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Listening to Trees

by A.K. Hellum

Nostalgic books lamenting the past and the dwindling of our flora and fauna have been thick on the ground recently, and many have been memorable. (Tim Bowling’s The Lost Coast and Terry Glavin’s Waiting for the Macaws come to mind.) New books on these subjects need to provide readers with additional insights and information. Listening to Trees just doesn’t go far enough.
    The author of A Painter’s Year in the Forests of Bhutan, Hellum trained in forestry as a youth in Norway, in the days of hand logging, horses, and coffee over the fire. It’s a time he fondly remembers, and he enthuses over those special moments when he felt close to the forests and listened to the trees he was felling. (It’s difficult to overlook the irony.)
    After completing his forestry degree at the University of British Columbia, the author worked in the field for half a century and around the world, from the dwindling forests of northeast China, where even peat moss was decimated, to Guyana, Thailand, the Philippines, and Bhutan. Not surprisingly, these travels are the most interesting chapters, as Hellum gets down to earth with specifics like why exotics are planted and why seed identification is problematic.
    In these days of environmental awareness, Hellum’s arguments often seem too obvious and theoretical. He writes that what we need is good forest management and government control of logging activities so that profits take a back seat to long-term objectives that benefit the majority. Don’t we already know this?
    Indeed, the text seems to be pitched at a very young readership. Perhaps in trying to avoid the pitfalls of pedantic and esoteric writing, the author has left out the earthy details we need. Hellum is a professor emeritus in the Department of Renewable Resources at the University of Alberta, so it’s surprising he hasn’t drawn more on the university’s resources. This reminder of the fragility of our remaining forests is a reedy call to action.