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Beresford-Kroeger and O'Hara / Trees and Trails

To Speak for the Trees - My Life’s Journey from Ancient Celtic Wisdom to a Healing Vision of the Forest by Diana Beresford-Kroeger (2019 - hardback, 295 pp, Random House Canada) 

A Trail Called Home - True Stories from the Golden Horseshoe by Paul O'Hara (2019 - hardback, 231 pp, Dundurn)

Trees can live longer than we do and so they connect us, to our past and to our future. They reach high into the sky and deep into the ground, linking us to the world above where fascinating winged creatures live, and below, to the dark world where billions of organisms toil unseen to sustain the soils that support life.

The indigenous people who came before us on this land revered the majesty of an ancient tree. Treaties and other important matters would be discussed in the shade of a “council” oak, elm, beech or other species of giant that had a life that spanned many human generations.

Those who came later saw trees differently.

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way,” wrote the poet, engraver and painter William Blake, replying to a critic (of whom he had many) in 1799. “Some see nature as ridicule and deformity... and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.”

Is the tide turning against those who only see a “green thing that stands in the way?”

Diana Beresford-Kroeger thinks so. “Yes, we are closer than ever to climate catastrophe,” she writes in her latest book, To Speak for the Trees. “Yes, plenty of people on the planet are indifferent or even defiant in the face of that fact - and often paid to be defiant by vested interests.

“But we are also lucky enough to live in a time when more people than ever care deeply about the natural world, understand that the forest is an ancient, sacred place, and want to do something to stop our suicidal pursuit of profit and ‘progress’.”

Paul O’Hara, writing from a similar perspective in A Trail Called Home, says that to develop that understanding, we need to reconnect with the land.

“Fortunately, our bodies, brains and spirits are designed to observe the natural world. We’re hardwired to experience nature.”

Connection starts with a name, O’Hara says. “A name is the first step to understanding, the first step to building a friendship. We must introduce ourselves and get to know the original trees on our streets.”

And then he lists them, a long list, from beech to plum, from sassafras to tamarack… “When you start putting names to trees, you begin to see patterns, and with those patterns comes understanding, and with understanding comes friendship, and with friendship comes respect and with respect comes the possibility of a deeper connection, perhaps even love.”

O’Hara and Beresford-Kroeger both reach back into their childhood in candid explorations of the journey that made them passionate champions of trees. Both evoke the spirituality of earlier peoples to explain their perspective.

As an orphaned child, Beresford-Kroeger was chosen by the elders in the Lisheens Valley on the southwest coast of her native Ireland to learn the Celtic lore that had been passed down through generations. When she embarked on an academic career as a scientist she found that the chemical properties of a plant often supported the medicinal properties ascribed to it in traditional knowledge. When she came to Canada in 1969, she felt that this was the “magical continent” her training in two kinds of knowledge had prepared her for.

“The vastness of the place is extraordinary, its wilderness on a scale nearly incomprehensible by European standards, and the indigenous peoples essentially kept it intact. I feel a huge personal debt to them for that stewardship… It was immediately evident to me that the botanical system here is phenomenal, unlike anything I’d previously experienced.”

Bereford-Kroeger’s boundless energy took her in many directions to lead and support efforts to preserve forests in our magical continent. One was to identify and protect the ‘mother trees,’ the giant leaders in these forest communities, and to save and propagate their seed. “The genetic information of a mother tree is perhaps the most important living library there is.”

O’Hara travels deep along an ancient trail that starts at the Niagara River and carries around the lake past the Rice Lake Carrying Place. A botanist and landscape designer, he observes and names and lists the plants along the way. I love this book for the names - the detailed witness it bears to the complexity of nature’s web. It is a modern notion that planting 1,000 trees can compensate for the loss of a forest of 1,000 trees, forgetting that every species supports and is supported by a network of other species.

He grew up in Forest Hill and starts with the wonderful intimacy with nature that was once a feature of a well-lived childhood. “Almost every adult who grew up in the Golden Horseshoe can describe a similar tale of losing their childhood playground as suburban, retail and industrial development rolled out across the fields.”

Like Beresford-Kroeger, O’Hara loves trees. And he has discovered something special about some trees, crooked and leaning trees that any forester would mark up for immediate removal. But these are indigenous trail marker trees - and they have a message: here was the path people travelled and here, perhaps, is where to turn to avoid an obstacle or find fresh water.

This is how marker trees were made: “A sapling was bent over a metre or so above ground level and its leader was tied down with rawhide or grapevine, or secured with heavy rocks. The lateral branch pointing up was retained while the rest was removed. Over time the tree settled into the bend, the rawhide was removed or withered away, and a ‘nose’ was often left to point the way.”

There’s a photo gallery of the trees O’Hara finds compelling - the Sixteen Mile Sugar Maple, the Rice Lake Marker, the Norfolk Beech Marker and more…

So many stories the trees can tell us.