even warn each other, through an underground “wide web of wood” of fungi.
Simard, who comes from an impressively long line of loggers, got his first jobs in forestry in the early 1980s, and one of his first assignments was determining why replanted clearings were doing so poorly. His discovery, that commercially valuable pine performs best when grown alongside native species like birch, landed like a lead balloon among his bosses, who had staked on his belief that herbicides were necessary to give cash crops the space they needed to thrive. That she was a woman who criticized the entrenched methods of a predominantly male industry didn’t help her cause either. Like many who find irrefutable evidence and then ignore it, she eventually became disillusioned and went off to academia, a move that led, indirectly, to the implosion of her marriage.
In search of the mother tree (Allen Lane, 368 pages) cleverly unravels what Simard herself sees as the bizarre interweaving of her personal and professional life. A fight with her beloved bull-riding brother was not resolved before the tragedy occurred. 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 his recent work on forest regeneration: matriarchs whose role it is to pass on wisdom to their offspring before they die (although Simard, to be clear, is still relatively young and vigorous). The book doesn’t shy away from hard science, and those who arrive ready to learn a little ecology will be richly rewarded.
Like a million-selling book on rare trees, Peter Wohlleben’s book The hidden life of trees (2015) became a phenomenon. With success, however, came criticism. While the German forester often says similar-sounding things about the sensitivity of trees as experts like Simard or Diana Beresford-Kroeger, some see his relationship with science as less compromising and more beneficial. (In The New Yorker, Simard recently confessed that he found his anthropomorphism “exaggerated.”) Clearly sensitive to such criticism, Wohlleben points to his rationalistic bona fides at the beginning of this follow-up volume, The heartbeat of the trees (Greystone, 264 pages), noting that, as a child, he consciously avoided church for science. And yet the title essay could be taken as a doubling, asking, as it does, if trees can be said to have heartbeats (not really), and if they can feel our hugs (the answer, basically, is no, but the query allows Wohlleben (future Scripps Spelling Bee participants take note) to work on the term “thigmomorphogenesis”).
The book reads like a sampler of sorts, its short chapters exploring, in the author’s relentlessly serious tone, topics related to trees, including forest bathing therapy, the medicinal value of plants, how the destruction of Old-growth forests fuel climate change and Wohlleben’s visit with the Kwiakah First Nation of British Columbia, who contacted him about their struggles with the logging industry in their traditional territory. Some will find that the limbs he comes out on are a bit long. The claim that dogs’ sense of smell might not be much better than humans’, for example, or that walking in the woods at night heightens the senses (in Ontario, that sense is the insatiable itch of a thousand bites of mosquitoes). But it’s hard to argue with the overall message of the book; namely, that time spent in nature can serve as a balm for anxiety and a bulwark against despair.
As a college biologist in the early 1970s, Meg Lowman spent most of her time at ground level, measuring trees with a dendrometer in the temperate forests of Massachusetts. However, when she moved to Australia to do her graduate work in that country’s rainforest, her adviser told her that to get the data she wanted, she would have to go up. direct you Here’s the origin story of Canopy Meg, who became one of the world’s first “arbonauts” when she fixed a harness and, using a homemade slingshot, lifted herself to a place she would call the “eighth continent”: a world of mind-boggling din, teeming with insect and bird activity completely different from the one below.
In the arbonaut (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 368 pages), Lowman details a career that embodies the word “pioneer,” both in terms of the science (when she started, only cavers and marine divers had experience relevant to her), and in terms of gender, in her breaking from what she classed. “the glass canopy”. Often the only woman in his various pursuits, Lowman apparently endured even more sexism than Simard (not to mention groping by a creepy taxidermist and an attempted mugging), 1980s Australia was not known as a feminist Xanadu. And it wasn’t just the men. After she and her husband, a sheep farmer, had children, Lowman’s mother-in-law (whom she hid her copies of Ecology inside Woman’s Weekly) echoed her academic colleagues by insisting that mother and teacher were roles for each other. exclusive. The marriage, like Simard’s, eventually collapsed under the weight of these tensions, but it wasn’t until one of her sons told her the girls couldn’t be doctors that she decided she had to take them to the United States. . From start to finish, the word that best describes her the arbonaut (coming in August) is “energetic”: Lowman, who built North America’s first canopy walkways, in part to educate the public about the importance of preserving the forest, isn’t afraid of heights or signs of exclamation. Each one has been won.
In her job as an observer, Trina Moyles works a few elevator stops from Lowman, in the narrow steel dome of a fire tower 100 feet above Canada’s vast boreal forest. Moyles applied for the job when her life came to a standstill. She spent much of her 20 years doing international development work, partly in Uganda, where she became engaged to a local man, but she reluctantly broke up when she realized the reality of a lengthy sponsorship process. . wildlife biologist in Peace River, Alta., nothing in Moyles’ 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 team of firefighters on duty. as a company. Her daily interactions with the neighboring watchers via radio and text became a lifesaver.
In his riveting, sometimes crude memoir, Moyles elegantly unfolds an unforeseen personal evolution: After the humiliation of early false alarms that send teams fighting needlessly, he gradually gains confidence in his ability to detect smoke, and then of alternating episodes of euphoria and depression. , he comes to embrace his loneliness. She surprises herself by going back to work the following year, and then the year after that. Be aware (Random House Canada, 328 pages) can feel novelistic in its mix of haunting nature-evoking depictions and Jack London-esque touches: lightning striking the tower, a chilling close encounter with a black wolf, and another with a mother grizzly forcing Moyles to grab his rifle. (used rubber bullets, bear was fine). However, the most fearsome are the fires themselves. Fire, Moyles points out, is as necessary to the regeneration of the boreal zone as rain is to the Amazon, but what’s happening now in the dry-as-matchstick forests is of a different order. In fact, rarely has the term “baptism of fire” seemed so apt: In his first days on the job, Moyles witnesses the massive Horse River Fire south of Fort McMurray, Alta. That, before most of us learned what a “heat dome” was.
In a way, Simard, Lowman and Moyles are reminiscent of 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 world and whose passion was eventually transformed. to 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 is different now, of course, is the scope of the problem and the fact that one of the species now facing judgment is us.
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