Meet the “Tree Guy”

Geohumanist Jared Farmer thinks ancient trees have figured out what it takes to survive

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Jared Farmer, Berlin, April 2019

Jared Farmer “never intended to be a tree guy.” But he says, “The more I do research, the more I’m in awe of plants, particularly trees. They figured out what works on planet Earth hundreds of millions of years ago and helped to create this world. We’re lucky enough to have joined them.”

The 2017 Andrew Carnegie fellow and professor at Stony Brook University in New York is using the history of trees as a lens for looking at longevity and the importance of long-term thinking in a time of rapid climate change. His Carnegie project, provisionally entitled Survival of the Oldest: The Past and Future of Ancient Trees, will be published by Basic Books and won him the coveted Berlin Prize from the American Academy in Berlin. The work, which will combine cultural history and the history of science, is in his description a book “about keeping it going.”

The history of trees is a lens for looking at longevity and the importance of long-term thinking in a time of rapid climate change.

 

Farmer, who coined the term geohumanist to describe himself, has long had an interest in landscapes in general and in trees in particular. His previous book, Trees in Paradise: The Botanical Conquest of California (W.W. Norton), examines how American settlers remade California’s landscape. He often walks through Green-Wood Cemetery near his Brooklyn home, where old majestic trees shade graves of luminaries such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Leonard Bernstein, and Samuel F. B. Morse. (One can see Farmer’s striking photos of some of those trees on his website.)

Before people can agree on political solutions to our current environmental crisis, Farmer says, we have to agree that “long-term thinking is important” and factor it into our political and economic programs. Trees can guide us, he says, because they “encourage a wonder about the world and time. They help us think in these longer durations in a way that animals can’t.” As evidence, he points to stories of peoples who, over centuries, have tended trees they viewed as sacred — which he describes as “acts of care and acts of devotion that are way beyond our own life.”

The changing climate may kill many of these ancient trees, leaving future generations to live in a world without any old trees. “There is a specter of loss to that,” he says, acknowledging, however, that as the climate changes, “there will be trees that will kind of figure it out and do well.”

Farmer believes that humans, too, must figure things out. “The future is going to be very, very different than today but things will survive if we want them to, if we just help our world prepare for the certainty of uncertainty and think long term.” Our goal, he says, should be to keep our world “going as long as possible because it’s beautiful and we share it with all these other amazing creatures” — including, of course, trees.