"In Search of the Canary Tree"

Conservation scientist Lauren Oakes traces the decline of the yellow-cedar tree in this description of her 6-year Ph.D. research project on climate change. “In Search of the Canary Tree” begins in 2010 when Stanford student Oakes begins to investigate and record the decline of the Callitropsis nootkatensis tree on the Alexander Archipelago of the southeastern coast of Alaska.

This species of tree, a relative of the giant Sequoia, seems to be rapidly dying off there due to rising temperatures and the lack of snow to cover the roots. “With spring warming happening earlier and earlier,” Oakes writes, the yellow-cedar trees “drain their pipes too soon. Without the antifreeze and insulation, they’re vulnerable to bitter cold snaps.” The ecologist suggests, that the slowly dying yellow-cedars, which also go by the name “yellow cypress,” may be “the canary in the coal mine— calling out for our own eventual demise.”

Oakes interviews 45 Sitka and Juneau naturalists, park rangers, loggers, land managers, and First Nation weavers to determine what the decline of the yellow-cedars means to them. Logger Wes Tyler comments that the yellow-cedar “was put here to utilize and make useful for people… a tree has no spirit,” while Tlingit weaver Ernestine Hanlon-Abel states there is a “spiritual connection” with trees. This combination of ecological science and social science investigations gives the reader a sense of the wide meaning to Oakes basic research question: “What happens in forests when yellow-cedars die off?

For the ecologic portion of her field research, Oakes establishes a sampling scheme called a “chronosequence.” This is a series of forest locations where she can identify and compare trees of various ages and then infer the time development of an ecosystem. One of her findings is that the dying stands of yellow-cedar trees are becoming forests of Western Hemlock with fewer mosses and ferns and more shrubs on the forest floor.

As the narrative moves forward the reader becomes acquainted with Oakes’ teachers Paul Hennon, Ashley Steel and Greg Streveler and with her intrepid field team: Odin Miller, a native of Juneau and a student of the University of Alaska; Paul Fischer, a forestry student at the University of Washington and Kate Cahill, vice president of the University of California, Berkeley, Forestry Club. It is Cahill who illustrates the stages of yellow cedar decline and many of the drawings are included in the book.

The researcher refreshingly presents a true picture of fieldwork. Though it might sound exhilarating to live in the wilderness for several weeks, Oakes’ description of the austere conditions experienced during those weeks are authentic. Along with the daily research tasks, she reports getting weary of a steady diet of dehydrated food, dozing in damp sleeping bags and slogging through icy cold bogs in the rain.

The author’s research is rigorous and her scientific reporting is thorough, yet her chronicle is accessible to the armchair reader. Oakes has few preconceptions about the impact her research will have on climate change. She bears some grief over the loss of the yellow-cedar, but also has hope for the future. “This isn’t a situation where any one person or group has the blueprint,” she writes. “We 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.”