‘Trees in Trouble’ by Daniel Mathews

When people think of climate change, one of the first things brought to mind is often the growing frequency of high severity wildfires. These fires cause destroy communities, pollute the air, and often decimate our already struggling ecosystems. As a Californian myself, I’ve grown up knowing fires well. However, 2020 was completely unlike any fire season I’ve experienced before.

It’s easy to forget amidst all the other chaotic bombarding us last year, but I woke up so many times to the smell of wildfire smoke in my room that I just got numb to it. I still vividly remember running errands while surrounded by the constant multi-day orange glow from the blade-runner like wildfire smoke.

Days before the smoke hit, the weather was scorching, but it all changed on a dime when the smoke blocked out the sun and significantly dropped the temperature. It was otherworldly.

Later in the season, there was a rapid succession when nearby neighborhoods evacuated their residents. The sense of security from fires has long since shattered. Now, it often feels as though we have no choice but to wait anxiously as the next fire season looms several months away.


However, people like me believe we actually can improve the health of our forests, reducing the frequency of high severity wildfires, and protecting ecological health and the safety of our communities in the process. We will never be able to prevent fires altogether (Nor should we. Fires are a natural part of the ecosystem), but we can take concrete steps to reduce the kind of high-severity burns that devastate communities and cause massive ecological devastation in their path.

I read Daniel Mathews’s Trees in Trouble because I wanted to better understand these issues and the kinds of solutions we need. If you’re looking for a book to do the same for you, I can’t recommend it enough.


The Basics

Trees in Trouble is 246 pages split into an introduction, 12 chapters, and an afterward that is definitely worth sticking around for. Like most books I write about, it is a fairly dense piece of non-fiction. You know… not for everyone. But despite the occasionally dull chunk of pages, I am extremely happy that I sat down and gave this book a read.

At parts, I’ll admit I lost focus. Mathews would occasionally wander about – telling stories that seemed a bit off topic – but in his own style, Mathews always brought it to a point that made all the wandering make sense.

This wasn’t the best book I’ve ever read. To be fair, I’m coming at Trees in Trouble fresh off of a fantastic streak of books like The Vaccine Race, Power to Save the World, and Drinking Water: A History. So… I’m probably being a bit too critical. Still, my over all impression is that it’s good. Not necessarily great… But! None the less, I’m very glad I read it.

Trees in Trouble taught me a lot about topics I had only briefly heard of before, solidified beliefs I had previously leaned toward, and always included devil’s advocates to push back against preconceived notions and popular opinion.Trees in Trouble taught me things about trees I may have otherwise never come across, and Mathews approached each topic with a balanced perspective, always veering away from the blinders any strict ideology.


What’s it About?

In a very straightforward sense, the book is about “trees that are in trouble”, but the author sums up the main thesis behind this book with one quote in the introduction.

Climate change, in concert with pests, pathogens, and decades of misconceived fire suppression, is causing these sweeping changes.

But there are actions we can take to limit the damage. This is a book for everyone who cares what happens to these trees, groves, and landscapes.

Daniel Mathews, Trees in Trouble

However, before you pick up this book, it’s worth knowing that Mathews narrows the frame of this book from “all trees” and focuses specifically on pine dominant forests in western North America. If you’re a Californian like I am, then these are probably the forest you were worrying about anyways, but keep this in mind if you were looking for something with a greater focus on other regions.

12 Chapters Quickly Explained:

  1. ‘A Loaded Atmosphere’ – Setting up the book and the role climate change plays in the health of our forests.
  2. ‘Inferno’ – Diving into the history of fires in North American pine forests, the root causes behind the sudden increase of high severity fires, and the dangers they pose.
  3. ‘Outbreak’ – Understanding bark beetles and the root causes behind our most recent endemics.
  4. ‘Cookie Cutters’ – Learning about the world of tree ring researchers and all the knowledge they have to offer.
  5. ‘The Bleeding Edge’ – Exploring trees caught on the front lines of climate change.
  6. ‘Thin and Burn’ – Explaining and evaluating various techniques we have to cultivate more fire-resistant forests.
  7. ‘North and Up’ – Diving into the habitat shifts due to climate change and exploring Assisted Migration as a means to help forests adapt.
  8. ‘Ghosts’ – Understanding the symbiotic relationship between Whitebark Pines and Clark’s Nutcrackers and how (if not for blister rust) they would be a great tree for reforestation.
  9. ‘Fading White’ – Understanding blister rust and the danger it poses.
  10. ‘Resistance’ – Envisioning all the things we can do to help forests evolve to resist future blister rust endemics.
  11. ‘The Enduring’ – Looking with hope at Bristlecone Pines, some of the stubbornest, most resistant pines, and overall oldest trees the American West has to offer.
  12. ‘Future Forests’ – Wrapping up the book and casting a vision for what our future forest might (realistically) look like.

