In 'Witness Tree,' Seattle Times Writer Lynda Mapes Explores Climate Change Through Lens Of 1 Oak

Apr 11, 2017

Climate change is one of those issues that tends to turn people off. It’s not much fun to think about the consequences of the carbon pollution and the subsequent warming of the atmosphere. But Seattle Times Writer Lynda V. Mapes spent the better part of two years studying how it affected one tree while she was on a science fellowship in upstate New York.

Her book about that experience is called "Witness Tree: Seasons Of Change With A Century-Old Oak."

On a recent sunny Sunday afternoon, I met with Mapes to discuss the book beneath the boughs of a similar oak in Seattle’s Volunteer Park, one that people climb recreationally and locals affectionately call “The Queen.”

Mapes was beaming as we talked, clearly she had a great time during her year spent at the Harvard Forest, interviewing all kinds of scientists who helped guide her time spent on the ground and even swinging in a hammock above admiring the canopy, to explore every aspect possible of climate change seen through the lens of one tree.   

“It was spectacular, I held what I called tree soirees. I would bring different experts to the tree and watch them encounter it and learn from them,” Mapes said.  

"The Queen" is what some locals call this tree in Seattle's Volunteer Park. Lynda V. Mapes says it is similar to the east coast oak she depicts in her new book, Witness Tree: Seasons Of Change With A Century-Old Oak.
Credit Bellamy Pailthorp / KNKX

“I was sick of covering climate change in the same way that nobody pays attention to. You know, parts per million, dueling politicians — who wants to hear another word about that? Not me, not you,” she said.

Instead, she set out to “take the quiet testimony of living things,” she says, by describing how the ecosystems of this one tree and the forest where it stands are already changing.   

“We know this. If you bird, if you garden, if you hike you know this intuitively — our world is already changing,“ she said of shorter winters and earlier autumns and the ever warmer record temperatures charted each year.

Her book is full of awe for new discoveries in tree biology, such as the notion that trees have a certain kind of intelligence that allows them to communicate with each other and their surroundings.

“That’s for real! Trees are diplomats – consummate diplomats,” Mapes exclaims. “Let’s say for instance you suddenly get a bunch of insects, chewing on their leaves. They can actually change the chemistry of their leaves so that they’re less palatable. Not only that, they can send out pheromones to call out an air strike of predatory wasps!”

A girlishness comes out as she reads from the pages of the book’s introduction, depicting her childhood in upstate New York, climbing trees on an expansive property where her parents let the her and her brothers run wild. She admits she’s not just a proud tree-hugger, she’s now proselytizing for trees everywhere she goes.

Mapes says trees are the key to well-being for people everywhere, especially in lower-income areas where they’re lacking or where pollution rates are higher.

“In an uncertain, burdened world, trees are repositories of only good verbs; they sustain, they connect, they cleanse, they moderate,” she said.

And she says more trees need to be planted in areas of cities like South Seattle’s Georgetown and Duwamish neighborhoods, where trees are lacking compared to richer parts of town and the rates of disease such as asthma are higher. It’s a topic she has written about in the Seattle Times. She says take a walk in South Seattle and you won’t see the same giants you find in places like Capitol Hill or Magnolia or Queen Anne.

“So it’s hotter, it’s dirtier, you don’t have the wildlife, you don’t have the shade. You don’t have the beauty, you don’t have the peace,” she says.   

Her book has been well reviewed in numerous publications including the New York Times. And it comes at a time when there seems to be a big appetite for this kind of narrative. Take the recent best-seller from Germany, Peter Wohlleben’s "The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate." Mapes says the appeal is universal.

“It’s because trees are so familiar and beloved to us," she says. "They’re our oldest traveling companions on this earth. Everyone has a favorite that will outlive them.”

She says trees should be honored and recognized for all they provide, from perspective on our life spans to their healing powers as they absorb carbon pollution and release oxygen that we can breathe.

“Trees are just remarkable entities; to know even one tree well is to be dazzled,” she says.  

 Lynda Mapes will read from the book Tuesday, April 11 at the Seattle Public Library downtown. That’s at 7 p.m. and it’s free.  Mapes will be in conversation with Crosscut managing editor and former 88.5 contributor Florangela Davila.