Sunday, 1 August 2021

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.



Sunday, 18 July 2021

Reaching Out




Recently, I’ve had an increasing number of emails and texts that invite me to “reach out” if I would like more information. Businesses and other organizations claim to be reaching out and inviting others to reach out in return. I have an image of a great many arms that are wanting things.

Most dictionaries define “reaching out” as referring to an effort to help someone or to ask for help. It's an expression that was often used by churches or charitable organizations to encourage us to assist those in need. Now it just means making contact with someone. It simply means texting, phoning, emailing for whatever reason.

I guess that’s OK. Language changes, becomes inflated or dumbed down. Words disappear. There is, now, in fact, an emoji with an expressionless face and an extended, grasping hand that apparently means “reaching out.”

I remember feeling moved when someone asked me to reach out to a family in need. And feeling grateful when someone I didn’t know actually reached out to me because I was having a hard time. Just now a friend texted and invited me to visit her at her farm. She didn’t use the expression “reaching out,” she just did it. I felt it.

Words come and go. People no longer call, ask, request, inquire, implore, entreat, beg, write, or otherwise contact. They reach out. The supermarket, my insurance company, the car salesman, and a great many other people keep reaching out to me. And they invite me to reach out to them.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with this. But the image of so many hands and arms reaching out with no meaningful purpose concerns me.  

I hope we aren't losing the sense of what "reaching out" used to mean.

Sunday, 4 July 2021

Where to start?


We’ve gone straight from pandemic to apocalypse,” my niece says.

“When will the locusts arrive?” asks my daughter.

It’s not a joke. Last year the locusts swarmed in record numbers in parts of Africa and South Asia, destroying huge hectares of pasture land and causing increased food shortages in countries already challenged by Covid-19. People in those countries used to eat locusts which are high in protein and other nutrients but recently, despite these people desperately needing access to food, governments have advised them not to eat the locusts because the chemicals in the insecticides that are used to control the insects make them toxic.

These days, every crisis seems to occur within or alongside other crises. I live in a pretty comfortable part of the world, one that some people refer to as Lotus Land. But now, aside from the pandemic and the record-breaking heat from the “heat dome” which created temperatures 15 to 20 years above normal, we’re having to face the fact that where we live is far from idyllic for a great many people for many reasons.

What remains at the forefront of my thinking is the shameful treatment of the indigenous people on whose lands we live. But so much needs to be acknowledged and addressed, and it feels difficult within the current environment of concurrent crises. I can’t get my head around it.

So much all at once. Covid. Heat waves. Forest fires. The town of Lytton destroyed by fires. Statues torn down. Totem poles set alight alongside racist graffiti. An ocean on fire from pipeline damage in the Gulf of Mexico. Anti-Asian racism. Islamaphobic attacks. The Delta variant. The anti-vaxxers. Homelessness. Poverty.Anger. Hatred. Cynicism. Despair. 

Where does it end?

More important, where can we start to deal with all this? I was encouraged as I viewed the first of the 8-session webinar series called Bringing Our Children Home:  These webinars are well worth watching and the next one is on Tuesday, July 6th. Candy Palmater, host of the Candy Show, moderates the discussions with a panel of experts including Reconciliation Canada Ambassador Chief Dr. Robert Joseph, and CEO Karen Joseph and others..

I found the wisdom, stories and thoughtful approaches of the speakers to be grounding and inspiring. For me, they offered a place from which to start.

Sunday, 20 June 2021



Lately there has been so much disturbing news, here and afar, that sometimes I find it  hard to know what to say about anything. Instead I'm trying to focus on happy memories and the small pleasures that are close at hand. Yesterday. I drove out to Living Soils Farm in Yellow Point and, as I drove along Quennell Road, I was cheered to see the masses of daisies and buttercups at the edges of the road and the peaceful views of birds on the lake. Further along I admired the cathedral-like canopy of cedars, maples and pine trees that form an arch over the road. Our planet is in bad shape for many reasons, but there is still beauty all around us.

As I drove home, now bearing bags of fresh peas, strawberries, salad greens and a very handsome cauliflower, I admired the light over the lake and was reminded of a message my dear friend Marilyn sent recently which included a poem written by Polish writer Adan Zagajewski, who died earlier this year:

                  Try to Praise the Mutilated World

Remember June's long days,

and wild strawberries, drops of rosé wine.

The nettles that methodically overgrow

the abandoned homesteads of exiles.

You must praise the mutilated world.

You watched the stylish yachts and ships;

one of them had a long trip ahead of it,

while salty oblivion awaited others.

You've seen the refugees going nowhere,

you've heard the executioners sing joyfully.

You should praise the mutilated world.

Remember the moments when we were together

in a white room and the curtain fluttered.

Return in thought to the concert where music flared.

You gathered acorns in the park in autumn

and leaves eddied over the earth's scars.

Praise the mutilated world

and the gray feather a thrush lost,

and the gentle light that strays and vanishes

and returns.

                     Translated by Clare Cavanaugh. 

Nature is healing, and a return to memories can often offer joy.. Despite the troubling news, there is yet so much to praise.

Sunday, 6 June 2021



Recently I heard Chief Casimir‘s comment, referring to the deaths of children at the Kamloops residential school, “We had a knowing in our community that we were able to verify. To our knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths.”

I think there’s also been “a knowing” in the non-indigenous community. An uncomfortable and unacknowledged knowing. But now that we have seen that knowing reflected in cold, hard numbers – 215! – we must all face the painful truth.