My 3 Favorite Chapters

Chapters 3, 4, and 8 (‘Outbreak’, ‘Cookie Cutters’, and ‘Ghosts’) gave me some memorable deep dives into the worlds of bark beetles, tree ring researchers, and the symbiotic relationship between Clark’s Nutcrackers and Whitebark Pines. For that, I’ll categorize them as honorable mentions. However, my 3 favorite chapters are definitely 6, 7, and 12 (‘Thin and Burn’, ‘North and Up’, and ‘Future Forests’).

Chapter 6: ‘Thin and Burn’

‘Thin and Burn’ might be my most memorable highlight of the book. Specifically, I loved the sections devoted to exploring different techniques of thin and burn as well as the actual practice of organizing one. The logistics being juggled by burn managers really marveled me, and it really helps explain just how expensive these can be.

Mathews humbly admits how much we don’t know about the efficacy and precision of various thin and burn techniques, but matter what, we’re doing too little of it if this is the technique we want to use for preventing high severity burns.

We’ve dug ourselves in a big hole, and it’s hard to get out of it with precision.

Daniel Mathews, Trees in Trouble

Chapter 7: ‘North and Up’

The first 8 pages of this chapter really got my focus drifting, but ‘North and Up’ probably holds second place among my favorite chapters in this section. 9 pages in, everything clicked and I found the chapter VERY interesting.

The premise is simple: As temperatures warm, climate change is driving trees’ natural habitable ranges north and to higher elevations. However, trees can’t keep up with this kind of fast migration on their own.

The natural science parts of it were incredibly interesting, I liked the history, and I really appreciated how he talked about the ‘migrations of genes’ as the primary goal -introducing far more complexity than simply treating each plant species homogeneous, interchangeable parts.

I also happen to have a soft spot for genetics, so this was right up my alley.

Furthermore, I thought this chapter did a great job at explaining the tensions in the scientific community surrounding Assisted Migration (the process of moving populations outside of their historical range to facilitate quicker adaption to rapid climate change) in a way that doesn’t vilify the other side or call them stupid. Yet, it is clear at the end of the day that this guy does support AM, and because of my own leanings, I also resonate with that strategy.

Chapter 12: ‘Future Forests’

‘Future Forests’ is the final chapter of Trees in Trouble, and it really goes out on a high note. He strikes a great tone here and does a great job of summing up the ethos behind the book as a whole. Mathews has optimism for the future of forest management, but he is never naive about the many challenges and limitations facing us. The question is not whether we can revert forests to what they were like a couple of generations ago. Instead, our best-case scenarios typically come down to damage control. It’s a sober kind of optimism.

The climate is not shifting to a new normal that we’ll reach this year or next year. It’ll keep warming beyond 2025 even if we get off fossil fuels tomorrow.

All the tools in the forest management toolshed may prove useless beyond a few decades if society continues with business as usual, increasing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Daniel Mathews, Trees in Trouble

In some places sustaining forest is a lost cause. We have to do the best job we can of figuring out which places those are, and optimizing their transition to a non-forest state.

Daniel Mathews, Trees in Trouble

Wrapping it Up

In case you didn’t realize it yet, the trees are in fact in trouble. If we take action now, we won’t be able to preserve the forests of our childhood, but we may be able to help our forests adjust to the changing climate and grow back healthier and more resilient in the face of coming challenges.

However, we must always keep in mind that none of these steps are a replacement for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and we shouldn’t expect trees to do all the carbon sequestering for us. Ironically, plans to put all of our carbon sequester eggs into the “trees” basket would probably backfire. As Mathews puts it,

Plans to increase planting densities to sequester more carbon will likely result in elevated bark beetle – and wildfire – related carbon losses, rather than gains.

Daniel Mathews, Trees in Trouble

Additional Resources for Exploring Ecology:

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