A Tree and Its People in a Warming Landscape
Welcome to Saint of American science talk hosted on Earth Day, April twenty second two thousand nineteen. I'm Steve Mirsky on this episode are human health, and our environmental health are deeply intertwined and each requires the other test to stay healthy. That's Lauren oaks. She's a scientist with the wildlife Conservation Society and Jordan professor in earth system science at Stanford University. He's also the author of the book in search of the canary Trie, the story of a scientist, the Cyprus and a changing world. Canary tree is the yellow cedar type of Cyprus that's native to coastal areas of north west North America. Another name for it is the Alaska Cyprus, it's being called the canary tree because it's the canary in the coal mine of an Alaska where oaks did her research in March Alaska, temperatures average, twenty degrees Fahrenheit above historical. Norms to talk about the book, I called oaks at our home in bozeman. Montana. Really enjoyed the book. I think you get into a lot of things that are really important that you don't see in a lot of scientific research. And so let's talk very briefly about how you decided to make this tree. Your study, focus, Sarah. So I say the puck it's true that I never thought I'd be someone spent your life studying a species and actually designed this pretty weird benign wanted them, and they were good reasons for it though. I generally was attracted to work in the north because warming there is a currying faster at faster rates than the averages across the planet. So in some ways, you can think about Alaska or the far far north as a looking last into the future in terms of what other of impacts we're going to see when it comes to climate change. So I spent a summer up there doing exploratory research where I really had no idea what the topic would be. I was interviewing scientists to were working in fisheries management or forest management, policymakers who were dressing things like coastal erosion on the far north coast were communities have to move inland and many other kinds of climate change impacts, whether it's watery sources or kinds of resources that we depend on anyways. I was hoping in that time that I would come across a topic at need really that was dented from the community where. Research could be relevant for current management. And where I could take a look at both the ecological in social impacts of of climate change. So I came from a program where we were trained scientists to bridge disciplines a lot of times in environmental problem solving were bringing together experts in in the room from different fields. So ecologists come together with the communists or policymakers, and we all kind of tend to speak different languages based on our training in disciplines. But the idea of this program is that if we train one person to speak, multiple languages into bridge across these disciplines that the new solutions could emerge. So from the beginning, I was always interested in you know, what are the ecological impacts of climate change in place. But then also how are people responding to those impacts? And I thought that you know, perhaps there could be lessons for myself in my own life for others other people in other parts of the planet by. I'm looking at those two factors and we'll get to the people part. But the decision to focus in on this one species was was really interesting. Yes out during that time, I came across Dr Paul Hennion who's a force pathologist at the United States forest service. He has since retired. But at the time we met he was about to publish a thirty year, synthesis, which was basically showing the link to climate change in terms of wire these trees dying, and it's kind of a complex pathway to death. But climate change plays a key role in that. And for me that was a really good jumping off point because I wasn't assigned this coming in trying to explain you know, why is climate change affecting the species how what are the vulnerabilities? You know, what's the likelihood of future events in in that kind of thing. I had a jumping off off point where we already know climate changes affecting the species, and that I could ask okay. Hey, what's what's happening to the rest of the forest community? And and how are people really affected by that as well? Looking at climate changes affect on the species as much as you are using the species as bellwether about what climate change will do everywhere. He actually I mean in some ways it's a story of loss. Right. We are losing this species in many places, but then there's also a story of re-growth, right it. So what comes in after the trees die in the same way? You know, how can people adopt alongside those ecological changes? And you do find that. As the yellow cedar goes away, the the western hemlock comes in. So there's there's loss there's gained there's a transition. It's happening. It's really interesting. But before we get to that. Let's talk about some of the realities of doing field research. It's incredibly strenuous and uncomfortable difficult. Yeah. It is a it. It was tough. It was tough. That's for sure I worked on the outer coast the southeast Alaska in the west coffee. Kobe wilderness and glacier bay national park, which are some of the most remote wilderness areas, we have in the country strikingly beautiful in also strikingly far from from civilization as you as you call it. But the forest where I work we're only acceptable by boat or plane, and I didn't wanna be. She schlepping back and forth. Both in terms of our time and the fossil fuels that we needed to get out to these sites. So basically figured out a way with a pretty awesome crew to set up a base camp. And we would spend two weeks at a time kayaking to random locations, and then hiking into forested sites where we would then measure the plants in the in the community there and set up a set of real plot. But we're doing this in pretty rainy weather, foggy soupy at times, there's heavy winds. And you know, I always knew we were running the risk of you know. Good storm coming