Age Of Water Podcast: Nina Reads from “The Overstory”

AoW Logo-smallWe are now living in the Age of Water. Water is the new “gold”, with individuals, corporations and countries positioning themselves around this precious resource. Water is changing everything. The Age of Water Podcast covers anything of interest from breaking environmental news to evergreen material. This also includes human interest stories, readings of eco-literature, discussion of film and other media productions of interest.

In this episode of Age of Water, Nina reads from the eco-fiction book “Overstory” by Richard Powers, an exploration of the relationship of trees and humanity…

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At the heart of Richard Powers’s The Overstory are the pivotal lives of two women, botanist Patricia Westerford and college student Olivia Vandergriff. Both will inspire a movement against the destruction of forests.

theoverstoryPatricia Westerford—whose work resembles that of Diana Beresford-Kroeger (author of The Global Forest) and UBC’s Suzanne Simard—is a shy introvert who discovers that trees communicate, learn, trade goods and services, and have intelligence. When she shares her discovery, she is ridiculed by her peers and loses her position.  But, just as with Lynn Margulis and her theory of endosymbiosis, Westerford is finally validated. She is the archetypal ‘mother tree’, the metaphoric Tachigali versicolor, who ultimately brings the tangle of narratives together through meaning. Westerford writes in her book The Secret Forest:

“There are no individuals in a forest, no separable events. The bird and the branch it sits on are a joint thing. A third or more of the food a big tree makes may go to feed other organisms. Even different kinds of trees form partnerships. Cut down a birch, and a nearby Douglas fir may suffer…Fungi mine stone to supply their trees with minerals. They hunt springtails, which they feed to their hosts. Trees, for their part, store extra sugar in their fungi’s synapses, to dole out to the sick and shaded and wounded. A forest takes care of itself, even as it builds the local climate it needs to survive…A tree is a wondrous thing that shelters, feeds, and protects all living things. It even offers shade to the axmen who destroy it.”

Olivia Vandergriff miraculously survives an electrocution to become an ecowarrior after she begins to hear the voices of the trees. She rallies others to embrace the urgency of activism in fighting the destruction of California’s redwoods and even camps in the canopy of one of the trees to deter the logging. When the ancient tree she has unsuccessfully protected is felled, the sound is “like an artillery shell hitting a cathedral.” Vandergriff weeps for this magnificent thousand-year old tree. So do I. Perhaps the real heroes of this novel are the ancient trees.

EcologyOfStoryIn his review of Overstory in The Guardian, Banjamin Markovits wrote, “ There is something exhilarating…in reading a novel whose context is wider than human life. Like Moby-DickThe Overstory leaves you with a slightly adjusted frame of reference… And I found, while reading, that some of what was happening to his characters passed into my conscience, like alcohol into the bloodstream, and left a feeling behind of grief or guilt, even after I put it down.”

I further explore the use of metaphor and other storytelling devices used by Richard Powers in his strongly symbolic novel in my writing guidebook “Ecology of Story: World as Character.”

 

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Waterwas released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

The Legacy of Trees: Purposefully Wandering Vancouver’s Stanley Park

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Winter on the sea wall (Heritage House)

“In the gorgeously colourful fall of 2017, I had a sudden thought: “I live next to Stanley Park, one of the world’s most beloved and best parks. How have I not noticed? Of course I had noticed, but I hadn’t taken that awareness inside. I barely knew the park. I have lived beside this park for twenty-five years. I first saw the crescent beach of English Bay and the storytelling totems in the park in 1961, fifty-nine years ago. Have I been asleep? Can I wake up? Is it time?

If I am going to get to know this park—this Stanley Park—and call it “my park,” I will have to wander it purposefully, path by path, plaque by plaque, monument by monument, rock by rock, tree by tree, blossom by flowering blossom, through every season, and allow its layers of history to seep into me as though it were a living, breathing being.

Actually, it is.

Legacy of Trees Nina Shoroplova

This is how Nina Shoroplova begins her book “The Legacy of Trees” by Heritage House, 2020, a book all about “Purposeful Wandering in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.”

The beautifully laid out 288-page book with colour photos is a feast for the mind and the heart. Although the book provides an excellent human and natural history of the park—from its pre-colonial existence, and logging history, to its creation and uses and description—at its root is an expression of wonder for this natural gem in the middle of a bustling city and a true love of trees.

Shoroplova approaches the forest with the heart of a poet. Her passion for nature—and trees, particularly—lights each page with joyful discovery. Shoroplova brings this passion to Stanley Park, one of Canada’s iconic parks, and one worth both visiting and knowing through many aspects from history to ecology and from forest ecosystem to legacy tree.

Each year, Stanley Park welcomes more than eight million visitors from around the world. In the summer of 2013, Travel & Leisure magazine ranked Stanley Park second among the world’s twenty-eight most beautiful city parks in the world. In 2014, TripAdvisor named Stanley Park the best park in the world. The park features 400-hectares of natural coastal temperate rainforest with 27 km of trails and scenic views of water, mountains, and truly majestic trees. The rainforest holds an old-growth forest of +400-year old Douglas-firs and some of the largest grand firs in the world. The park also features an 8.8 km seawall, totem poles and six beautiful gardens.

