Photo credit: Sean Havey
I was working on the third or fourth draft of my book, The Journeys of Trees
, when a friend pointed out to me what the book is about. It came as a surprise. I was fairly certain I knew what it was about: the future of forests. Thanks to the combined effects of climate change, globalization, and deforestation, the world’s forests are in a state of upheaval unlike any since at least the end of the last ice age. In the book, I abandoned the usual view people take of trees and forests, as reliable and unchanging, nearly geologic in their stillness, and instead cast them as mobile, dynamic collections of creatures — which of course they are, if you take even a moderately long view of things. Slipping out of the usual human scale threw into higher relief what is typical about our time, and what is truly unprecedented. That’s what the book is about. But, as my friend pointed out, maybe that’s not all
the book is about. Maybe, he suggested, it’s also about acceptance.
So I went back and looked. Sure enough, it was there, scattered throughout the book. It wasn’t even particularly subtle. In the very first chapter, I talked about acceptance with a scientist who studies giant sequoias. As we sat among the ancient trees, high in the mountains of eastern California, he told me that he’d realized nearly two decades before that climate change would mean that, sooner or later, the ancient trees would die. The place that they currently lived would no longer be suitable for them. He’d fallen into a deep depression. He mentioned a paper by ecologist Richard Hobbs, who wrote that people mourn change in the natural world in a similar way to how they mourn the loss of a loved one. Hobbs had pointed to the stages of grief, famously outlined by Swiss American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying
: First comes denial, then anger, then bargaining, depression, and — finally — acceptance. The sequoia researcher told me he’d been through all five stages. “I’m through mourning the loss of an ideal,” I quoted him saying. “Now it’s, ‘What are we going to do about it?’”
I hadn’t been around long enough to see the strangeness — and sadness — of my own understanding.
It was just one of several versions of this story I’d repeated in the book. I heard it from entomologists in Michigan, fighting to save another threatened tree — a battle they knew they were likely to lose. I heard it from foresters in Canada, who had accepted that their old ways of operating wouldn’t work in the climate of the near future. And I heard it from the book’s main character, a woman who appears throughout the book, and who pushes the theme of acceptance to its extreme. She believes in the fast-approaching end of human civilization, and has accepted it. Facing this shrunken future, she takes solace in trying to save a rare, isolated species of tree. My friend was right. The book was indeed about acceptance — about people who have journeyed through grief, confronted the reality of what had been or would be lost, and continued to fight for what remained.
It was strange enough to realize I’d missed a major theme of my own book; stranger still to try and work backwards to an understanding of what it said about my own views. Why was I attracted to these people? What was it about these stories that caught my ear?
At first I thought it was that I, too, was living in a state of acceptance. I’m 30, and have never entertained serious doubts about the reality of climate change. I was never invested in a static view of the world. I never enjoyed the illusion of guilt-free consumption. But I could see that my acceptance was different from the kind that I’d written about in other people. I gave up no long-held principles to come to it. It entailed no grief. If anything, my acceptance of climate change was an example of the shifting baseline, the false notion that the condition of the world was normal at the moment when I was born into it. I hadn’t been around long enough to see the strangeness — and sadness — of my own understanding.
Nor did my supposed acceptance of climate change inure me to the sting of learning about its likely effects. While working on the book, I had many days where, after talking with a scientist or activist or reading a study, I found myself drained and saddened by what I’d learned. Over and over, I encountered some facet of the world that would be irrevocably changed. I mourned individual trees, whole forests, lost species, and species still to be lost. Sometimes, even sitting at my desk and writing felt like an act of denial, an attempt to maintain an impossible level of comfort and stability. Any true acceptance was still far off.
This was my first time writing a book, and I was often surprised during the process to find how my draft seemed to grow branches of its own volition. Acceptance was one of these, a branch I hadn’t even noticed until my friend pointed it out. In some cases, the answer to these unbidden stems was the pruners. It was clear, though, that acceptance was one I needed to keep.
From the beginning, part of what interested me in trees was the symbolic meaning people give them. The act of planting trees, in particular, has long been an allegory of selflessness, of faith in someone else’s future — a symbology that I’d treated in the book with tongue occasionally in cheek. But now I could see I’d subscribed to this sentiment more fully than I’d realized. Here I was, earnestly repeating the same message in another form. The symbolic meaning of planting a tree, after all, is not so different from the kind of acceptance I’d written about. To plant a tree is to look forward to a world diminished — a world without the planter, at least — and to try to do something good anyway. In the face of change, of loss, of death, of extinction, the people I’d written about did not deny, or rage, or bargain, or hide. They bent to a new reality and continued their work. I wasn’t there yet myself, but I could begin to see what it might look like.
Upcoming virtual event: Zach St. George in conversation with Robert Moor at 6 p.m. on July 17. Register for the free event here.
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Zach St. George
is a science reporter who has written for The Atlantic
, Scientific American
, and Outside
, among other publications. He earned a degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley, and lives in Baltimore, Maryland. The Journeys of Trees: A Story About Forests, People, and the Future
is his first book.