in and getting stuck out there. But you know, there's a joke about it and the buck, but it's true. We were growing moles in our jackets by the end of the summer and. I had a lot of the best year out there in terms of you know, Gortex rubber that fishermen wear and didn't really matter. What you are. You're still cold and and still battling the conditions. A lot of the time. That's for sure. And once you introduce us to your your three traveling companions. Yes. I had three members of their three members in my career that I worked at pretty steadily in it, others filtered filtered in and out throughout the summers. But there's k k hill we call her mad dog, and she came from university of California, Berkeley, UC Berkeley. And she's she's the youngest on the crew. And when I first met her she was in class doodling, she's got ink all over her hands. And she's got a tattoo on her hand with the letters thera Sita's, which means savagery turns out, she's a great artist as well. As one of the best there for for as four technician, and she was just real toughened, lots of fun and actually actually ended up drawing. Many of the line illustrations that are in in the book. Then there's Odin Miller who came from Hanes. In alaska. I wanted somebody locally to someone local to work with me both in terms of both both further knowledge, you know, maybe someone who knew a little bit about the college. But also someone who knew what they were getting into in terms of conditions. Odin is about six foot four, and it's huge feet and speaks Russian fluently. And it spent time studying reindeer hurting and in Russia before working with me. So he just had a really interesting background. And then there's Paul Fisher, we call p fish. I gave all the Paul's in my book in my fieldwork nicknames because it turned out that even. You know, small community of people working on yellow, cedar. There are a lot of Paul's. And it was pretty confusing to keep track of them. And anyone reading the book would go insane. If I call them, all so anyways, we call him fish, and he was. A student at the university of Washington in Seattle. He now is a runs a business. That's forestry consulting business. But he helped a lot with GIS work, and he was also tough biked across the country on his own take taking barbed-wire burned into his arm. To celebrate the the accomplishments. Amidst being you know, good field technicians and strong scientists, you know, anyone on my crew is also really a lot of grit, which was kind of the main qualifier wasn't gonna be a vacation in southeast Alaska. That's for sure. Example, Odin would smell is dirty socks every morning to decide which was the least offensive pair that he could find a put on. I thought, you know, hanging them with do anything. I don't think it did anything. But he did he did hang his his socks in the tens. And you know, they just kind of get Moliere smellier. But in the morning, he would, you know, pick them all over and decide which ones where least defensive we all kind of had weird system. So I would have this one sacred pair of long underwear that I used only in the tent, and I kept in a dry inside the tent when I wasn't wearing it. Just in case. You know, we had a storm that blew the tent over the tent leaked just going throughout the day knowing that I had one set of dry clothes at night was my saving grace. But it also meant that in the morning, you're taking off this like really warm and cozy dry set of long underwear fighting on horribly. Soaking wants from the day before their then cold from the from the night. P fish tend to run hot. That's what he said. And so he would sleep in the same clothes that he worked in and they basically dry out by morning. John was always pretty jealous of I didn't have that skill. After your your first couple of weeks out in the field. Then you come into town. Forget was a Juno or Citco where you went to the restaurant. Three went to stick out dry out in Citco when we were working in west Goff. And then we also worked out a fair bit out of this Davis, which is even smaller town at the mouth of glacier bay. Yeah. We we just hopped right off the flow plane went right to this restaurant. That's at the airport pretty much ordered everything we they had pancakes, omelettes, and yeah, I can still see the the feast we had sprawled out over the table. But at least one member the party had tears looking at fresh food. Yeah. The waitress came to deliver these omelettes mad dog Kate just burst out into tears at all of us were pretty shocked because we've never seen anything out there like of her being even close to that. So I remember, you know, I said are you crying give me a break? Let me have this one moment, but we're pretty happy to have some warm food in our belly. That was the one trip that we definitely ran out of food. So there was that as well. He on multiple two week ten day two week excuse. Visions, and you got forty different stands or plots of trees that you did all kinds of measurements on. Yeah. So in the end we were over two summers we needed to fifty sites the first summer, we did forty out in all in west techy Goff. And I was using what's called a chronic sequence. So there are different methods to study processes that occur over time. People are probably most familiar with longitudinal study where you follow something or someone or sites or something over a long period of time. But that's pretty impractical. If you want to study something that occurs. Over decades, certainly for a PHD civil Akron sequence has been used by colleges to study things like processes like how soils form in the wine islands or how dunes take shape sand dunes take shape in the wind. Anyways, I used it to study how how does this plant community change after these trees die? How does it develop in the methods, basically, you selected bunch of sites where you're controlling for everything? Everything being a loose term there as much as you can be having consistency in the. Site selection, except for time since this phenomenon time since death. So that meant I had forced at sites that had