Throughout human history, trees have fed us, supplied timber for our houses, warmed our hearths, and provided our medicines.
The forest from which I write is not one I know. It’s dusty and dry and supports the same number of conifer species—30!—as my entire country. But here along the banks of Mill Creek, in the rugged confusion of the Klamath Mountains in northwestern California, it’s cool and shaded. Midstream, my daughter Maggie perches on a boulder, her nose in a book, her sandaled feet cooling in tannin-rich water. My husband Marc wanders away, up a narrow two-track. I sit on the moss-covered bridge spanning the creek and open my field journal.
Along the stream’s edge, I see cousins to the plants I know from 1,200 kilometers to the north: Aralia californica, Rubus vitifolius, Galium californicum. In each name, a recognized genus flirts with a novel epithet. Together, the names chart alternatives to my flora, divergences borne of differing histories of climate and community. This is not my forest, but it is the forest of my husband’s childhood. Here, Marc is the botanical authority—drawing on an expertise cultivated during family holidays and college backpacking trips.
Even so, I’m a little startled to be sitting here with my journal. My surprise does not reflect unwillingness. I may not know this forest, but 40 years ago, when my hippie mother’s spontaneous marriage dislocated my family south from British Columbia, I learned America’s generosity firsthand. A child without papers, an illegal immigrant, I attended grade school in Lincoln County, Montana, with few questions asked. Later, with a brand-new Resident Alien card in my back pocket, I was supported—in university and then in graduate school—by Pell grants and Stafford loans. Today all but one of my diplomas bear the seal of American institutions.
America, I am not one of yours, but I married one you claim and gave birth to another. During the 25 years I lived within your borders, I watered your gardens, counted your plants, and taught your children. You, in turn, gave me everything but a passport and the right to vote. And I declined to ask for more. Begrudging the impetuous decision that first brought me to you, I took your forests for granted until it was time to leave.
No, my surprise to be here, beneath this mixed canopy of incense cedar, arbutus, and big-leaf maple, has less to do with the man I heard a poet describe as the “orange-crested trumpfish” and more to do with my allegiance to the ecosystems found two state borders and one international boundary to the north. Fifteen years ago, when I returned to Canada, I thought I was returning home. But, home, I soon realized, wasn’t somewhereyou went but was, rather, somethingyou practiced. For me, practicing home has come to mean focusing on its natural history, with line and image, pen and paint, in my field journals. In the history of forests, 15 years is a blink of an eye, but in my journals, Volumes 9 to 41 represent the most sustained attention I’ve ever given anything—other than my daughter and maybe my husband.
Here’s the thing. Today, my forest, like so many, is shadowed by uncertainty. Count the losses. Eighteen million hectares of pine turned first red, and then dead, by the ravaging appetites of pine beetle populations escaping winter mortality in too-warm winters. Millions more cut in the salvage operations that stubbled B.C.’s interior plateaus with clearcut. Add in the 2.5 million hectares of forest that perished during the 2017 and 2018 wildfire seasons, the worst on record. The vocabulary of climate change is convoluted—maladaptation, climate envelopes, productivity declines, non-local climate analogs, novel communities—but its implications are clear. The trees of my forest no longer carry the seeds of tomorrow.
Seen through the lens of time, no forest is stable or static. Fifty-two million years ago, California redwoods—a species whose range now stops near the California-Oregon border—shaded lakes near my home. During the last two million years, the forests of North America stuttered north and then south, with each ebb and flow of ice. The forest I’m sitting in might not be my forest, but at the height of the last glacial maximum, it—along with Mexico’s Sierra Madre—was crowded with refugees from my forest.
If B.C.’s trees are maladapted to today’s climate, then migration is again necessary. But no forest travels quickly. Fossilized pollen records suggest that the last time North American forests marched north, they travelled at a rate of 100 to 200 meters per year, ten to 20 kilometers a century. This time, it might be slower. Any migrant will face competition not just from other plants, but from us. Will there be room amongst our highways, cul-de-sacs, and plowed fields for wind-blown and bird-carried seeds to germinate and survive? Or should we assist?
