Author Interview: Dan Mathews

Hello readers!

We are just as bummed as you are about all of our author events being cancelled–we know why it was necessary, but it’s okay to be accepting of the necessity and devastated at the cancellations at the same time. We were really looking forward to these events, dangit!

We know that online interviews can’t quite make up for an in-store event, but we’re hoping that they’ll help tide you over until we can reschedule for when we reopen!

Daniel Mathews was meant to come to Fort Collins as part of the CSU Author Series later in April. Instead, we asked him some questions about his book, Trees in Trouble, and his writing process! Here’s the interview:

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In Trees in Trouble you talk about how humans have to accept responsibility for their part in the crisis we find ourselves facing (the climate one, not the COVID one…). Is there a piece of advice you would give to the public at large, something they could do to help lessen their impact on the nation’s forests?

See and understand that there is both beneficial fire and forest-terminating fire. (I.e., where no forest is likely to come back.) Support more “good fire” because that’s our only practical option to minimize bad fire. Beyond that (though it isn’t what this book spends its time on) push to transform the economy to stop ratcheting up the greenhouse gases.

 There are a fair number of books about forest fire. What do you hope it is that Trees in Trouble does differently than these other books?

Looking at forest fire by itself can be misleading, because it misses the big picture. I wanted to tell about today’s massive, interlocking complex of threats to western pine forests. A warming climate makes trees drier and more vulnerable to both fire and bark beetles (which have killed more trees recently than fires have). Fires and bark beetles exert both positive and negative feedback on each other. Bark beetles and blister rust interact with each other in the ways they kill white pines. Additional agents include invasive plants, nitrogen deposition, migration of genetic strains, and so on. It’s all interconnected.

You talk to many different experts in the forestry field in this book. What were some new and surprising things you learned about while researching this book? Was there a particular fact that really stuck with you?

The most disturbing fact was that the pattern of forests failing to regenerate after a fire is widespread. It’s not a majority of fires, not by a long shot, but the pattern has shown up in most states. Even planted seedlings fail on these sites. Big portions of Colorado’s biggest burn of the last century, the Hayman fire, do not look promising.

There was at least one happy surprise. I had assumed that the Port Orford cedar, a majestic giant that bears the most gloriously perfumed wood of all species, was pretty much doomed by an incurable exotic pathogen. It turns out that a lot of the stands that survive today may survive indefinitely (if climate allows) because they’re at higher elevations and the pathogen mostly travels in water, thus downhill. On top of that, seedlings with strong resistance to the pathogen are already available and being planted. It took only a few years for geneticist Richard Sniezko, one of my book’s characters, to breed them. His work on white pine blister rust will take a lot longer.

The book talks a lot about the compounding effects of climate change. Were there any cascading effects or connections that you discovered that surprised you?

I was surprised about something called microclimate buffering. Dense forests create a microclimate underneath them which is much cooler on hot summer days than any nearby clearing. That’s only partly because of shade versus sunlight reaching the ground. The other part is that solar heat hitting the tree canopy is converted into transpiration of water (drawn out of the soil by the trees and transpired out through their leaves or needles). The transpiration refrigerates the forest understory. It can only do that as long as the roots have access to ample water. Increasingly, in the future, they won’t—even if annual precipitation stays the same or increases. With warming, more of the precip will be lost to direct evaporation, and more of the winter precip will fall as rain rather than snow, causing it to run off during winter and spring rather than melting later and supplying water in the summer.

In conclusion, the microclimate buffering will get weaker, the forest understory will get warmer by even more degrees than the climatic warming, and that will change which plants, and how many of them, can grow there. This will happen in many forests we think of as moist, deep, dark forests.

Did you have a favorite forest or area that you visited while writing this book?

As a Northwesterner, I’m used to appreciating forests and their trees for being humongous, moist, mossy, shady, verdant, and vertical. I still adore that kind of forest, but my great revelation while researching this book is that there’s nothing more gorgeous than the diametrically opposite style of tree—the twisted, contorted, rock-hard, bone-dry, colorful forms of 3-000-year-old Great Basin bristlecone pines under the radiant desert sky. And they’ve been practicing social distancing since long before baby Jesus.

You spent several years in a cabin, writing by kerosene lamp. What is your favorite–or least favorite–thing about having no electricity? Is writing that way harder or easier?

I loved that cabin life. Almost everything about it. The smell of bitter cherry firewood drying. I had propane and gravity-flow spring water, so I had hot showers (even during the cold spells when ice encased the shower stall). A propane fridge is almost perfectly silent, and works fine. I had battery-powered music. I had gales in the treetops that roared like pounding surf for days and nights on end. I had a view that never quit bringing a lump to my throat. You even got the great view from the outhouse seat.
Writing got more efficient later, when computers gave free rein to my weakness for polishing prose ad nauseam, without having to retype the whole thing. And then the internet came along to make research go much faster. But my cabin years were way back, before there were personal computers; all I had to forgo was electric typing, so I wasn’t missing much.

Is there a moment in your past that you can pinpoint as the moment you decided you wanted to become a writer?

Ever since high school I could see writing was my strongest gift. I have no gift whatsover for plots or characters, so it was bound to be non-fiction or poetry. I’m gaga over plants, fungi, animals, and landforms, so they are my subject. I love learning the details of how things work; so… here I am.

In my twenties there was a day, after I’d been investigating how to start an ice cream shop, when I realized I didn’t want to be an employer. That night, a literal unexpected knock on the door brought a natural history book suggestion, which put me back on track. Not a railroad track, a track through the forest.

What author, alive or dead, would you most want to have dinner with?

Young dude named Meriwether. He got to see it all with fresh eyes. I could barter him a few juicy updates in exchange for his take from 1805.

Thank you so much, Dan! We are excited to meet you in person once we’re open and allowed to have events again!


You can order Trees in Trouble on our website, or call the store between 10 and 2 to have us ship it to you!

Happy reading!



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