Knowing Trees

For the last several weeks, forest fires have raged around our province: people have been evacuated, lost their homes, and endured high levels of smoke. We watch the news and worry about the environment, the people, the animals and, more than ever before, the trees themselves.

Professor Suzanne Simard’s recent book Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest has many of us thinking differently about trees. For over 30 years, Dr. Simard has researched tree connections and has written about the communication between trees and what we have to learn from them. We are realizing that trees are sentient and have relationships. They talk to each other. From this research, we’re beginning to see that we are all connected, something which Indigenous people have known for centuries.

When I was about eight years old, my father, on returning home from a business trip to Ottawa, brought me a little book titled The Children’s Book of Trees, written by Leonard L. Knott and published in 1949 by the Canadian Forestry Association. My father was a kind man who loved his family and the outdoors, and he knew I’d be pleased with a little book with pictures of cheerful trees smiling at happy children.  The book contained a guide to the various trees that live in Canadian Forests and it urged children to learn their names so that they could recognize an individual tree “and be able to say, “Hello, Mr. Spruce’ or ‘How do you do, Mrs. Maple.’”

How different our country might have been if the colonizers who first came to Canada approached the indigenous people whose land it was in a similarly respectful way, maybe even asking for permission to enter the country, as visiting Indigenous people do when entering onto another nation’s territory. The settlers might have asked questions about the plants, animals and trees that they were encountering for the first time.

Instead, according to The Children’s Book of Trees, the white men assumed that the Indigenous Peoples had nothing to teach them: “The Indian was as simple and as primitive as the trees themselves.” The book states that “the Indians knew very little about wood and discovered only a few of its many mysteries,” and celebrates the fact that, “unlike the Indians,” the white man made “great use” of the trees and “chopped down the best of them” to make logs for their cabins and masts for their navies. I wonder how many of these white men stopped to ask questions and really learn from the people who had lived on the land for thousands of years.

My friend Dr. Nancy Turner is a distinguished professor and world-renowned ethnobotanist who refers to herself as an ethnoecologist, reflecting the awareness that we are all embedded in the complex world and the broader context of the environment. She has spent decades learning from many Indigenous teachers who, with kindness and patience, showed her ways of being and looking at plants and nature.

Dr. Turner has authored, co-authored and edited over 30 books, many in collaboration with her Indigenous teachers and colleagues, about the traditional knowledge systems and traditional land and resource management systems of First Nations peoples, returning royalties that come with some publications to help support Indigenous students and community programs. Her books illustrate how Indigenous Peoples of our region cultivated, managed, used and cared for the trees and other plants, including estuarine root gardens, berry gardens, forests and marine habitats, throughout our region. Contrary to knowing “very little about wood,” they were the experts, says Dr. Turner.

We newcomers have always had much to learn from Indigenous Peoples, but it’s only recently that we’ve started to do so. Thankfully, although the early white settlers in this country may not have recognized the wisdom of the people who had lived so long on this land, things are changing. We’re beginning to look, listen, respect and pay attention to new ideas and ancient wisdom. We’re starting to replace our assumptions with curiosity.

We’re learning that trees have much to teach us. As Herman Hesse said in a much-quoted essay, Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth.




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