A revised edition of a Canadian classic addresses climate change
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