Amid environmental grief, finding hope in a graveyard of yellow cedar

Lauren Oakes paddles to a research site in the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness of Southeast Alaska. (Image credit: Lauren Oakes)

Lauren Oakes paddles to a research site in the West Chichagof-Yakobi Wilderness of Southeast Alaska. (Photo courtesy of Lauren Oakes)

Scientists have known for a while why yellow cedar is dying across its range. Without a blanket of snow in the spring, the roots can freeze during cold snaps.

Climate change has been linked to killing at least a million acres of trees across the Pacific Northwest. So one ecologist wondered, for the yellow cedar forests and the people who care about them, what comes after environmental loss?

Lauren Oakes says a dead standing yellow cedar tree looks out of place, like a telephone pole on the landscape.

Over time, the branches fall off. What you’re left with is a ghostly hull. It’s the kind of image that leaves an impression.

“It made climate change that much more real to me,” Oakes said. “It often seems like it’s something future or far off or not affecting me yet.”

 Oakes is an ecologist, and she calls yellow cedar “the canary tree.” As in that old saying, “The canary in the coal mine” — a sign of impending danger. However, Oakes is quick to point out she doesn’t see yellow cedar’s fate as a doom-and-gloom story.

“It is a story of loss. But it’s also a story of regrowth,” Oakes said.

Yellow cedar is an iconic species that grows from the top of California all the way to Prince William Sound. It has been used for centuries by indigenous carvers and weavers. And commercially, it’s some of the most valuable timber for harvest. But yellow cedar is declining across its range, and that decline is expected to continue. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering listing it as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act.

Oakes says the science on why the decline is happening is pretty much settled: Warming is largely to blame. So, as part of her doctoral research, she traveled to Southeast Alaska with a different set of questions in mind: “How is the forest community changing in response to the death of these trees, and how might people be coping with those changes in their community?”

That is, how could she still find hope in a forest that’s turning into a graveyard?

To answer her first question — how the ecosystem itself is changing — Oakes set out to survey dead stands of yellow cedar across the region. A task she said was overwhelming because of the volume.

But she found the forest was adjusting: New tree species were growing in the newly-opened understory, and shrubs were coming up that deer like to eat. Oakes said focusing on that regrowth gave her some hope.

She also interviewed people affected by the loss and found they were adjusting, too. Oakes spoke to the late Tlingit weaver Teri Rofkar. During their conversations, Rofkar referred to yellow cedar as the “tree people.”

She appears in this Rasmuson Foundation video from 2013, gathering materials outside for weaving.

“So you look for an areas where there’s just moss starting to mature,” Rofkar explains.

In the video, Rofkar is looking for spruce roots. She explained to Oakes she was using them more in her weaving as a substitute for yellow cedar.

Rofkar thought yellow cedar could use “a break,” due to climate change.

“She was someone who had a real emotional tie to these trees,” Oakes said. “(She) certainly talked of the grief she was experiencing. But it was also something that inspired her to not only share with others the importance of offering some restraint for these trees, themselves, but then educate others about climate change.”

Like Oakes, other scientists are also starting to document more examples of environmental grief to understand how humans are adapting to a warming planet.

Oakes said acknowledging a personal loss — in this case, a culturally valuable tree species — may lead to less apathy and potentially more individual action.

It can spark a feeling of, “Wow, this is bigger than me. This is hitting home. How can I cope with that?”

Oakes recently wrote a book about this feeling called “In Search of the Canary Tree,” which is about her time spent doing research on yellow cedar in Southeast Alaska.

She said despite the tremendous loss, life is still growing. She thinks people can still change the narrative.

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