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Even as extinction looms for her subjects, an ecologist maintains hope for a better future

In Search of the Canary Tree: The Story of a Scientist, a Cypress, and a Changing World

Lauren E. Oakes
Basic Books,
2018
288 pp.
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In the introduction to In Search of the Canary Tree, ecologist Lauren Oakes establishes a hopeful tone for what is, for many who study environmental change, an emotionally taxing topic: “This book is about finding faith… as a force that summons local solutions to a global problem, that helps me live joyfully and choose what matters most in seemingly dark times.”

Oakes focuses on two key questions that environmental researchers are often asked: “How do you live with what you know?” and “Do you have hope about the future?” As she writes, “If you believe climate change is occurring…these questions are not alarmist; they are…the [logical] by-products of doing the research itself; the results of the fact that science is not removed from lived experience.”

In Search of the Canary Tree begins in 2010, with Oakes searching for a topic for her Ph.D. research in Alaska. She interviews local scientists, forest service employees, and park rangers about their research and how she might be able to contribute. She finds herself fascinated by the yellow-cedar tree (Cupressus nootkatensis), which is dying across huge swaths of the northwest coast of North America, from British Columbia to Alaska. The cause: a lack of snow, which normally insulates and protects the tree’s roots during the region’s harsh winter.

For the field component of her research, Oakes set up a sampling strategy called a “chronosequence”—a collection of forested sites of different ages, from which a researcher can infer the time-dependent development of an ecosystem. This is one of many scientific concepts that Oakes describes well in plain language.

Oakes selected sites according to the time since yellow-cedar death and then measured a range of ecological variables to quantify what grew back. She found that stands with dead yellow-cedar trees were transitioning to forests dominated by western hemlock, with fewer mosses and ferns and more shrubs. Stands with living yellow-cedar, however, had the conditions necessary to nurture new yellow-cedar seedlings.

Oakes also interviewed 45 locals in Juneau and Sitka—members of the First Nations, loggers, scientists, and local business owners—asking them about the yellow-cedar decline. Did it affect them personally? Did they know what was causing it? Had it made them change anything in their everyday lives? Yellow-cedar, she found, is important to many Alaskans for a range of reasons: cultural heritage and art, logging, and even as symbols of larger moral issues related to climate change and human culpability.

Oakes is as meticulous with her writing as she is with her science. She draws on field notes, transcripts of interviews, research papers, emails, letters, and journals to ensure the book’s accuracy. This attention to detail helps her craft a compelling book with a narrative driven by people.

We get to know her mentors—Paul Hennon, Ashley Steel, and Greg Streveler—and her field team: Ódin Miller, a Juneau native, “giant with size 14 shoes,” and student at the University of Alaska; Paul Fischer, an experienced ecologist and forestry student at the University of Washington whom Oakes affectionately nicknamed “P-Fisch;” and Kate Cahill, vice president of the University of California, Berkeley, forestry club who came with her own nickname (“Maddog”). A talented artist, Oakes enlisted Cahill to illustrate the various stages of yellow-cedar decline.

In Search of the Canary Tree is reminiscent of Hope Jahren’s 2016 memoir, Lab Girl, but where that book was a wild, fairly disorganized romp through Jahren’s career, Oakes’s storytelling is more methodical. In addition to the benefits readers might derive from this story of a scientist’s early career, the book is also a good read for new researchers considering how to set up their own ecological studies.

This is also one of the rare books that captures the reality of the fieldwork experience. It may sound romantic to live in the wilderness for weeks on end, but as a former Arctic researcher myself, I could relate to Oakes’s descriptions of the austere living conditions and to the fact that reentry into society can be difficult.

In Search of the Canary Tree includes many anecdotes from Oakes’s personal life. In one passage, for example, she breaks up with her boyfriend over a satellite phone but hardly has time to process it before she has to hang up and chase away a brown bear. After her father dies unexpectedly, she compares the loss of a parent with the loss of a culturally important tree such as the yellow-cedar. Rather than detract from the story, these personal moments are an important part of it, reminding readers that scientists are people, not objective automatons.

Oakes has few preconceptions about where her research will lead and is willing to be surprised. She’s surprised by what she finds in her ecological studies of yellow-cedar stands and by what she learns from the people she interviews. True, there is an attendant grief, given the grim nature of her research, but there is also hope for the future. “This isn’t a situation where any one person or group has the blueprint,” she writes. “[W]e craft it together through actions big and small, through care for one another, through openness to a form of society that isn’t what was or is today, but, rather, is still yet to come.”

About the author

The reviewer is a freelance science writer and editor and cofounder of Science Borealis, Canada’s science blog aggregator.