been affected by climate change, you know, a couple of decades ago where the trees died in their their their busy, look like telephone poles on the landscape, their their limbs have decayed just the main trunk is still standing, and then there are sites that are more recently affected. The maybe has their primary branches and some dead foliage still kind of lingering on the on the branches, and then we had a healthy control until by measuring by setting plots in measuring those sites the same way, you can infer a process of how a force changes over that that time, which is the main difference between the mall. Do find that. When the yellow cedar is dying away. The another species cold, the western hemlock pretty much takes hold in those areas. So there's loss, but there's also gained and there's just transition that you're dealing with there. Yeah. It's a story of two store at loss. But it's also a story of re-growth and. You know, a call any colleges would and as I did take note of the turnover in what species become more dominant. But then in my writing process that also became kind of more of a philosophical question in terms of what are we seeing for negative impacts of climate change? But also, you know, where does the positive occur in? And how can we adapt to those or take advantage of some of those opportunities? And then we'll feel really interesting was. The idea that we can't just measure and coldly calculate. What's going on as a sort of an automaton? That's analyzing the situation completely mathematically the in the second part of the book, you talk about the the sociology part of the study where you go and talk to people who have intimate relationships with the forests in this region. And they're all kinds of people. They're not just environmentalists there people from the sling it tribe who used the the materials there are lagers who also use the materials in different ways. And it's really fascinating to get into the relationship of people to. This species, and how that informs how you feel about what's going on. And how you feel becomes a really important part of this story. And that's the part that I found so interesting especially to find out how these people feel gives you a whole different level of insight into what's going on there. So I've talked for like the last two minutes. Don't I let you talk now on it's too. I think there's three parts to the book and really three parts to my journey. And, you know, the first takes place in the forest from trying to understand how these you know, how the plant communities affected, but the second was really trying to understand how people are coping with these changes knowledgeable are they about them. Do they know that it's caused by climate change? And how are they responding to those impacts? And that, you know, even as a scientist was my effort to put meaning to it. I think a lot of times. Colleges come up with findings. And then we're asked to make recommendations. Right. So I could say yellow cedar is declining in these forests western hemlock is taking over what does that mean for management? Here's what I think is as an ecologist, and we do that all the time. But I felt like, you know, even as a scientist in my training that those questions should come from the people in the community. So I turned those questions to them. But you know, really what came from that. Which you know, pretty much inspired me to write the book was that. There was a more personal element here. Which was that people were coping with loss and people were coping with environmental change, and I wanna know in my life. How do I do those things? And I wanted to know that see if I can learn from them. So I think, you know, every before writing a book, everyone told me writing is an active discovery, you know, and I'd say the first two chapters of the book are, you know, parallel my research trajectory quite closely. But the third is really trying to make sense of what can we do? What can I do? How do I still have hope about the future in light of what we're seeing what we expect to see took a bit Terry? She was really just such a great character in your book. Unfortunately, she's passed away since. You last interviewed her. But let's talk about your the time you spent with her. Yes, I met her numerous times, Terry. Rough gar was a Weaver woman living in sitka native Weaver. She's cling it. And I say was because yes, she passed away in December of two thousand sixteen from from cancer. Which was in enormous Justice such a loss to the community there. But she I would say from the beginning. You know, she welcomed me into her home. And I made it clear to her that I wasn't. There wasn't something. I wanted to take it was I really wanted to learn from her, and I felt I felt that was my approach with anyone that I interviewed. I was looking for them looking to them as a scientist to understand. How are they coping with these changes? But also, you know as a concerned citizen trying to figure out what can I learn from from people in the community. Who may be responding in positive ways? And she talks a lot about. And she pushed me, you know, in in my interview with her was the the word resource keeps coming up both in. I'm sure in our interview if you're back in track already, it's there for sure, but she she argues that when we go in with the idea of resourcing, something it's were taking from nature. You know, we have four we have all kinds of natural resource management divisions across the country. Whether it's state or federal. But if we were to to think of resourcing more as a relationship there would be an inherent stewardship in there. You know, in sounds a little laughter greener farmable hippie, but it's really not it's a it's a beautiful way of explaining that our human health, and our environmental health are deeply intertwined, and they require one to take with each requires the other to stay healthy to be sustainable. So that's her really her argument in something that you know, during her life. She spent a lotta time pushing for in the community in talking about, and I