Not an easy question to answer. Assisted migration—first proposed in the mid-1980s as a strategy to save species endangered by changing climates—has exploded into contention. Some ecologists describe it as “ecological roulette,” a strategy with no good arguments. Others, cognizant of the risks of introducing species outside their current range but worried about the time it takes for trees to migrate, chart a middle ground, advocating for “assisted gene flow” where southern seeds are shifted north within a species’ existing range. Some worry less about managed introductions by scientists and more about “maverick, unsupervised translocation efforts.”
Maverick or not, assisted migration is happening. On Cortes Island, off the B.C. coast, artist and writer Oliver Kellhammer is field-testing California redwoods in woodlots and clearcuts near his home. Even the provincial regulations governing tree-planting on B.C.’s public land—rules not known for radical thought—now allow Western larch to be planted outside its historic range.
Frankly, I don’t know what to think. What reeks more of arrogance: assuming we know enough to shift an entire species’ range or leaving trees to struggle on their own, even when we know their misfortune has arisen from our maltreatment? Throughout human history, trees have fed us, supplied timber for our houses, warmed our hearths, and provided our medicines. In return, we’ve planted some and cut many more—their fortunes largely ruled by how we profit. Globally, we’ve not been good for trees. Since the rise of our civilization, their numbers have fallen by nearly 45 percent.
Suddenly, it feels wrong to be taking another gift—even just shade—from a forest. I stand up and walk into the glare. Climate change’s one constant, I know, is uncertainty. But maybe this is also its blessing. After all, moderating the unpredictability of tomorrow demands that we repair our lopsided relationship with the world today. In 2018, a special report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change identified reforestation as one of the best options we have to limit global warming. In 2019, a new paper ran the numbers. If we reforest nearly a billion hectares (and there’s just enough land available), the growth of these trees could absorb and store more than 60 percent of the carbon that humans have released into the atmosphere.
The questions, of course, are what seedlings? To plant where?
I do not underestimate the complexity of these questions. Planting any tree is an exercise in hope, but planting trees, alone, will not mitigate climate change. We need to foster the web of interactions that underwrites forest—to plant seedlings where they can gossip with one another via extended fungal networks, where they can transform sunlight into sugar and then wood, where they can expand, meristem cell by meristem cell, for centuries. Most of all, we need to plant seedlings where they can grow into the climate of tomorrow.
From around the corner, Marc appears with both hands full. Reaching me, he shares the names of the leaves and branches he has collected: Oregon ash, canyon live oak, giant chinquapin, black oak, and incense cedar. With their long history with a warmer climate, these trees are part of Marc’s flora, not mine. But before we leave this forest, I pack his collection into Ziploc bags and store them in the cooler. I want to take them partway home.
For the next two days, we drive north. With each passing kilometer, I relax into the familiarity of a known flora, even as I understand how climate change mocks the lines I draw. Before we cross the international boundary, I store Marc’s samples in a relative’s freezer in Bellingham. I can’t let them go. Not yet.
With interactions spanning both generations and species, forests transcend time and continent. In doing so, they supersede most boundaries. Migrant, sanctuary. Refuge, refugee. Forests supply both. In the months to come, I will return to Marc’s branches and leaves, taken from a forest I may never learn. Drawing their contours, I will do my best to imprint on their southern allegiance. America, these are not the trees of my forest, but they could be the hope of my daughter’s.
Lyn Baldwin teaches botany and ecology at Thompson Rivers University amidst the sagebrush steppe and inland coniferous forests of southern British Columbia. Lyn’s essays have been published in Camas, Cirque, The Goose, and the Journal of Natural History Education and Experience. Her illustrated field journals and field journal paintings have been exhibited in art galleries and science museums. More excerpts from Lyn’s journals can be found at http://viridianlife.sites.tru.ca/.