It’s well worth listening to the words of the Honorable Murray Sinclair, Former senator who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission:

Clearly, there is more truth to be told and heard.

There are two words in the tile of the  TRC: Truth and Reconciliation. Without truth, there can be no reconciliation. Both are crucial and long overdue.

Sunday, 23 May 2021

In Praise of the Dandelion

As children, many of us liked nothing better than having a nap on a bank of grass, surrounded by dandelions, daisies, buttercups, butterflies and bees. That was back in the day when your home was less of a showcase than a place to be enjoyed, with picnics on the grass in the summer and with the backyard frozen over to become a skating rink in the winter.

In the 16th century, lawns were first cultivated around castles in France and England, a status symbol for the very rich. In England, in the 17th century, wealthy landowners proudly maintained closely shorn grass, though many of them used sheep rather than human labour to keep the grass short. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the great houses of Britain maintained large well-manicured lawns, usually with the help of hired labour. By the middle of the 20th century grass lawns became the standard for suburban homes. Since that time, for many people, pride of ownership has required that a lawn be green, weed-free, and manicured. As a result, in North America, grass lawns are major consumers of water, pesticides, and a good deal of weekend labour by the homeowner.

On Twitter recently. there were a few comments from a people complaining that there appeared to be more and more dandelions this year, implying that people were being slovenly in failing to remove them and were making the neighbourhood appear neglected.  Almost immediately there were hundreds of responses noting the importance of dandelions for bees and other pollinators as well as noting the health benefits they offer humans.

Many people suggested that the increased presence of dandelions may be a result of environmental organization asking us to stow away our lawnmowers for the month of May in order to allow food sources to bloom and to provide food supplies for insects such as bees, butterflies and ants. In a recent article about “No Mow May,” Matthew Braun, manager of conservation, science and planning with the Nature Conservancy of Canada, noted that, “if we are “looking for ways to contribute to conservation and green ideas and biodiversity in our own backyards," this is one small thing that could make a big difference:

There’s nothing wrong with dandelions. These sprightly flowers have been used as medicines for centuries in various cultures. Some health practitioners claim that dandelions may offer benefits to humans such as providing anti-oxidants, decreasing swelling, regulating blood sugar and boosting the immune system:  

Many people have also used dandelions to make a delicious dessert wine which has a beautiful golden colour and a flavour that has been compared to mead.

If we don't think of them as weeds and nuisances, surely we will welcome dandelions as an attractive and beneficial addition to a field of grass or a front lawn.

We might even greet them eagerly as Walt Whitman did (Leaves of Grass)

Simple and fresh and fair from winter's close emerging,
As if no artifice of fashion, business, politics, had ever been,
Forth from its sunny nook of shelter'd grass—innocent, golden, calm as the dawn,
The spring's first dandelion shows its trustful face.


Sunday, 9 May 2021



In the beginning there was soil, a splash of seawater and a sliver of stardust. Or something like that. Certainly in the beginning, whether you’re reading Genesis, or Greek myths about Prometheus, or Mesopotamian creation myths, there will be some reference to humans being formed from clay. Then life was breathed into them and from then on it was dust to dust, ashes to ashes. Whatever words you use, whatever stories you tell, it’s clear that soil is key to human life.

And yet, many of us haven't paid enough attention to the soil. The word itself can have a negative association. To “sully" or "soil ourselves” can refer to our reputation being tainted, or worse, to losing control over one’s bowels. 

Partridge’s etymological dictionary connects the word first with the Latin solum, the lower part or base of anything, e.g. the bed of the sea, a floor, and the ground itself, and also the Latin sul and the Old French soillier which gives words like stain, bemire and sully. Both those meanings remain with us so that, although we admire the fruits of the earth, we urge children not to get dirty.

Until recently, most of us haven’t paid enough attention to the importance of soil. Just as we look at the stars but fail to see the sky, we look at the ground and see flowers and plants but not the soil. But that’s changing. Many scientists are now writing about the importance of soil, pointing out that life above the ground depends upon the soil and that no plants would grow and no people could live without soil organisms.

Here in B.C., we are learning a lot from internationally renowned UBC scientist Suzanne Simard who, in her new book, Mother Tree, tells us about the understory of the forest, how underground networks of trees and fungi form partnership called mycorrhizas through which they exchange water and various nutrients for carbon-rich sugars. Simard suggests that mycorrhizal communication involves “not just resource transfers, but things like defense signaling and kin recognition.” What we may have thought of as the dirt under our feet turns out to be precious soil that is teeming with life, rich with resources, and full of information.

Leonard Da Vinci always knew that soil was important and he regretted his lack knowledge about it: “We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot.” 

Mahatma Gandhi emphasized how important it was for people to pay attention to the soil: “To forget how to dig the earth and to tend the soil is to forget ourselves.” 

Thankfully, it turns out that there is much exciting work on soil regeneration currently happening around the world and here in Canada:

I’m writing this post on Mother’s Day, and so I’m sending best wishes to all of the mothers I know and gratitude to all the mothers who brought us here. I’m feeling thankful for Mother Earth – for her soul and her soil. It’s not too late for us to learn from her teachings.


Note: There have been some changes to my blog which sometimes means that the links don’t work. If they aren’t connecting you to the reference, you may have to copy the link and paste it into your browser. Apologies – I’m trying to get this fixed.