In the life of this one grand oak, we can see for ourselves the results of one hundred years of rapid environmental change. It's leafing out earlier, and dropping its leaves later as the climate warms. Even the inner workings of individual leaves have changed to accommodate more CO2 in our atmosphere.
Climate science can seem dense, remote, and abstract. But through the lens of this one tree, it becomes immediate and intimate. In Witness Tree, environmental reporter Lynda V. Mapes takes us through her year living with one red oak at the Harvard Forest. We learn about carbon cycles and leaf physiology, but also experience the seasons as people have for centuries, watching for each new bud, and listening for each new bird and frog call in spring. We savor the cadence of falling autumn leaves, and glory of snow and starry winter nights. Lynda takes us along as she climbs high into the oak's swaying boughs, and scientists core deep into the oak's heartwood, dig into its roots and probe the teeming life of the soil. She brings us eye-level with garter snakes and newts, and alongside the squirrels and jays devouring the oak's acorns. Season by season she reveals the secrets of trees, how they work, and sustain a vast community of lives, including our own.
The oak is a living timeline and witness to climate change. While stark in its implications, Witness Tree is a beautiful and lyrical read, rich in detail, sweeps of weather, history, people, and animals. It is a story rooted in hope, beauty, wonder, and the possibility of renewal in people's connection to nature.
Lynda V. Mapes is the environmental reporter for the Seattle Times. She researched and wrote Witness Tree while a Knight Fellow in science journalism at MIT and a Bullard Fellow in forest research in residence with her oak at the Harvard Forest. This is her fourth book. She lives in Seattle.
"Lynda V. Mapes adopts a narrower lens but is equally ambitious in Witness Tree, which gets at sweeping ideas by looking at one century-old oak tree in Massachusetts. Among many other subjects – forest regeneration, acorn production, pollen records – Mapes has plenty to say about our early spring(s). 'Climate change, the trees, streams, and puddles, and birds, bugs, and frogs, attest, is not a matter of opinion or belief,' she writes. 'It is an observable fact.'"
– New York Times Book Review
"A meticulously, beautifully layered portrayal of vulnerability and loss, renewal and hope, this extensively researched yet deeply personal book is a timely call to bear witness and to act in an age of climate-change denial."
– starred Review, Kirkus Reviews
"The Harvard Forest is a center for the scientific study of climate change, but also – as this deep book makes clear – for what you might call the philosophic and historical inquiry that we should be making into this most crucial of topics. Lynda Mapes has managed to find a new and intriguing way into this question, and her book will be read with great profit by a great many."
– Bill McKibben, author Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
"Mapes chronicles how this 'witness tree' both mirrors and is shaped by our changing, warming world. Lyrical, engaging, and wise, Mapes invites us to understand trees as individuals rather than a collective forest. This is compelling storytelling and natural history that, like our elder trees, is both enduring and inspiring."
– Brenda Peterson, Wolf Nation: The Life, Death, and Return of Wild American Wolves
"Mapes' vivid language immerses us in the grand world of one esteemed red oak. Witness Tree is a splendid story that enriches our view of nature and ourselves."
– David R. Montgomery and Anne Biklé, authors, The Hidden Half of Nature