Why our trees are marching north – and what this means for polar bears and the planet
Ben Rawlence Jonathan Cape £20
Trees are on the move, blykbaar. Where once a crisp line ran around the top of the world marking the place where pines and spruces ran out and the ice began, now everything is scrappy and random.
Global warming means that the tundra is in retreat and the treeline is racing north at the rate of hundreds of feet a year. Areas that have been white for millennia are gradually growing green.
You might think that this doesn’t matter much, unless you happen to be a polar bear whose home keeps shrinking.
In his lyrical and passionate book, Rawlence puts on his walking boots to go in search of the frozen north’s most environmentally and culturally significant trees
Groen, na alles, is the colour of regeneration and the boreal forest, which stretches across the globe in a line linking Canada, Alaska, Siberia, Greenland and northern Scandinavia, is often described as the lung of the world.
Having more rather than less of it is surely a good thing? Nie so nie, explains Ben Rawlence – or rather, not necessarily.
For starters, it means that slightly lower latitudes are losing out.
Where once Scotland was at the northerly treeline, above which it was too cold or too high for pines to grow, in less than a hundred years it may find itself below the southern limit of that range.
And when the pines start to disappear from ‘Caledonia’ – the Roman name for northern Britain, which means ‘wooded heights’ – then so will a whole ecosystem of plants and animals, not to mention the humans whose livelihood depends on them.
In his lyrical and passionate book, Rawlence puts on his walking boots, thermal vest and two pairs of gloves to go in search of the frozen north’s most environmentally and culturally significant trees.
The Treeline is a sobering, powerful account of how trees might just save the world, as long as we are sensible enough to let them
In addition to pine in Scotland, he encounters birch in Scandinavia, larch in Siberia, spruce in Alaska, poplar in Canada and rowan in Greenland.
In each case he discovers that the trees are the starting point and presiding guardian of a teeming ‘mosaic of species’, encompassing everything from microbes to ravens to arctic foxes.
It is a lovely image, but ominous too. For if something happens to the root and branch of this ecosystem, then the trickle-down effects go further and wider than we could possibly imagine.
Take the birch, which has grown in Finnmark, noordelike Noorweë, for millennia. Traditionally it has been used by the indigenous Sámi people to make tools, houses and medicine.
More than this, the hardy little scrapper (it even grows a downy coating to protect it from the chill) shelters fungi and insects central to the food chain, while its roots bind and heat the ground below.
Nou, wel, this quick-growing tree is galloping northwards over the tundra, obliterating the grazing grounds of the reindeer on which the Sámi depend.
The out-of-control birch has become a kind of pest. In 2013, en weer in 2017, thousands of reindeer died of starvation and some herders lost up to a third of their animals.
The future is bleaker still: ‘The Sámi will need to find another lifestyle,’ one government forester tells Rawlence bluntly.
Not everyone is quite so gloomy.
In Greenland, where the problem is one of too few rather than too many trees, Rawlence meets Professor Jason Box, a climatologist who has set up Greenland Trees.
The not-for-profit initiative allows American and European scientists coming to study the region the chance to offset their carbon footprint by planting up to 130 new conifers a day. Before too long Greenland will be green again.
Among the local people, wel, the mood is less optimistic. Rawlence speaks to Ellen, a Greenlandic farmer who doubles as the village schoolmistress.
She laments the fact that the winter ice is now so uncertain that it is no longer safe to use a snowmobile (people have drowned in recent years when driving along the frozen fjord).
She also mourns the way that ancient craft knowledge is almost obsolete. The sealskin boots that are part of her national costume can no longer be made at home: the winter winds are insufficiently cold to cure the sealskin and turn it white.
In plaas daarvan, people are resorting to shop-bought fabric. ‘This is how the world ends. In a myriad of tiny tragedies.’
While Rawlence is excellent at describing nature in general and trees in particular – everything from roots that look like ‘bunched muscles under skin’ to the ‘sprawling limbs’ of the balsam poplar – his style is less suited to humans.
In particular he has an odd habit of offering cliches about people’s eyes. There’s the scientist whose ‘penetrating black eyes burn with a fire’, and folklorist Margaret whose ‘irises flash the same colour as the half-night of midsummer midnight’.
Someone else’s ‘light eyes twinkle with the snow and ice of the tundra’, and finally there’s Rebecca, whose blue eyes ‘contain the steady glow of the seeker’.
But if you can get past these patches of slack writing, then The Treeline is a sobering, powerful account of how trees might just save the world, as long as we are sensible enough to let them.
Sex Cult Nun
Faith Jones HarperCollins £16.99
Faith Jones isn’t the first person to write an exposé of the notorious Children of God cult, but hers is a different perspective. She grew up in the hippy evangelist movement that was founded in California in 1968 by her grandfather, David Berg.
By the time Jones was born in Hong Kong in 1977, its membership had grown to more than 10,000 disciples across 170 countries and it was already attracting negative publicity: along with accusations of financial chicanery and physical and mental coercion, there were allegations of drugs, hypnotism and kidnapping.
