Book Re­view

A re­vised edi­tion of a Cana­dian clas­sic ad­dresses cli­mate change

Canadian Wildlife - - CONTENTS - By Matthew Church

A re­vised edi­tion of Tree: A Life Story, a Cana­dian clas­sic, re­turns to ad­dress cli­mate change

Do trees get the ap­pre­ci­a­tion they de­serve? Sure, there are count­less trib­utes to wan­der­ing in forests, in­nu­mer­able homages to beloved species and mil­lions of recipes de­voted to pre­par­ing the al­most in­fi­nite variety of tree fruits. Still, each day of our lives we walk, run, cy­cle and drive by th­ese amaz­ing ex­em­plars of na­ture’s com­plex and en­dur­ing power with­out a sec­ond thought. In 2004, three of Canada’s lead­ing na­ture ad­vo­cates — Robert Bate­man, Wayne Grady and David Suzuki — pro­duced a book that chron­i­cled the six-cen­tury life of a sin­gle Dou­glas fir. It was and is an in­valu­able ad­di­tion to the shelf, of­fer­ing a pro­found per­spec­tive on the evo­lu­tion, in­ter­con­nect­ed­ness and fragility of an en­tire ecosys­tem, rooted in a sin­gle or­gan­ism.

Now, a decade-and-a-half later, the book has been up­dated, re­vised and reis­sued. Has so much changed that a re­vi­sion is re­quired? Yes, though not in the bi­ol­ogy of the tree. The changes, some dras­tic, are in its cir­cum­stances. Hu­man-driven cli­mate change is up­set­ting mil­len­nia of evolved con­di­tions. Take for­est fires. We have all learned they are in­valu­able in the health of a for­est. But the re­vi­sions in­cluded in the new edi­tion fo­cus on the rapid and vast in­crease in for­est fires as a re­sult of cli­mate change, and the in­cal­cu­la­ble and ir­re­versible dev­as­ta­tion be­ing wrought. This book is not a “the end is nigh” screed or a polemic for po­lit­i­cal and eco­log­i­cal ac­tion. It is a highly read­able, fas­ci­nat­ing ex­plo­ration of a tree, a for­est and an ecosys­tem that leaves the reader in­formed, in­spired and in awe of na­ture’s com­plex­ity. With­out the forests that once blan­keted the planet, the au­thors point out that “an­i­mal life on Earth would al­most cer­tainly still be pri­mar­ily marine.” We are here be­cause of them. And they are gone be­cause of us.

When we first meet our Dou­glas fir (Pseu­dot­suga men­ziesii) in the early pages of the book, it is still a seed, ly­ing in sunshine in a pro­tected and fer­tile dry run-off bed. It is the year 1300 or there­abouts: in North Amer­ica, the Aztec Empire is be­gin­ning to build its gleam­ing cap­i­tal city far to the south where Mex­ico City is to­day; north of the Rio Grande, there are maybe 12 mil­lion hu­mans to­tal. In the Pa­cific North­west, the Coast Sal­ish peo­ple are liv­ing in hun­dreds of “small clan-vil­lages of per­haps 300 peo­ple spread through­out the re­gion.” This is a peo­ple who work in har­mony with the land. They see and feel their con­nect­ed­ness.

This book is about con­nec­tions. The au­thors guide us (sup­ported by Bate­man’s il­lus­tra­tions) through the in­ter­wo­ven fab­ric of evolv­ing life, in­tro­duc­ing us to cos­mol­ogy, evo­lu­tion and species from lichens, ants, sala­man­ders and ravens to cougars and much more, high­light­ing the roles each play in an im­pos­si­bly com­plex sys­tem. There are fas­ci­nat­ing di­gres­sions on early Greek nat­u­ral­ists, fluid flows in vas­cu­lar plants, fungi’s es­sen­tial role in for­est health, pho­to­syn­the­sis, the Guten­berg press, the pre­his­toric na­ture of ferns, and even how salmon sup­port Dou­glas fir forests, just as they are sup­ported by them. It is a breath­tak­ingly broad sur­vey in a com­pact nar­ra­tive that de­spite its pere­gri­na­tions loses sight of nei­ther the for­est nor the tree. And it is a plea­sure to read.

As high­lighted in the newly re­vised edi­tion, the back­drop to this drama is an­thro­pogenic de­struc­tion, ac­cel­er­at­ing even as the dan­gers to the global ecol­ogy are be­ing ignored by in­dus­try, gov­ern­ments and cit­i­zens alike. The time avail­able to pre­vent ut­ter global catas­tro­phe is shrink­ing fast, and count­less species are at risk, in­clud­ing hu­mans. This remarkable book elu­ci­dates and cel­e­brates the awe­some­ness of na­ture for a new gen­er­a­tion. In do­ing so, this re­vised edi­tion should in­spire a new co­hort to come to the de­fence of our one-and-only home.

Tree: A Life Story By Wayne Grady and David Suzuki Art by Robert Bate­man Re­vised edi­tion, Grey­stone Press, 2018

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