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Migrants – Wonderground

I had a mild panic attack the first time I bought a washing machine. I was twenty-eight and a housemate had moved out of our rental home in Melbourne, taking his own machine with him.

Until then, I had resisted owning anything that I couldn’t dismantle and carry myself – that might inhibit the possibility of an unencumbered getaway. Within a year, the walls of the house that stored the machine started to shift. Big long cracks formed along the corners, revealing a view to the footpath. We were thankful for the excuse to move – the house was en route to a bikers’ club and we were woken up at 3 am every weekday to the revs of motorbikes.

We lugged the washing machine to a new place a few blocks away. A quiet house with a heater, but impossible to heat. It had a giant white cedar tree (Melia azedarach) in the garden, one of only a few deciduous trees native to Australia, endemic to the tropical climes of Queensland and northern New South Wales. Its roots pulled up the red brick paving in the garden, and stretched inside, slowly lifting the big square terracotta tiles in the kitchen.

My Australian mother and French father met in Belgium. Growing up, my family moved every few years to a new country. Later, as adults, my sisters and I kept moving. On my mother’s side, our ancestors once lived in the Hebrides, on the Isle of Lewis and then the Isle of Skye. They were driven out when livestock became more profitable than the tenant farming practised by locals and moved to a ‘new’ (but actually very ancient) world, Australia. On this side of the family, there’s talk of a great-great-grandmother belonging to a clan from along the Murray River where the river red gums (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) grow.

My French ancestry is mysterious. Rumours of gambler debts and titles won and lost. Perhaps a dropped apostrophe when an apostrophised name was more trouble than it was worth. My French grandfather would mistakenly call me Sophie. He drank chicory from a big bowl in the morning and fixed his washing machine with chewing gum. He hoarded old calendars and kept antique clocks. Stories about him were a little dark. He owned a toyshop in Paris, but really just wanted to sit under a tree and draw, not deal with business and balance sheets. Eventually, he moved to a coastal town down south where he ate tripe each week at the social club.

My Australian grandparents were kind. When they came to visit, they’d brush my hair in front of the living room fire. My grandpa would sing old love songs to my grandma, she’d call him a silly old man, he’d pour her a gin. Before she married (late for the time, in her thirties) and was expected to leave work and have children, my grandma was a teacher. She was rebellious, tearing around town in a black Morris Minor. My grandpa was hardworking and intelligent; he eclipsed her by the simple virtue of being a man.

DESPITE THE LANGUAGE we use to speak of trees (settled, having roots, firmly planted), they have a legacy of travel and impermanence, of seeking a place in which to survive, thrive and reproduce. Tree species migrate over generations of individual trees finding new soils in which to grow. Forests’ boundaries are fluid; ebbing and flowing like the tide, not fixed like lines on a map.

The most recent tree migration was around 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age. As the ice sheets melted and the Earth warmed, trees reclaimed the soils that they were previously frozen out of.

Over the past century, global temperatures and weather patterns have changed faster than they have in millennia. In the north-east of the United States, temperatures have risen 0.8 degrees centigrade in the last three decades. In the next fifty years, it’s predicted that the continental climate of New York state will likely be closer to that of the subtropical climate of the state of Virginia.

For some tree species, life will go on as usual. For others, these temperature changes will facilitate travel by providing new places in which they can grow. The rest will struggle, and some species will ultimately disappear. Scientific projections estimate that certain species will need to move ten times faster than they currently do in order to keep up … and that thirty-nine per cent of plant species might not make it. Time is the proverbial washing machine, burdening these trees’ getaway to more habitable places. Climatic and ecological changes are no longer occurring on a slow and iterative geological or vegetal schedule – it’s a fast-paced human one. We’ve managed to speed up time, condensing the next few millennia into just a few decades.

