In the long light of a July day, I read Lynda V. Mapes's The Witness Tree outdoors in the shade of some tall neighborhood trees. It strikes me as another one of those important books that should find more readers but probably won't — given the extensive indifference to the natural world. I know I'm including a lot of people here in the "extensive indifference" who do care greatly. I know there are some excellent environmental groups and websites — from the Wilderness Society to the Sierra Club to the Natural Resources Defense Council to the World Wildlife Fund and many more — that are working hard to change hearts and minds.
I'm mostly talking about the majority who either care and don't act to reduce their carbon footprint or who can't see past their short term needs to care about the natural environment or who just don't see the trees for anything beyond "scenery" or perhaps as board feet for construction. This group includes most of our politicians.
Mapes notes that the rate of change in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere "has scientists particularly alarmed." A century ago, carbon dioxide measured about 280 parts per million a century ago. Today it has soared past 400 parts per million and is climbing "to the highest level in some eight thousand years."
Mapes writes, "No human had ever breathed this atmosphere. This seemingly harmless gas, made of one of the most common elements in the universe [is] having exactly the effect on the climate and growing seasons that some scientists had long ago predicted. But it [is] happening far more quickly than imagined."
This is a beautiful book about the life of one tree in one forest — and all it can tell us about the human and natural history. If you read it, I promise you'll see trees and forests, and maybe people, in a more generous light. But Mapes also makes it clear that our behavior is alarming in its impact on the natural world — and has consequences, most of which are not good for humanity or the planet's biodiversity.
We should all care more. We should all do more. I think what The Witness Tree is telling us is that we will care and do more if we slow down long enough to see what we have — the remarkable beauty and complexity and symbiotic connection between trees and every living thing.
If each of us gets to know a tree well, maybe more of us will change our patterns of behavior that imperil humanity and the planet.