found it, you know, pretty profound. We think about how we might come up with solutions for the kinds of impacts were facing today. How do we create how do we create more relationship rather than taking from? But she's also someone I would say that triggered the name of the book. So the answer to the canary referring to the canary in the coal mine. She says that there are fibia NHS there cedars there those are ecosystems that are the ones to warn us. I think that's what they've been doing right now they have been for quite some time. And you know, in some ways the the species knowing that it was caused by climate change. It's death was caused by climate change was her canary to raise awareness for what's happening globally, but to understand at a local scale, and you know, that essentially this species became Mike canary as well. And I think people might be interested to know, how the the weavers there used the tree it's something that you might never have even thought about because we're used to wool or cotton as being materials for fiber. But they're using the bark Gasol yellow, cedar has this beautiful bark. That is you know, strangely. Bit soft in texture. It's really strong when it has this kind of like sinewy silky feel to it. And they will strip the bark of trees, you're not stripping. It all the way around the tree because that would lead enormously injure it, but they strip certain wets that still still can the tree still can live on. And from that the its then stripped down into tiny almost like, you know, thread like yarn or fabric, and that is woven sometimes with sheep's wool, which becomes helps make it sturdier for clothing or warm blankets, and then you can also weave baskets or we've other items with it. So the trees of news for thousands of years in that in that way, and actually in in southeast Alaska fewer to once you're aware of that new look around you'll see. What are called culturally? What people some people culturally modified trees, researchers call them that. Where basically you can see that it's been stripped, and I've definitely seen some that have been stripped, you know, hundreds of years ago. So. A nutshell you delineated the conditions under which the tree survives or is damaged or dies. And then you also discovered that the people who had the closest relationship whether it was functioning or emotional, so whether it was a logger or a Weaver. They would be the first to adapt to the new reality. I went into the study trying to understand how knowledgeable are people about the these changing forests do they know that the trees death is caused by climate change. And if they do does that change in the ways in which they respond, and honestly, I was looking for what researchers will call behavioral change so ways in which there. Altering their daily or weekly or whatever you want how their lifestyle in response to something. But I also found the whole psychological component in that. You know, the people who knew these trees were dying because of climate change also had a whole grief process around that as well as coping with this magnitude of this this driver that seemingly so distant, but Israel, so really really actually quite present in the local landscape. And yes, what I found is that people who are connected to these trees in the forest. The most connected whether it's functionally through their you know, material uses of the forest. Or, you know, emotionally through cultural uses or recreational appreciation, those are the people who were able to see both loss an opportunity to begin to embrace both. You know? So there's an argument there that in order for us to adapt to climate change. We need to turn more locally in general. A lot of the climate. Change communications are the news headlines cetera focus on what's happening in terms of global temperatures temperatures. How many times have you seen in the picture of earth, turning various shades of red button reality for people to adapt? We need to look locally and understand both. What are the local losses the impacts? But also where do we see, you know, opportunity or new growth, and that's where innovation comes in. And for most of us. It's the only thing we really can do for Sarah. Yeah. I think people are you know, I am too. Trying to grapple with. How does my how can my actions affect this really large massive global drive or something like of magnitude that we've never seen before. That's a hard thing to grapple with. But I actually find it quite empowering at the local scale because you know, the fact of the matter is that even if we were to stop emissions right now, we've still got lag times, and there's still more coming down the pipe. So we're gonna continue seeing local impacts ends. You know, whether you're talking about a tree species dying or Wildflower wildfires in California this past year. You know, the more we can understand about what's happening at the scale at which people's lives are carried out. I think the better prepared. We're going to be for the kinds of impacts were. We are seeing him. We'll continue to see the regret quote from Kyrie at the end of one of the chapters in which she appears where she says what we have here is a catastrophic failure than she continues. What a great opportunity, that's exactly the one. I have right in front of me right now is going to refer you at some point. But. That's true. I mean, I think that's where we are thinking needs to shift is that. Yes, there is tragedy. Yes. There are some things we cannot stop. But we also have an enormous opportunity. We've also shown in RBIs capacity in the past of all kinds of catched off events. I think that's where human innovation comes in. And where we need to empower feel empowered to act. So, yeah, it's a great opportunity, but that chapters called the greatest opportunity because I think, you know, this one is and maybe you can tell us about how the local people taught the scientists. Yeah. One in I think one of the great examples of local knowledge, the community was not of some of the native people that I interviewed may not