Berg would preach in favour of polygamy and sex with minors, spending decades on Interpol’s wanted list. Na sy dood, his anointed heir, Jones’s half-uncle, would murder his nanny and then kill himself.
Faith Jones (hierbo) isn’t the first person to write an exposé of the notorious Children of God cult, but hers is a different perspective
Jones’s childhood was spent largely on a commune in a tiny village on the island of Macau, where she and her half-siblings formed their own singing troupe and helped their parents run a farm and riding stables.
She recalls these early experiences in the present tense, offering up a child’s-eye view of guava fights and tree-climbing with her best friend.
This same innocent perspective – a far cry from the book’s lurid title – underscores the more sinister, downright harrowing aspects of life in the cult that by then was calling itself The Family International.
Every minute of the day is scheduled and her father delivers beatings with a paddle bearing the words ‘Rod of God’. Sex pervades their religious literature.
Women are expected to sleep with well-heeled outsiders in order to net followers and cash donations for the Family, and Jones sometimes accompanies her mother on these ‘Flirty Fishing’ trips.
One of her first colouring books features explicit content and when, vier jaar oud, she stumbles upon her parents in bed together, her mother uses it as an opportunity to impart a graphic sex education lesson.
Jones isn’t much older when an ‘uncle’ takes her into his room for the first time.
As an adolescent she spends time in Japan, Thailand and Kazakhstan.
A brief, largely traumatic sojourn in the US gives her a taste of mainstream schooling and ignites a love of learning that will eventually save her, leading to glittering degrees and a high-powered career as a lawyer.
Sy is 23 when she finally leaves the Family. ‘I feel like I’m falling into a black hole and watching everything I thought I knew turn into wispy nothingness,' sy skryf.
Realising that her childhood was taken from her, that she was violated, she still has a long journey ahead but her resilience doesn’t falter.
The book closes in 2020, as Jones, now in her 40s, takes to the stage to deliver a TEDx talk.
Ironies genoeg, there’s more than a touch of the guru about her as she expounds on a Eureka moment that, beweer sy, has enabled her to distil ‘our fundamental moral philosophy, the DNA of our legal system, morality and human rights into a single simple diagram that I can teach to a curious eight-year-old’.
If that sounds like a stretch, there are observations here whose relevance, at a time when cancel culture (surely just another form of fundamentalism?) is taking over public life, extends far beyond Jones’s own compelling quest to turn trauma into strength.
As she notes of her attempts to unravel years of indoctrination, if a belief is true, ‘you don’t have to protect it – questioning it deeply only reveals more and strengthens it’.
Andrea Elliott Hutchinson Heinemann £16.99
In 2012, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Andrea Elliott met Dasani, an 11-year-old black girl, living in a homeless shelter in New York.
All ten of Dasani’s family shared one room infested with hungry mice and cockroaches; the newborn baby was kept warm with a hairdryer, and the children never went to the bathroom at night for fear they would be assaulted.
Dasani, a precocious child, parented her other siblings because her mother, Chanel, and stepfather, Supreme, seemed unable to.
Elliott’s doggedness in following the life of Dasani (hierbo, with New York Public Advocate Letitia James) over eight years makes for a compelling read
The investigation made the front page of the New York Times for five days running.
400 children were removed from homelessness shelters as a result, and Dasani – named after the bottled water her mother couldn’t afford to buy – held the bible at City Hall when the new mayor Bill de Blasio was sworn in, promising reform of the welfare system.
Journalism is often criticised for highlighting people’s crises and then leaving again with no thought as to what happens after.
What’s fascinating about Invisible Child – which Barack Obama has named as one of his books of the year – is Elliott’s doggedness in following the lives of Dasani, her parents and siblings over the next eight years through homeless shelters, skole, therapy sessions and the courts.
The twists and turns, and moments of hope, mean that the book remains a compelling read.
The key moment is when Dasani is offered a way out. A bright student and talented athlete, she wins a place at the Milton Hershey boarding school, an establishment for poor students set up in the Pennsylvanian countryside by the chocolate tycoon.
It offers all the discipline, privilege and opportunities her previous chaotic life lacked (if Hershey students do well, they are given $80,000 towards a college scholarship).
But these new advantages mean that she finds herself distanced from her family, which starts to fall apart. Is that a price Dasani is willing to pay?
It’s hard not to feel frustrated with her parents, who move in and out of addiction programmes, and fritter away an inheritance. There is also a grim inevitability about what happens to Khaliq and Papa, Dasani’s brothers.
But Elliott shows how difficult it is for a family negotiating a welfare system that is inefficient, inflexible and at times appears institutionally racist. Public money could clearly be better spent keeping the family together.
And Mayor de Blasio, for all his promises, seems little more effective than his predecessor Mike Bloomberg in fighting homelessness.
But at the end of the book, there is a remarkable feeling of hope as, despite some disastrous choices, Dasani becomes the first in her family to graduate from high school and starts pondering college applications.
There are no easy happy-ever-afters here in Elliott’s tale, but what shines through is the strong bond between the family that survives.