Should we be helping trees migrate faster to enable their survival? For me, the beauty of a place often comes from the species endemic to that area. That’s what makes a place meaningful, what sets it apart from a landscape hundreds of kilometres away. And so, the idea of moving a tree species to a place to which it is not endemic feels wrong. Yet, the wrongness of moving trees to a new habitat feels much less wrong than letting a species die altogether, particularly as this is a problem of our own making. If we think about it in tree time rather than human time, the move is inevitable, even if premature. For those of us optimistic about humanity’s cultural evolution, I think the answer must be yes – we should help trees move. If we feel compelled to help humans relocate to escape violence and persecution, is it only a matter of time before we extend this ethical responsibility to trees and other living species in response to the threats of climate change?

The pace of time is relative – climate change is galloping along at breakneck speed but cultural change is crawling, burdened by old views of the unequivocal need for profit, development and ‘progress’ even if it means casting beings aside in the process. Meanwhile, trees plod along at their slow, exultant pace; humanity’s entire existence just a judder on Earth’s chronology.

Redwood forests in California. Photo: Daniel Shipp

LET’S RACE AHEAD A LITTLE. We decide to help trees relocate. One way to do this is assisted migration. There are a few options available, all of which aim to move trees to places in which they are likely to survive at projected temperatures twenty to fifty years from now. Assisted species migration transplants species from the places in which they naturally occur to places where they don’t. Assisted range expansion moves trees a little outside of where they naturally occur. And assisted population migration moves species to places where members of the same species already live. The practice of assisted migration is understandably controversial, given the past messes we’ve made of moving species and our well-intentioned but disastrous ecosystem manipulations aimed at solving one problem but creating many others.

The first move of this kind seems to have been in the early 2000s; a relocation by a self-organised group of conservationists called the Torreya Guardians. The group moved the endangered Florida torreya tree (Torreya taxifolia) from its native range in Florida and Georgia to states further north. It’s hard to know what the actual impacts of the move have been – citizen science data is not as robust as a peer-reviewed longitudinal study. Anecdotally, in places such as North Carolina, the torreya trees are doing well; in New Hampshire, not so much. The trees’ effects on their new home ecosystem are not well known. The example of the torreya tree foregrounds another question – who should we save? And for what reasons?

I recently moved to the south-east coast of Australia. It’s only been a few weeks, but already the beauty of the spotted gum (Corymbia maculata) has buried its way into my blood. The tree is painted in different tones, and new shades are revealed at each change of light – olive and sap, moss and sea, silver and ash, stone and taupe. When the sun approaches the horizon, the sky’s dusty pinks and oranges mix with these greys and greens and create a new palette. The colours are distinct but somehow mingled. Separate but together. Ordinary but sacred. Sometimes, when the sun has set and taken all the colours with it, the wind blows through the leaves and rustles the spent gumnuts like tiny playful maracas. To me, the spotted gum is a perfect being. One I would save. But should such decisions be driven entirely by emotion?

Recently, the United States National Park Service has begun to consider assisted tree migration to help the iconic Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia) and the giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum). But why should certain species (races, sexes) be allowed to eclipse others? As we’ve seen with vulnerable animals, the cute and charismatic get special attention, while the (subjectively) ugly and spiky depart relatively unnoticed. On the other side of the coin, the Canadian Government’s website, devoid of emotion, makes its industrial alliance clear and states that ‘assisted migration is more feasible for major commercial tree species than for rare species of conservation concern’. These decisions should be made on the advice of people who study and listen to these complex and interrelated ecosystems – conservationists, Indigenous knowledge-holders, botanists and biologists … But I feel that, as we’ve seen with the proposed solutions in relation to climate change, we’re in for a little jostling on that front too. It comforts me to think that from simple soft little algal bodies rubbing up against each other evolved the plants we have come to know today. These trees may not be the trees that occupy Earth when we are gone, when time has slowed down to its rightful pace. Nature will continue to evolve when given time, no matter the hardships; finding inventive ways to deal with the heat and the fires, the rains and the plastic. In the end, we will all become soil. We’ll be part of the land that fed us, and we will finally feed it. What grows in those soils thousands of years from now may be beyond our human comprehension, but it won’t be beyond vegetal ingenuity.

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