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A new book tour about the boreal forests proves its value to life on Earth

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

By Ben Rawlins. St. Martin’s Press, 2022. 307 pages. $29.99.

The boreal forest, that ring of trees that circles the globe at high latitudes, is the largest living system after the ocean. They are also the “lungs” of the planet, and therefore key to the health of our planet. Ben Rowlance, who lives in Wales and had his last book about a refugee camp in Africa, transferred his human rights concerns to the catastrophic effects of climate change. From 2018 to 2021 he traveled around the boreal forests – to Norway, Russia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland – to meet with residents and scientists and to learn for himself what is happening with trees in the Far North and the life associated with them.

How fun can a trellis line be? The topic turned out to be incredibly interesting when the topic is in the hands of such a skilled researcher and writer. We discover that a book about trees can be page-turning. Part travel adventure, part deep dive into emerging science, part reflection on our history on Earth, and part philosophical questioning about the fate of the earth – “The Treeline” is a lively and beautiful weave of fascinating themes.

Organizationally, the book is about the world, with each chapter focusing not just on a different forest but on the tree species most important to that forest. A map at the beginning, looking down at the North Pole, shows the forests, their northern reach, and the main communities visited by the author.

Rawlence begins in neighboring Scotland, which is considered the border of the Arctic tree line in Europe, although most of its trees were felled centuries ago. A succession of forests after the last ice age resulted in Scots pine once covering about 80% of the land. Today, “reconstruction” efforts aim to restore some of this great wood, but global warming forecasts suggest that the UK’s climate will soon be unfit for pine trees.

In the next chapter, which presents Norway and its soft white or European birch, Rawlins visits Sami reindeer herders in the far north. Here and everywhere, the author makes it clear that forest health is directly related to human rights and the abilities of indigenous peoples to maintain their cultural ties and livelihoods. Warmer, wetter weather has caused Norway birch to “race” over the tundra, reducing the habitat that reindeer and cowboys require.

In the Russia season, in which the larch appears, Rawlins visits many tree-line regions in winter and meets both scientists and natives. He travels hundreds of miles in a tank-like vehicle with huge tires to find the northernmost trees in the world – tall pines that grow in the freezing cold over thick permafrost. Elsewhere, the thawing of permafrost is raising the water table and “sinking” pine plants. He’s learned that scientists predict that at least 50% of Siberian forests are expected to turn into treeless plains by the end of this century.

By the time Rawlins investigated Alaskan tree streak and dominant fir species, the world was deep in COVID-19 lockdowns. Unable to visit in person, he did an admirable job of studying maps, photos, and reports, and speaking to researchers and residents. He also notes that “Alaska is the most studied area in the Arctic; the United States has the resources and scientific heft that other nations lack…a limit in our understanding of what is happening geographically as well as scientifically.” He details his conversations in Alaska with Ken Tip, who has studied how beavers have recently changed the landscape; writer Seth Kantner, who grew up along the Kobuk River line; and Roman Dial, who has studied the changing plant dynamics, particularly those of the spruce, in the Arctic for more than 40 years. It also details the effects of fungal networks on forest health, the way warm air affects photosynthesis, and the relationship between evapotranspiration of Alaskan fir and precipitation in the American Midwest.

In Canada, Rollins spent time in Ontario with Diana Beresford-Kruger, “one of the most eminent researchers of the boreal forest”—and, as we’ve learned, a archetype of a character in Richard Powers’ novel “The Overstory”—and then in and around Churchill, on Hudson Bay . Here we learn how important the boreal forest is in regulating water, air, soil, climate, and ocean productivity. We also learn where the book’s subtitle, referring to “The Last Forest”, comes from. Beresford-Kroger believes that the Amazon and other tropical forests are “probably finished,” because they are threatened not only by deliberate deforestation but by drying and fires. The boreal forest, by expanding over a wide range of temperatures, may have the best chance of adaptation. The main species in Canada are balsam poplar or cottonwood.

Rollins’ last stop – in regulation, not real time – is Greenland. With the melting of the ice cap of the island, the land became more habitable for trees, of which there are four native species, the main of which are rowan or mountain ash. Rollins joins a tree-planting group and discusses the emerging field of “strategic ecology,” which is based not on current climatic conditions but on guesses about the future. Assisted migration is another term related to helping species, including trees, to move to places where they might live in a warmer world.

Ultimately, by showing how the boreal forest interacts with all life on Earth, Rawlins paints a bleak picture of where we’re headed. It does not offer false hope but instead speaks of the needed change in the way humans live. “Curiosity and observation are the humble but radical prerequisites for a new relationship with the land. Systems change when there is a culture that demands it. Revolution begins with a walk in the woods.” Rawlence’s contributions to the cause include founding and directing Black Mountains College, a school in Wales dedicated to teaching skills to mitigate and adapt to climate change.