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In Search of the Canary Tree: A book review and introduction to five themes for my book

At the start of my own journey to the trees, I read ‘In Search of the Canary Tree’. This book is Dr Lauren Oakes’ account of how she travelled to Alaska to study the yellow cedar tree and how it is being affected by climate change.

Dr Oakes undertook an exacting scientific study of the trees, with the help of her assistants in the field, over the course of two years. She also sought to understand how people who had a relationship with the trees, whether as a forester or a weaver, were responding to the loss of the trees.

Dr Oakes teaches scientific storytelling at Stanford University, and I found it to be an engaging story both about the trees and the people. In her trips to Alaska, she is really in the wilds for weeks at a time, and we experience what is like to undertake this type of field research. She also explores theories and practices of behavior change as it relates to climate change.

Throughout the book, four particular juxtapositions of ways of looking at the world stood out for me. These are juxtapositions that I will be exploring in the book that I am currently researching and writing, ‘A History of the Future of the World in 10 Trees’. And in addition to the juxtapositions, there is a question of how do we deal with grief that I will also look at.

Related to each theme, I have asked one or two questions. These are questions that I want to explore myself. I would also love to hear your thoughts on any or all of these questions.

1) Place-based vs scattering

Dr Oakes chose as the focus of her study one tree. A clear theme that emerges from her study is the importance of place-based knowledge and connection. Towards the beginning of the book, Dr Oakes speaks with Greg Streveler, an expert in the yellow cedar.

‘“The world rewards scattered knowledge,” he said. “It’s much harder to choose a place to sink or swim, for whatever happens. That’s going against the grain. What the world needs is more people with roots and the discipline to take the time to understand a place. There’s a discipline required to resist the urge to scatter.”’

This is a clearly different from the approach that I am taking to my book, which involves travel to 10 different places. I acknowledge the disadvantages of not being able to do really deep-dives. The benefit of this ‘scattering’ which I hope that my book will have is to connect more people to a place and a tree near them and to show the truly global nature of climate change and its effects. At the same time, it is my intention that the practices that I share in the book for connecting with the trees in each place, will inspire readers to use these and their own practices for connecting with trees in their own neighborhood.

Q. What practices do you have for connecting with trees in the place where you live?

2) Relationship vs resource

One of the women who Dr Oakes meets, Teri Rofkar, a Tlingit weaver, makes a powerful argument to consider trees as beings that we are in relationship with, rather than seeing them and treating them as a resource.

‘“One of my goals,” she said even closer, “is to eliminate the term ‘natural resource.’ I think that it’s just—it’s an atrocity—you know, it’s the resourcing of everything. There’s no relationship. If you just replace the words ‘natural resource’ with ‘relationship,’ you’re good to go. When we resource, we don’t make the ties of what was lost in order to gain something.”’

Much of Western society treats not only trees but humans as resources. The existence of the ‘human resources’ department in companies points to the nature of that relationship within corporations. I read an article recently about how some companies are moving to become more environmentally sustainable but still treat their employees in a way which does not enable them to have a sustainable work/life balance. Employees are clearly treated as a resource, rather than people to be in relationship with. How would it change to have a ‘human relationships’ department, rather than ‘human resources’? And what about if we see trees as beings that we have a relationship with than as resources. How would this change things for the trees? And how would it enrich our lives as well to have these relationships?

Q. Where could you replace ‘resource’ with ‘relationship’?

3) Community vs individual

One of the key lessons that Dr Oakes comes across in relationship to being able to combat climate change is working together as a community rather than as individuals. Ernestine, also a weaver from the Tlingit people, tells a story about how we need to learn to hold hands the way that trees do. In the same way that the tree roots joining together start to help prevent avalanches, so people need to join hands.

Q. What does joining hands together mean to you?

4) Hope vs faith/routine vs ritual

The blurbs about the book refer to it being surprisingly hopeful. I find the use of the word interesting given how Dr Oakes discusses the use of terms hope vs faith, and asks her colleagues what these terms mean to them. I particularly liked this distinction from one of her colleagues working for a land trust:

“I guess I think about hope versus faith in the same way I think about routine versus ritual. What do I mean by this? Self—I’ll start here as I think this is the place I’ve done the most reflection. Hope and routine are similar to me; they are the daily things you do that are part of a program or a checklist. Faith and ritual are living at a higher level. You are able to give more to self and to others because you are focused on the important facets of life: kindness, gratitude—the fundamentals of living intentionally. Environment: I’ve thought a lot about the fact you must consider the rituals and faith of self before you can move on to bigger things—your work. I believe environmental challenges are somewhat caused by the gap between routine and ritual in self. I do have faith that things will work out. I am an eternal optimist, glass at least half full. I believe we are capable of change. I believe we are capable of healing. It may not be the exact, ideal, equitable solution we “hope” for, but we’ll figure it out.”

Ritual implies the sacred. And that something is also done with intention. I also like the distinction that is made elsewhere that faith is more rooted in action than hope.

Q. How do you see the difference between hope and faith?

Q. How do rituals help you to connect with an intention?

5) Grief

During the course of Dr Oakes’ research, her father dies. She carries on with the research and draws parallels with the grief that is experienced by people when they realize the loss that is occuring in the natural environment.

The idea for this book was born of grief – a grief that I experienced after I read about the dying of the baobab trees because of climate change.

If you are experiencing grief, whether the loss of a loved one, or grief for loss of other beings, you may have routines which help you to get out of bed in the morning, to keep moving in the world. But more profound are the rituals. I think about my friend whose father died recently. He is Jewish and there are clear rituals around grief in the Jewish faith. One example is the recitation of the mourners Kaddish. I call him three weeks after the passing of his father. I ask him if he has been to the synagogue. I wonder if he was not Jewish, what rituals I would have been asking him about. I think back to the death of my father, and the lack of rituals. There wasn’t even a funeral because of his own religious beliefs. And, maybe partly because of this lack, I stored unprocessed grief in my body for nearly two years, which manifested itself as ‘unexplained’ (to doctors) pains.

What rituals do we have as a society to deal with the grief that is experienced when we do realize the extent of the loss that is occurring?

Q. What rituals do you know of or have to deal with grief?

I'd love to hear any thoughts via Instagram or via the comments box on the home page.

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Olivia Sprinkel
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