The Treeline by Ben Rawlence

book cover

Big changes are taking place across the vast plain stippled by spruce and striated with water that unfolds below the aircraft at 10,000 feet. The skin of the earth is melting, microbial life waking after thousands, possibly millions, of frozen years. The soil is transpiring—perspiring one could say since more moisture is being released than absorbed—and animals and plants are taking note. It is a new world, and intelligent life—the smart genes—is sniffing it out, sending out suckers, seeds and scouts, ranging north, getting ready.

The Treeline is a mind-blowing piece of work that will teach you many, many things you never suspected, while feeding your sense of awe and your sense of dread. We look to the margins for evidence of large changes in the world, tell-tale signs like rising levels along water frontages, expanding desert edges, changes in growing seasons, changes in wildlife. The treeline was the edge Ben Rawlence chose.

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Ben Rawlence – Image from 5 x 15

He had spent years writing human rights reports and trying to get the UN and governments to address refugee issues, but when he started writing through the eyes of the refugees themselves, in several books, many more people began to listen.

Understanding that the conflict and the displacement that was going on was driven by climate change I began to look for other examples, other parts of the world where we could see this process in action, where we could see climate breakdown as history already, and we could catch a glimpse of the future that awaits the rest of us. So I began digging around and doing research and came across this very arresting image of the trees and the forest moving north towards the pole. I discovered that the forest was on the move and the trees were turning the white arctic green. They shouldn’t be on the move. That’s not supposed to happen. And this sinister fact has huge consequences for all life on earth. – from the 5×15 piece

So, what exactly is the treeline? Generically, it is the latitude above which there are no trees, roughly the Arctic Circle. Another measure is the rippled line around the globe south of which the average July temperature is ten degrees centigrade or higher. (The Arctic Squiggle?) Discovering that the Arctic treeline consisted of mostly six types of trees, he set about to look at each of these.

Scots pine in Scotland, birch in Scandinavia, larch in Siberia, spruce in Alaska and, to a lesser extent, poplar in Canada and rowan in Greenland. I decided to visit each tree in its native territory, to see how the different species were faring in response to warming, and what their stories might mean for the other inhabitants of the forest, including us.

The Arctic treeline is actually fairly squishy, not so much a line as an area of transition, an ecotone, where tree presence diminishes rather than ceases. Rawlence begins with a look at where he lives, in Wales, at the yew, struggling to persist in a world that is no longer conducive to its needs. But that may be changing. Then, it is off to the Cairngorm Mountains in Scotland, the Scandinavian interior, Siberia (larch), Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, looking at the role the boreal plays in our environment, and at the impact of global warming on these borderlands.

More than the Amazon rainforest, the boreal is truly the lung of the world. Covering one fifth of the globe, and containing one third of all the trees on earth, the boreal is the second largest biome, or living system, after the ocean. Planetary systems—cycles of water and oxygen, atmospheric circulation, the albedo effect, ocean currents and polar winds—are shaped and directed by the position of the treeline and the functioning of the forest.

One of the things that most impressed me, among the many fascinating nuggets to be found here were descriptions of the structures underlying forests.

Wherever there are mushrooms, ferns, bracken and particular kinds of woodland plants like violets there was once forest. Rings of mushrooms are usually the outline, the long-ago earthwork of a tree stump. There are between fifteen and nineteen ecto-mycorrhizal fungi (fungi growing around the roots) in a mature pine forest, and they play a role in everything from carbon and nutrient transport to lichen cover, taking sugar from the tree and providing it with minerals in exchange. Planting trees without regard for the essential symbiotic “other half” of the forest below ground may be far less effective than allowing the ground to evolve into woodland at its own pace. Oliver Rackham describes a planted oak wood in Essex that even after 750 years still does not possess the orchids, plants and mushrooms that you would expect of a natural wood.

I was reminded of what it might look like to see a city like New York or London from above and believe it to be constructed entirely of the visible structures, not appreciating that there are vast underground networks, water lines, sewer lines, gas lines, electrical lines, communication cables, transit tubes, and the like that provide the lifeblood which allows the above-ground, visible city to survive. Globally, these threads of mycorrhizal fungi make up between a third and a half of the living mass of soils. Soil is in fact a huge, fragile tangle of tiny connected threads. Having done some digging in our back yard, I can very much appreciate that.

Another impressive feat is Rawlence’s strength in communicating how local populations interact with the trees among which they live. There are many surprises to be found here, in the range of specific benefits trees provide for one, which includes the fact that they transmit aerosols carrying chemicals that help maintain health in humans, that their leaves, berries, bark and other parts providing medicine for a wide range of illnesses, that they provide materials that oceans need to sustain life, that they drive planetary weather. Did you know that there are birch trees with things called trichomal hairs on the underside of their leaves, that capture particulates from the air, natural air filters that then allow the materials to be dropped to the ground, and washed away with the next rain? They also act like a fur coat for the leaves. The list goes on. You will be surprised by many of the uses that Arctic peoples have devised to make use of their local trees.

Will it be possible to continue such a positive relationship as the land becomes less supportive of human endeavors? The Sami people, for example, are finding it increasingly difficult to manage their reindeer herds. Snowmobiles are less than ideal when there is no snow. Substituting four-wheel All Terrain Vehicles may allow them to herd their critters, but using them damages the landscape even more. At what point will it be impossible to continue at all?

