Ben Rawlence is an award-winning writer, activist, and former political speech writer. His first two books were about the human consquences of environmental castrophe in Africa: Radio Congo: Signals of Hope from Africa’s Deadliest War, the story of the people living in the wreckage of Eastern Congo’s resource wars, and City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp, a book about people fleeing famine and climate-driven war in the Horn of Africa.
His latest book The Treeline: The Last Forest and the Future of Life on Earth takes the reader to the boreal forests of Scotland, Norway, Sweden, Siberia, Alaska, and Greenland. At the treeline, Rawlence writes about the frightening pace of climate change and documents both the lives of people interacting directly with—sometimes depending on—trees, and the complex relationships linking trees to life all over our planet. It is a fantastic book and I recommend it very highly. In fact, I think it is one of the most essential books I have read in a long, long time.
I interviewed Ben Rawlence via a collaborative Google Document in February 2022.
Your first book, Radio Congo: Signals of Hope from Africa’s Deadliest War, is about Manono in Tanganyika Province, Democratic Republic of the Congo. What led you to write that book? Did you always plan to become a writer?
I had no plans to become a ‘writer’.What I did have was a sense that I had a chance to tell a unique story about the war in Congo given my previous studies in learning to speak Swahili. I was curious to know more about the human side of the conflict and I thought other people might be too. I kept notes and tried to sell a few stories to media outlets but it was only once I got to the end of the journey in Nairobi and met the incredible journalist Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Salopek who said ‘you’ve got a book there’.
When I heard of City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp, it went straight onto my wishlist. You spent four years living with the people of Dadaab, a refugee camp in Kenya. How did writing that book change you?
It may sound strange but that book was cathartic. It was incredibly frustrating to be writing human rights reports that few people read and banging on doors of governments and the UN and seeing little movement or change in circumstances for the people on the ground. But writing through the eyes of residents of the refugee camp and bringing the suffering to a global audience was rewarding and meaningful. Suddenly I was being invited to address large audiences and to write for The New York Times. Whether it moved the needle more or less in galvanising real action on conditions in the camps I’m not sure, but it certainly spread empathy, connection and understanding more than the legal reports I had been writing and that felt good.
The connection between The Treeline and your previous books is perhaps the idea that we can build better futures, more just and equitable futures, if we take the time to look closely at very complicated systems. What do you feel is the throughline to your work as a speechwriter, an activist, and a writer?
If there is a throughline it is that life is complicated, doing the right thing is not always easy or clear and that we must have compassion, humility and patience if we are serious about trying to make things better. The political work was invaluable in learning that real change is complex, vested interests and entrenched positions are everywhere, and there is nearly always a deeper reason why what seems obviously right to you is not obvious to others. All art aims at representing something in order to get at understanding; to connect with and move others. And the measure of great art is to show what F. Scott Fitzgerald called ‘The Whole Equation’ in all its messy complexity and I think that’s the same for fiction and non-fiction.
Was there a specific moment when you knew you needed to write The Treeline? Was it an easy book to pitch to publishers?
As soon as I found out that the trees had been moving north since World War Two already I knew this was a book that had to be written, by somebody. I had young kids and no stable job and I knew it would be an expensive book to research so I held off for a little while but as soon as I started to write the proposal, it pretty much wrote itself from then on; and of course publishers can tell when that happens.
Your story begins in Llanelieu, a small village in Wales, near the Brecon Beacons. How has living in that part of the world shaped your relationship with nature?
There are magnificent trees in some forgotten corners but the thing about Wales and the UK in general is that it is so depleted of nature. It has some of the worst ecological integrity on the planet. So, mostly I am looking out at what is often trumpeted as beautiful countryside—and some of it is—and I see a tragic wasteland that should be, could be, humming with life. To stand in agricultural land in most of the Northern hemisphere is often to stand in a desert stripped and bleached of its insects and soil microbes by chemicals. So, living here has had a profound impact on my perspective and my empathy for the living world, but out of a place of loss and grief.
Which writers do you admire most for their ability to synthesise eloquently in prose the complexities of the world?
On the natural world, Rachel Carson is peerless in my view. On human systems, you can’t find much better than Karl Marx!
At the end of The Treeline you describe seeing woodland destroyed in Cwm Rhyd Ellyw, a valley near your home. You write about how your daughters were most upset out of concern for the living things that called those woods their home. How important is it for young people to grow up not only with knowledge of nature, but compassion for it in all its forms? Are there any films or novels or poems that you feel do a particularly good job of showing the totality of the Earth to children? (My family’s favourites, at the moment, are Pom Poko and My Neighbor Totoro)
What has struck me as a parent is how innate that compassion is. I have not actively taught my children anything about respecting nature. I have told them names and processes and relationships. I have been astonished at the way they see the sacredness and inviolability of a fly or a spider, their spontaneous tears at a tree being cut down. I think the challenge for parents is to keep that flame alive, to take our moral lead from the children in fact. It is us who have forgotten, who need educating. Totoro is a favourite of ours! And the stories of Dick King Smith.