have read or been told or heard about climate change is being the cause of tree death, but based on their knowledge of place in what they'd seen in what they knew, you know, the kinds of habitats. These these trees thrive in how their roots are, you know, in in pretty shallow soils and also serving the patterns in snow over the years. They they often proposed climate change is as a possible reason. I'm one of the women I interviewed one of the native one of my women women, I interviewed said that in many ways, the native people where the first scientists, and I love that idea of being a good scientist is about making observations over and over and over again and able and then drawing conclusions from them, right? And we can do that mathematically with numbers. In equations. But I also do think that someone standing still in place and observing over time ends up holding incredible amount of knowledge and being able to see that played out in my own research. You know with people I interviewed with what I found. The good example was in the forests affected by climate change. You know that the trees will after the trees die. There's a growth in the under- story. So you'll get a lot of shrubs coming in things like vaccinia m-. That deer released upon and talking with local community members. They're able to share those observations as well, not from a mathematical perspective with the same stats and things that I would but talked with hunters who would go into the forest administer acted and one hunt there because they knew the deer we're going there for the for the vaccinia, and the blueberries that's really it's fascinating. And you also talk about this one woman who noticed that the roots had changed their morphology eighteen years ago. She says I saw it. So I know that's connected to something that's going on environmentally. Yeah. So that was Teri rough guard. She she'd been collecting spruce roots from certain areas for almost two decades. And she'd also done the same down in the lower forty eight or in the Pacific northwest was whether it's warmer temperature. Tres? And basically she could see what was happening in southeast. Something was happening with the the roots where they were changing their shape or curling up differently. And that it, you know, paralleled other places other warmer places where she had collected roots before who's to say, what's exactly causing that. I don't know that we haven't scientific study scientific put in quotes. But you know, someone's observation over time there is certainly some insight to to maybe there are other kinds of impacts occurring under underneath the soil. This one little point a wanna remember to talk about an and that's how some things in this field can be counter intuitive. You talk about how as warming occurs and you get rain instead of snow. There's no insulating layer of snow to protect the roots. And because it's warmer. The roots freeze and the tree. Die. And so that's an example of how if you're trying to explain how warming can be fundamentally damaging and you say things got warmer in the tree froze to death. So I just think that's an important story to show you to show people that in a warming world, you get interesting effects that are not what you might necessarily expect because if somebody is really committed to denying the reality of warming, and they say, we'll see these trees froze to death. They didn't used to freeze to death. And so how can there be warming? Well, that's how our Sharon say the buck that I think it's like, it's very counterintuitive it confusing. Death by freezing a warming world with the heck. And I think that's a lot of what people will latch onto right? That are early language around climate change was focused on warming. Right. But warming causes all these other complicated. Dynamics warming is just really one piece of the puzzle. And in fact, one driver that then triggers many other complex interactions hoping could get you to read the end of the last full chapter before the Balogh. What does this tree have to teach us from two thousand ten two thousand seventeen for nearly eight years of my life? I wrote that question over and over and over again in my notebooks in my various, computer files on scraps of paper on butcher, paper hanging on my wall. What does this tree have to teach us what this is tree? Have teach me my answer that we are all. Volna rable. There may be survivors carrying out their lives and pockets where conditions remain favorable. They may regroup perhaps even Volve and at the right moment in time, even flourish again. But what does this treat ask of me? Perhaps that one is far more important my answer that I can observe the changes occurring around me and embrace the struggle to accept them to respond to them to adapt to them. I can look ahead. Live today holding space for tomorrow, I can fight for what we can still Kerr tale. I can play a part not live apart, and I can act with care for others when the floods hit when the seas rise when the snow melts, the rivers run dry and the flames rage defeat may only be a failure to adapt. If this tree species all the people connected to it gave me one great gift. It is this the realization that there's simply no imagine tomorrow. No. Modeled future scenario, no amount or shade of red that could ever possibly nullify the need for unwavering care and thoughtful action today to me that is thriving to me in this rapidly changing world that is grace. It is how I choose to live with what I know. That's it for this episode. Get your science news at our website, WWW dot scientific American dot com. We listen to a piece of music related to the canary trees there's a link to the audio in story we picked up from climate central in September two thousand sixteen a Stanford. Researcher name Nick saola turned oak, tree loss data into music in a process called data sonnet occasion and follow us on Twitter where you get a tweet whenever new item. It's the website. Our Twitter name is at Siam for scientific American science talk. I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.