The Treeline: The Last Forest and the Future of Life on Earth

  • By Ben Rawlence
  • St. Martin’s Press
  • 320 pp.
  • Reviewed by Julie Dunlap
  • February 17, 2022

The fauna is migrating to cope with climate change. But what about the flora?

The Treeline: The Last Forest and the Future of Life on Earth

Above the Arctic Circle, under violet light from the un-rising midwinter sun, journalist Ben Rawlence is alarmed. He has ventured to the northern edge of Norway’s wildest forest, where ice-white tundra should stretch as far as the half-glow reveals. But dark forms fleck the snow; downy birch trees have taken root. The scene is as beautiful as “the speckled breast of a snowy owl.”

Yet, writes Rawlence, “it is hard to avoid the feeling that if there is a tipping point in the earth’s climatic equilibrium, we have already left it far behind.”

A circumpolar quest for climate insights might not seem a likely project for Rawlence, whose reporting on war- and famine-driven displacement in Africa led to his wrenching City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp (2016). In The Treeline: The Last Forest and the Future of Life on Earth, his protagonists are six tree species that dominate the largest remaining intact biome on the planet, the greatest terrestrial source of earth’s oxygen: the boreal forest.

Intimate, wonder-driven portraits of imperiled woodlands emerge from his journey to know the boreal/tundra ecotone — past, present, and future — and expose the reality that trees, too, have become refugees. Their warming world is transforming at a pace faster than they can adapt, says the author, and “this sinister fact has enormous consequences for life on earth.”

Unrooted organisms have been fleeing north for decades. In Alaska, the most-studied boreal region, Rawlence finds that burgeoning shorebird, moose, bear, and fish populations can foster a false sense of abundance. Fishermen celebrate record salmon catches — except when freak heat waves leave “more dead fish than living.”

Some Inuit interviewed insist they can adapt to the uncertainties as they have always done. “When the whales go, they hunt seal,” Rawlence is told. And when the seals go, they turn, with tragic irony, to oil money dispensed by the government.

One mammal is even making it easier for trees to move: the North American beaver. As their population expands, ponds they build warm the tundra enough for willows and alders to proliferate, eventually to be followed by black-and-white spruce. To those who understand that vegetation reduces the tundra’s albedo, or ability to reflect solar radiation, this Arctic greening is more terrifying than Birnam Wood marching on Dunsinane.

Contemporary satellite images compared with 1940s aerial photos confirm the scale of beavers’ ecological engineering in Alaska. Wherever Rawlence travels — by foot, canoe, Zodiac, Trans-Siberian Railway, or tiny aircraft — he seeks out scientists to ask about their latest discoveries. Whether their techniques involve ice cores, peat drilling, dendo-chronology, chemical analyses, or modeling, their consensus is inescapable: “The planet you think you live on no longer exists.”

A few researchers express stoic objectivity, such as pioneering Russian climatologist Nadezhda Tchebakova. “I do not have feelings about the future,” she says. “It is not my responsibility to solve.” Others express grief and an unquenched determination to find answers.

A father-son earth-scientist team, Sergei and Nikita Zimov, shrug off mocking by the press for envisioning the return of wooly mammoths to the Siberian steppe. Their bold experiments using caribou, musk ox, and other surrogates for extinct Pleistocene megafauna already yield evidence that large grazing herds can help protect permafrost from taiga (forest) expansion. Perhaps, offers Rawlence, science-driven rewilding efforts could buy humanity a bit more time.

Wisely, though, Indigenous voices are as strong as empiricists’ throughout the book. From the Sámi in northern Scandinavia, the author shares keen observations of change, from the quality of river ice to the taste of reindeer meat. From Nganasan elders in Siberia, we hear ancient stories of herding life before colonization by “hydrocarbon thinking” undermined the community’s own values and independence.

A UNESCO World Heritage site protects still-thriving First Nations and the largest intact portion of Canada’s boreal forest. In Pimachiowin Aki, “the land that gives life,” Rawlence experiences a culture that has reverenced spirits in rocks, trees, waters, wind, and thunder for 8,000 years.

There, Anishinaabe teacher Sophia Rabliauskas recounts how the community redressed the harm of residential schools through healing camps, reasserting its children’s interdependence with the natural world. Sophia has faith both in the land that supports her and in intergenerational responsibilities. “I want my descendants to sit here and enjoy the same spot as I am doing today.”

Rawlence believes that a new relationship with nature, seeing it with “ancient eyes,” is our only “viable and realistic” path to rectifying the climate crisis. Yet the chief flaw in his book is that few of us are prepared to take on the deep-time perspective his argument requires. It strains our imaginations to ponder the millions of years of evolution behind a forest’s adaptations to cold; its relationships with wind and rainfall, insects, birds, and underground mycorrhizal fungi; and its vulnerability to the lightning pace of fossil-fueled change.

Comprehending eons of life’s dependence on the cryosphere — the ice-covered surface of the globe — necessitates thinking on geological timescales. Given that, consider reading first a geologist’s view of climate change, such as Marcia Bjornerud’s Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World, to grasp the full weight and urgency of Rawlence’s thesis.

The Treeline is much more than a grand adventure with a grim message. Elegant writing on the latest research and traditional worldviews reveals glimmers of hope in dark, frozen forests. If our actions can cause such profound disruption in the geological blink of an eye, surely we can change our behavior to heal it. Ben Rawlence has given us, if not a signposted path to a more benignant future, at least a compass direction: north.

Julie Dunlap writes and teaches about wildlife, environmental history, and climate change. Her next children’s book is I Begin with Spring: The Life and Seasons of Henry David Thoreau (Tilbury House, March 2022).

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