Did the The Treeline grow or change in focus as you wrote it?
The scope and focus was clear from the outset, my job in writing it was a bit like colouring in a line drawing that was already there. Writing it was also an education in the scientific detail of earth systems. I ended the book more humbled, more frightened and more motivated.
You talk about stewardship in The Treeline, and at many moments there is a clash between what individual humans, or corporations want, and what natural systems need if they are to survive into the future. It called to mind a question Robert Macfarlane asked in an interview about Underland, –Are we being good ancestors?
What can individuals in 2022 do to become better stewards of the trees in their lives? How can we be better ancestors?
It is incredibly hard to avoid harming the natural world whilst living in a capitalist society—this is why guilt is such a common reaction to the planetary crisis. So I think compassion for ourselves is a helpful first step. I’m not saying anything goes, rather the opposite. Once you forgive yourself you can empower yourself to try and influence the things within reach—and that gives life meaning at a time when many people feel hopeless. To try and find the least harmful path through an ecocidal society sets you apart, it offers the opportunity for leadership and example, whether friends, family, children or colleagues. And after that, perhaps, we may reach a critical mass in enough numbers to vote for reliable politicians who are prepared to lead on this very tough issue.
The Treeline radically changed the way I think about trees in general. It has deepened my understanding and given me a new way to think about trees and woodlands. Which books, fiction or non-fiction, have radically changed the way you think about the world?
The Mushroom at the End of the World by Anna Tsing changed how I thought about capitalism, modernity and ecology. It is a truly wondrous book. Make Prayers to the Raven by Richard Nelson which features in The Treeline also exploded my sense of man’s relationship to nature. Nell Irvin Painter’s The History of White People was a revelation about the construction of race. And, right now I am reading David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything which is a radical revisioning of lazy racist myths about human progress—mind-blowing.
What do you enjoy doing when you are not writing or researching?
I swim several times a week all year round wherever I am. You can’t get any more ‘in’ nature than being in water. I love mountaineering when I get the chance. But more often than not my lust for mountains is fed by taking the kids camping, which is also great.
You tell a story in the book about swimming across to an island in Scotland that the deer could not reach. You depict very vividly how small you felt crossing the waters. It is one of my favourite sections of the book as it drives home how vast nature is and how we are but one small part of it. Were there moments writing this book when the scale of the problem felt dizzying?
Looking at tiny bubbles that resembled pearls in a frozen lake in Siberia and understanding that methane was leaking out of the ground over one fifth of the earth’s surface. That made me feel dizzy!
One of my favourite lines in the book is: ‘I thought I was paying attention, but a whole different level of noticing is required.’
Is Black Mountain College that project about using interdisciplinary approaches to help people to notice better?
Yes. The BMC degree is explicitly organised around training the senses. This is the portal through which we relate to the world. Cognition and perception are the key human functions that we must exercise and train, like athletes, if we are to retain the capacity to learn and change as the rate of climate change accelerates. Our ability to learn and adapt is the key asset humans have in surviving the future. Unleashing that ability should be the central concern of any educational programme now. At the same time, and related to this, we must pay much closer attention to how other species are responding and changing too because we will rely on them for food!
In their paper ‘Many worlds, many nature(s), one planet: indigenous knowledge in the Anthropocene’ Cristina Yumie Aoki Inoue and Paula Franco Moreira write about how for many indigenous peoples, ‘glaciers, rivers, mountains, plains as well as forests, deserts, savannas, and animals have life and spirit.’
In this sense, the relationship between humans and nature starts from another ‘baseline’, these indigenous peoples inputting ‘life and spirit to parts of the environment that Western science considers inert.’
What striking aspects of indigenous knowledge of trees, and spirituality, did you encounter while researching The Treeline?
So many! The closeness of the Anishinaabe of Poplar River to nature was inspiring. You could feel the presence of the river, the fish eagle, the thunderbirds, they became real to me too.
The illustrations in The Treeline are beautiful and they help to bring the trees to life. Were you sketching or taking photographs as you went?
Yes, I took photos but the sketches are done by a friend who lives nearby in Wales called Lizzie Harper.
What ideas do you have for future books, or future projects? Did you see things along the way that you thought deserved books all of their own?
I have about half a dozen ideas for future books that I have sat with for over a decade but there always seems to be a more pressing project on my desk at any one time!
If you were to update The Treeline ten or twenty years ago, what indications of positive change, progress, would you hope to see?
I would not expect to see any alteration in the rate of warming and the transformation in ecosystems—these are baked in as I understand it. However, I would hope that there are at least some governments or collections of nations that are decarbonising as fast as they can and implementing draconian environmental protections which set the terms of the economy rather than the other way round. And I very much hope Black Mountains College is thriving, sending out new leaders with new ways of thinking out into the world and that other universities are following suit, training people in the fundaments of ecology before all else.
If you enjoy Intermultiversal, and if you can manage it, please consider getting me a virtual coffee. Or you can support me on Patreon. Your support helps me to produce the interviews and do the research. Your support also buys me a little more time to speak to more writers from all over the planet. Thank you.