Field research into why yellow-cedar trees are dying and how people dependent on it are coping with a changing environment.
In her debut, Oakes, a conservation scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, presents a “blend of ecology and social science,” looking for answers to scientific questions through meticulous, rigorous research on the Alexander Archipelago off the southeastern coast of Alaska. She also spent hours interviewing Alaskans coping with a rapidly shifting environment. Hardy, diligent, and empathetic, the author makes vividly clear the difficulties of conducting multiyear field research on a remote archipelago. The book, she writes, “chronicles my effort to answer what happens in the wake of yellow-cedar death, not only to uncover the future of these old-growth forests, but to share lessons that apply to people on other parts of the planet….If we start looking at the local picture and the ways in which we all depend on nature in various ways every day, solutions emerge. I witnessed this in Alaska.” For armchair readers, this provides an unforgettable picture of just how scientists work in the field. Readers looking for a thorough understanding of the decline of the yellow-cedar tree will not be disappointed. The data are here, collected and painstakingly recorded by intrepid young people living rough, sometimes in tents and sleeping bags, eating dehydrated food, and slogging through chilly bogs in rain and fog. In between, there are the author’s trips back to Stanford, where she was a graduate student and is now an adjunct professor. It’s clear that Oakes is deeply concerned about what climate change—of which the decline of the yellow-cedar is but one marker—will mean in her lifetime and in the more distant future. How will we continue to adapt in the face of frightening changes? The canary-in-the-coal-mine image is a powerful one, and this book carries a potent message sure to resonate with conservationists.