On a Dying Community of Yellow-Cedars in the Alaskan Archipelago
From the Emergence Magazine Podcast
Emergence Magazine is a quarterly online publication exploring the threads connecting ecology, culture, and spirituality. As we experience the desecration of our lands and waters, the extinguishing of species, and a loss of sacred connection to the Earth, we look to emerging stories. Each issue explores a theme through innovative digital media, as well as the written and spoken word. The Emergence Magazine podcast features exclusive interviews, narrated essays, stories, and more.
In this episode, ecologist Lauren Oakes looks beyond the scientific lens of subject-object while studying the consequences of climate change on a dying community of yellow-cedars in the Alaskan archipelago.
From the episode:
Quercus species—the coast live oaks, valley oaks, and black oaks along the western coast. Eastern white oak and chestnut oak, back east where I grew up. Acer species—saccharum, the sugar maple, in particular. Bursting autumn colors and the taste of fresh syrup, the imprints of my childhood. But Callitropsis nootkatensis—the Alaska cedar or yellow-cedar (actually a cypress related to the giant sequoia)—this is the species I’ve obsessed over the most. Swooping branches, foliage in flat sprays, the wood inside so golden and tight-grained. They are miraculous in form, elusive across their range. I was first drawn to them because they are dying in our warming world.
In a closet at home, three large boxes store a dozen journals of field notes and hundreds of data sheets. The tattered Rite in the Rain pages contain thousands of tree observations from the outer coast of southeast Alaska; the others detail background information about the people I interviewed.
7-31-11 [field notes]
focused on tasks at hand
navigating to plot center
yellow cedars + big hemlocks, spruce
mind—tunnel vision, fully present
body—poked and prodded
threats of impalement
limbo and leap frog
“let go”; “let me go”
branches grasping my pack
forest so thick
sensation of being closed in, trapped…
orange + yellow, colors of the flagging
signs of a stressed forest
margins. realized we really are studying the margin of mortality.
hard not to wonder and imagine what the forest we measured today will one day be
Same day, Plot 24 [data record]
Tree # 1559 – spp. YC [yellow-cedar] – 32.0 diameter – 9.55 top ht. – live – stressed – 5.84 base of live crown – 8.93 top of live crown – dead top – 30% live crown remaining – 40% flagging
Tree # 1560 – spp. YC – 26.9 diameter – 9.7 top ht. – dead – standing
Saplings – spp. SS [sitka spruce], 1; no YC observed
Meticulous notes describe the trees I encountered, but the only record I have of Greg Streveler’s inquiry is my memory. I’ve searched through my journals and scoured my email accounts for relevant correspondence, checking whether I documented something, anything, at the time. I’ve replayed the audio recording of my interview with him, wondering if by chance I left it running when he continued talking. I did not.
First a geologist by training, then a scientist specializing geographically (instead of topically) by choice, Greg had spent decades of his life rooted in place. The result—and what had led me to him—was an unparalleled depth of knowledge of the temperate forests I’d come to study in the remote archipelago of southeast Alaska.
The scientist in me knows that memory has a way of distorting the past, but I’ve concluded that the details don’t really matter. What mattered then and what still matters today is the lingering question I have carried with me ever since, to tree after tree and moment to moment, to many forests across time. What mattered was the uncomfortable feeling of my chosen silence, there in his house, that unsettling ache of not knowing my answer.
More than seven years have since passed. I never did let it go. Or maybe it never let go of me.
Read or listen to the rest of this essay on Emergence Magazine’s website or by subscribing to the podcast.
Lauren E. Oakes is author of In Search of the Canary Tree, one of Science Friday’s Best Science Books of 2018, the Second-Place Winner of the 2019 Rachel Carson Environmental Book Award, and a finalist for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine Communication Award. She is a conservation scientist and adaptation specialist with the Wildlife Conservation Society, an adjunct professor in the Department of Earth System Science at Stanford University, and a freelance science writer. Lauren has contributed to the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Scientific American, and Lit Hub.