NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate provides the Northwest Progressive Institute's uplifting perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Tuesday, July 25th, 2017

Book Review: Lynda V. Mapes’ Witness Tree makes for pleasant summertime reading

If human­i­ty does­n’t imme­di­ate­ly reduce our emis­sions of car­bon diox­ide, methane, and oth­er cli­mate-warm­ing air pol­lu­tants, glob­al tem­per­a­tures could rise by as much as 11.5 degrees Fahren­heit by the end of the cen­tu­ry, accord­ing to the Inter­gov­ern­men­tal Pan­el on Cli­mate Change’s most pes­simistic fore­casts.

For some rea­son, this knowl­edge isn’t as fright­en­ing to us as the prospect of a Cold War-style apoc­a­lyp­tic ther­monu­clear exchange — in the same way that the inevitabil­i­ty of lung can­cer from smok­ing tobac­co isn’t as fright­en­ing as the idea that, hypo­thet­i­cal­ly, elec­tron­ic cig­a­rettes might have a one in 100,000 chance of blow­ing off their vaper’s head. Our risk assess­ment fac­ul­ties aren’t adapt­ed to grad­ual but cer­tain per­il the way they ought to be. So here we are.

Witness Tree Cover

Wit­ness Tree: Sea­sons of Change with a Cen­tu­ry-Old Oak, by Lyn­da V. Mapes

In that con­text comes Lyn­da V. Mapes’ book Wit­ness Tree. The Seat­tle Times reporter spent a year study­ing a par­tic­u­lar hun­dred-odd-year-old red oak in north-cen­tral Mass­a­chu­setts while research­ing its sur­round­ings, using it as a lens to view the effects of cli­mate change and ecol­o­gy in general.

Mapes’ inves­ti­ga­tion is phe­nom­e­nal and wide-rang­ing, all the more so because it fits it into a slim two hun­dred and ten pages of nar­ra­tive. With­in that brisk, sum­mer after­noon-length read­ing, Mapes imparts every­thing from the his­to­ry of phe­nol­o­gy, the way species respond to sea­sons, to how pho­to­syn­the­sis func­tions with­in plan cells to nine­teenth cen­tu­ry New Eng­land farm­ing prac­tices — and more still.

That engross­ing eclec­ti­cism is itself enough rea­son to rec­om­mend this book. You’re sure to learn some­thing new, along with the under­ly­ing detail behind some bit of infor­ma­tion or triv­ia you’d already heard, and feel clev­er­er when the top­ic of cli­mate dam­age comes up at the next activist gath­er­ing you’re at.

But, as a book, Wit­ness Tree ends up being less than the sum of its parts.

If we’re to judge it on its own terms — what Mapes explic­it­ly set out to do — we have to con­sid­er it to have fall­en short of its mark. Mapes is a news­pa­per reporter, and it shows in her writ­ing. Her prose is clear, con­cise, well-sourced with sol­id quotes, and engag­ing through­out. This is to her ben­e­fit, but the book suf­fers from that style, read­ing more as a series of mag­a­zine pieces than a sin­gle, coher­ent work.

The deep­er you go, the more the cen­tral premise of a spe­cif­ic tree that bears wit­ness to cli­mate sci­ence falls away.

It ends up being a book about Har­vard For­est, the team of peo­ple work­ing there, and the dif­fer­ent strate­gies we use to inves­ti­gate nature, from bor­ing for tree rings to live-stream­ing leaf growth to aer­i­al drone footage. And that’s a fine sub­ject. But Mapes set expec­ta­tions as hav­ing a big oak as its own char­ac­ter, ‘a frame of study for con­tem­pla­tion’, and through it, a fresh way to tell the sto­ry of cli­mate change that might be more per­sua­sive than what’s come before.

So when that char­ac­ter is increas­ing­ly ignored and fades into the back­ground, Mapes ends up telling a sto­ry that essen­tial­ly is an art­ful con­silience, weav­ing togeth­er many dif­fer­ent sci­en­tif­ic dis­ci­plines that con­tribute to our under­stand­ing of cli­mate dam­age, but los­ing a frame that con­nects personally.

This is unlike­ly to be more per­sua­sive than An Incon­ve­nient Truth or a com­pre­hen­sive Unit­ed Nations report on what we can expect over the next one hun­dred years. That’s not a fair expec­ta­tion, though, and con­sid­er­ing trib­al­ism in con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can soci­ety, may not even be possible.

Accord­ing to a Pew sur­vey tak­en last year, only forty-eight per­cent of Amer­i­cans believe the Earth is warm­ing most­ly due to human activ­i­ty, includ­ing less than a third of the par­ty in charge of all three branch­es of the fed­er­al government.

Worse, in a 2015 Yale poll, only thir­ty-six per­cent of Amer­i­cans of all polit­i­cal per­sua­sions believe cli­mate dam­age will affect them per­son­al­ly. Which is good moti­va­tion to start look­ing at ways it already is per­son­al­ly affect­ing us.

Wit­ness Tree is the finest sort of well-sourced con­silience, and if you’re already in the sci­ence-acknowl­edg­ing tribe, it may inspire you to get out a note­book (or spread­sheet) and start per­form­ing some ama­teur phe­nol­o­gy on your own back­yard and hik­ing paths.

Adjacent posts

  • Enjoyed what you just read? Make a donation

    Thank you for read­ing The Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate, the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute’s jour­nal of world, nation­al, and local politics.

    Found­ed in March of 2004, The Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate has been help­ing peo­ple through­out the Pacif­ic North­west and beyond make sense of cur­rent events with rig­or­ous analy­sis and thought-pro­vok­ing com­men­tary for more than fif­teen years. The Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate is fund­ed by read­ers like you and trust­ed spon­sors. We don’t run ads or pub­lish con­tent in exchange for money.

    Help us keep The Cas­ca­dia Advo­cate edi­to­ri­al­ly inde­pen­dent and freely avail­able to all by becom­ing a mem­ber of the North­west Pro­gres­sive Insti­tute today. Or make a dona­tion to sus­tain our essen­tial research and advo­ca­cy journalism.

    Your con­tri­bu­tion will allow us to con­tin­ue bring­ing you fea­tures like Last Week In Con­gress, live cov­er­age of events like Net­roots Nation or the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Con­ven­tion, and reviews of books and doc­u­men­tary films.

    Become an NPI mem­ber Make a one-time donation

  • NPI’s essential research and advocacy is sponsored by: