The Treeline: The Last Forest and the Future of Life on Earth
by Ben Rawlence; St. Martin’s Press, 2022. 307 pages
As the horrific reality of human-induced climate change becomes more evident and disturbing with every daily news cycle, Ben Rawlence’s The Treeline becomes the book of the hour. One of its best qualities is its combination of tough scientific realism with effective pragmatic activism.
The author strikes an admirable balance between hope and despair. He is the founder and director of Black Mountain College in Britain — a unique post-secondary institution “dedicated to teaching the skills necessary for mitigating and adapting to climate change.”
Rawlence is balanced in combining the local and the global. One moving part of the book describes a battle near his home in Wales. In a moving passage he recalls,
“As I write this the whine of chain saws is echoing through the mixed woodland of the small narrow valley called the Cwm Rhyd Ellyw that falls away from the church of Llanelieu next to my home. It is what’s called a plantation or ancient woodand, and so despite the presence of some mighty hardwoods, the authorities granted the landowner a clear-fell license to raze the lot. All the characters of the boreal were there — Scots pine, birch, larch, spruce, rowan — and several others like alder, ash and Douglas fir too.”
One exciting aspect of The Treeline is its depiction of the vigorous rewilding of the ravaged boreal forest of Scotland. It forms the heart of Great Britain’s impressive plan to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by a third, through tripling its forest cover. Rawlence warns that, to achieve such goals, woodland creation needs to be viewed as a “national security issue,” which is being helped by the activities of companies “eager to offset their emissions.”
Climate change, says Rawlence, poses challenges to the very forest restoration efforts designed to combat it. In this regard, it is unfortunate that the author does not discuss the potential impacts of the restoration of extirpated wildlife, notably the Eurasian beaver (Castor fiber). Although herbivores such as beavers and another extirpated herbivore, the European bison, are slowly being restored in test plot situation, debates have still delayed the restoration of carnivores such as the lynx, wolf, and bear.
One of the saddest chapters in Treeline concerns Norway, where climate change — intensified by peculiar wind currents of both the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, is nibbling away at the Tundra habitat of reindeer. These warm winds are causing a retreat of the tundra, an advance of the tree line and a decline in reindeer herds.
What makes Rawlence’s account so heartbreaking is that the Sami reindeer herders of this region have the longest, most ecologically sustainable civilization of all Europe, with their artistic work featuring records of this way of life for the past 10,000 years. Another grim revelation is that Norway’s admirable history of a sustainable relationship with its forests was set back by Nazi Germany’s ruthless occupation during World War Two. The Nazis “pillaged Norway’s forests for shipbuilding and export on an unprecedented scale.” This wreckage was exacerbated by the burning of northern Norwegian towns, which after the liberation forced Norway to make more demands on its forests to obtain wood for reconstruction.
Rawlence shows that a similar pattern of ecological devastation, wrought by Nazism in Norway, was inflicted on the boreal forest by Communism in Russia. In a typical passage he writes that, “The shamans of Siberia were systematically persecuted by the secular Soviet state, murdered, imprisoned and in one sad story, thrown out of helicopters and told to fly … the exploring Russians disrupted a rich web of cultures of the forest that is in precipitous decline. Many groups have been assimilated; others have almost died out.”
About the only bright spot in Russia, where methane gas is dangerously exploding from melting permafrost, is the effort to curb more of these emissions through the sixty-two square mile nature sanctuary known as Pleistocene Park. He notes that the park’s creators, the father and son team Sergei and Nikita Zimov, “have not given up” in their battles to stop permafrost melt, and are heading “to Wrangel Island in the Bering Strait to collect musk oxen for Pleistocene Park.” An update from the Zimovs happily reports that, “Compared to the Wrangel island food base, the park is very good for musk ox. So far, they are doing well and show no signs of body weight loss.”
Rawlence notes the ecological devastation around the Russian and nickel mining and smelting community of Norilsk. He finds “it is famous for its pollution which has killed the forest for hundreds of miles all around. A white dome of fumes that hangs over the city ‘like a mushroom’ and ‘tastes like cooking gas.’” Norilsk’s current situation could be compared to that of Sudbury, when my parents took me as a child of nine in 1964. The city, however, has since dramatically reduced its pollution and has become — a model of ecological recovery.
The greening in Sudbury is part of the hopeful signs of activity in Canada which appear to make it a leader in the protection and recovery of the boreal forest. The most hopeful story in The Treeline is the ecological protection efforts of an Anishinaabe community called “Poplar River First Nation.”
This community, on the southeastern shore of Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, has been the driving force of a major conservation victory.
Rawlence is cheered that the traditional territory of the Poplar River Anishinaabe “of nearly twelve thousand square miles under indigenous protection and management is the largest area of protected forest in North America, equivalent in size to the country of Denmark.” They call this land Pimachiowin Aki: ‘the land that gives life.’”
In Pimachiowin Aki, Rawlence finds “the only viable and realistic exit from the cul-de-sac of unavoidable climate change.” This community is determined “to reforge a harmonious relationship between humans and mother earth,” as witnessed in their healing camps, which restore traditional ceremonies, foods, and language.
One of the objectives of the protected landscape is to protect areas of a traditional Ojibway food, Manoomim (wild rice). The world biosphere reserve was created at the same time when a proposed Manitoba hydro line through the boreal forest was rejected by the provincial government and a $10 million endowment created to assist its objectives managed by the Winnipeg Foundation.
The creation of Pimachiowin Aki was welcomed a year earlier by five new provincial parks in Manitoba. One of these is the Chitek Lake Provincial Park: featured previously in the January-March 2022 issue of Peace Magazine, it has, like Pleistocene Park, the presence of five large grazing herbivores: elk (Wapiti), moose, woodland caribou, wood bison, and white-tailed deer.
Reviewed by Dr. John Bacher, an environmental activist in St. Catharines, Ontario.