There are plenty of dark tidings. In this ring of melting ice global warming is taking place at a rate far in excess of what we experience in the more temperate zones. And then this unnerving bit; with more Co2 in the air, trees do not need to work so hard to get what they need, thus will produce less oxygen. Uh oh. As the forests of the northern hemisphere migrate north (race actually, at a rate of hundreds of feet a year in some places instead of inches per century) they are pursued on their southern end by increasingly fire-prone conditions. How much of our forest land will be consumed by a Langolier-like army of drought and flames before finding more welcoming climes? And then there is methane, pretty pearl-like bubbles when seen through clear Arctic ice, but how about this cheery nugget as permafrost becoming permaslush?

Some studies have suggested that an unstable seabed could release a methane “burp” of 500–5000 gigatonnes, equivalent to decades of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to an abrupt jump in temperature that humans will be powerless to arrest.

In pop science books, the author acts as a guide to the subject matter, introducing us to the places he visits, and the experts he consults. Rawlence is an engaging and informative teacher with a gift for extracting local cultural lore and area-specific histories, as well as reporting the science in accessible terms. He seems like someone you would want to hang out with. You would certainly like to sign up for any class he teaches. You will learn a lot. He is also a lyrical writer, able to offer not only straight-ahead exposition, but poetical, sometimes emotion-filled reactions to the places he visits and the experiences he has on this journey.

The brilliant sun on the pinkish cliffs and the starched blue of the sky, which has been mostly hidden all week, make the morning sing. The scent of a meadow is so heady it should be bottled. The hay has been freshly cut: huge plastic-covered bales guide the eye to a combine harvester abandoned mid-job, its windows covered in sparkling dew. Beyond, the path crosses the meadow to a wide bend that the flooding river has worked into a series of interlinked channels. The little bridges have been overwhelmed and carefully placed stepping-stones lie visible in the clear stream, half a meter underwater. Feet have cut a higher path along the edge of the valley, around drowned shrubs, riparian willow now floating midstream. The roar of the main river is all around. Gray water cradling slabs of dirty ice meanders around a cliff and then widens into a foaming skirt over even-sized white granite boulders that snag the ice and make it dance and nod until it falls apart and joins the sea-ward torrent.

Rawlence a not a fan of western capitalism, and it would be difficult to argue that the short-term profit motive is not at variance with the long-term health of the planet, but places that were at least nominally socialist did a pretty good job of devastating their environments too. Maybe the problem is a human one first, and a economic-political one second. Maybe if we lived as long as some trees (not all are long-lived) we might have a more long-term view of what matters, and not keep rushing to use everything as fast as we possibly can before someone else does. Rawlence keeps his eyes on the scientific and anthropological issues at hand. How is warming impacting these trees, the landscapes in which they exist, the societies that have lived with them for centuries, and the wider world? What can we learn from the changes that have already taken place? What can we look forward to? What can we do about it?

Despite the growth of electric car usage and renewable power generation, we have arrived at this party too late, and relatively empty-handed. Attempts to mitigate global warming cannot change the fact that there is warming to come that is already baked in. We can do nothing to change that. It will continue, even were we to cease all carbon usage tomorrow. Not that we should abandon attempts to reduce emissions. But we should know that we will not see the benefits of those actions. The mitigation work we do today may impact future generations, but the planet will continue heating up for quite some time regardless. The most we can hope for in the short term is to slow the rate somewhat.

The Treeline is a must read for anyone interested in environmental issues, global warming in particular. Who doesn’t love trees? After reading this you will love them ever more. As Rawlence points out, we are at our core tree people, having evolved thumbs to get around in an arboreal world, and having lived among or near trees for all of human history. We have evolved together, and will continue to do so. But we will have to adapt to the new Anthropocene world rather than attempting to force it back into its prior form.

In the future, when the ice is gone, there may be no such thing as a treeline at all.

Review posted – February 18, 2022

Publication date – February 15, 2022

I received an ARE of The Treeline from St. Martin’s Press in return for a fair review, and a promise to plant a few saplings. Thanks, folks. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s Twitter page

Lizzie Harper, a Welsh illustrator, provided many images for the book. Sadly, there were none in the e-galley I read. But you can see some on her site. Here are links to Harper’s personal, FB, LinkedIn, PInterest, and Twitter pages

Interview
—InterMultiversal – An Interview with Ben Rawlence by Simon Morden

Items of Interest from the author
—–Video trailer for the book – 1:09
—–5 x 15 – Ben Rawlence on The Treeline – video
—–The Big Issue – ‘As the planet warms, the forest is on the move’ by Rawlence

Items of Interest
—–Patagonia Films – Treeline (Full Film) | The Secret Life of Trees – video 40:16
—–Cairngorms Connect – 200-year vision to enhance habitats, species and ecological processes across a vast area within the 600 square kilometer Cairngorms National Park.
—–NY Times – Feb. 4, 2022 – Seen From Space: Huge Methane Leaks by Henry Fountain

You Might Also Want To Check Out
—–Land by Simon Winchester
—–Being a Human by Charles Foster
—–The Earth’s Wild Music by Kathleen Dean Moore
—–Road of Bones – not in form, obviously. But this one offers a fictional horror-story take on the great north rebelling against the outrages of humanity

Music
—–George Winston – Forest
—–Sondheim – Into the Woods

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Filed under Non-fiction, Public policy, Science and Nature

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