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Map of Stanley Park, Vancouver

Early in the book, Shoroplova describes a particular experience with a weeping beech in Shakespeare Garden with something close to reverence:

“When I first walked under its canopy of falling dark green drapery, tears came to my eyes. Somehow, the generosity of that tree, offering its shade and comfort to all who stand, walk, and drive underneath its south-facing leaves, opened my heart.” She then added, “As a friend says, ‘trees are divine beings.’”

Shoroplova shares why she feels calmed, centred, and connected in a forest, particularly in Stanley Park:

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Hemlock growing on cedar stump (Heritage House)

Maybe it’s because the change in a forest is constant yet unobservable, unobtrusive. Maybe it’s because I, as a human being, am so insignificant in size compared with the giants around me. Or because I, as a human being, have lived for such a short time compared with the ancient living beings around me. Or the green and the tree pheromones are so calming…

I used to feel this way when I skied downhill and when I breastfed my babies. I feel this way when I stand in the ocean and await the next wave and the next. I feel this way with my grandchildren. That’s what being in the forest does for us…It brings us to the present moment. That’s the gift.”

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Woman wanders among the Seven Sisters giants, 1901 (Heritage House)

There is an abiding quality about trees and a living forest that is reassuring. “Trees are supportive, yet ambitious,” writes Shoropova. They are “quiet yet communicative, flexible yet strong, adaptive yet true to type.” They connect us to a larger world in a way that is both awe-inspiring and familiar.

“Learning the histories of the legacy trees in Stanley Park deepens our knowledge of the people of Vancouver—our history, our origins, our values,” Shoroplova explains in her opening chapter. These stories also show how Vancouver is maturing and evolving alongside its park forests and gardens. “We are shaking off the colonial identity that the park exhibited for so many decades and embracing the values of reconciliation with the first inhabitants of this land, the Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh. We are also reclaiming what we can of the original nature of this land while honouring our communal history.”

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Loggers using springboards to chop down a Douglas-fir giant, Stanley Park, 1890s (Heritage House)

Shoroplova arranged her tree stories into three parts: Part 1: The Trees Were Always There—trees that were already growing on the peninsula headland that became the federal reserve and then Stanley Park; Part 2: The First Trees Are Planted—those that were planted during the colonial and imperial years of the park (up to 1960); Part 3: The Park Grows Up—the years of growing independence.

Complete with old photos and original maps, Shoroplova offers several well-described and mapped routes to learn about and appreciate the beauty of the park. Her accurate science and historical accounts are dispensed in easily-digested and understood parcels through the language of conversation. The narrative is both charming and intriguing from the sad tale of the sentinel big Douglas-fir at the entrance to Stanley Park in 1894 to the princess-poet Pauline Johnson’s naming of Lost Lagoon and stories of historic events.

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Georgia Street entrance to Stanley Park in 1894 (Heritage House)

In a particularly engaging chapter of the book (Chapter 8), Shoroplova compares humans to trees and, through some interesting observations on tree physiology and behaviour, she draws some interesting conclusions. One example is her description of a tree’s heartbeat: how trunk and branches use a very slow pulse of contraction and expansion to send water up and out to every branchlet and leaf. Or how trees essentially breathe in more oxygen during the day (during active photosynthesis) and breathe out more carbon dioxide at night (during respiration without photosynthesis). Shoroplova likens it to “one slow breath for every twenty-four hours.” Shoroplova extends this fractal idea to the “suggestion that the northern hemisphere of Earth breathes in every summer and breathes out every winter. One slow planetary breath for every twelve months.”

Shoroplova also discusses two theories that explain the phenomenon of crown shyness, only seen in deciduous trees: “One is that trees of the same species avoid both being shaded by and shading each other. They take up space that is not already filled, allowing each other space to grow and breathe and capture the sun’s rays. The opposing theory is that stormy weather breaks off branches that are very close to each other. I suspect a mixture of both theories is at work.”

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Decaying log provides nutrients and substrate for other life (Heritage House)

Shoroplova continues her comparison in describing the life and death of a tree. “The death of a tree is a very drawn-out affair, taking years and even decades, as the tree changes from being healthy to having its health impinged on in some way, to losing more of its branches … to becoming a standing snag, and finally to falling to the forest floor. The decomposition—the composting—of one tree provides the soil for the birth and regeneration of many others. When a tree falls in the forest, its fallen form—minerals, fibre, and glucose—nourishes all the other life forms in its environment…Fallen trees become nurse logs for seedling trees, especially for western hemlocks.” In Chapter 9, Shoroplova shares how the forest—like the ocean—releases negative ions that help in general feelings of wellness as these ions “neutralize all the free radicals that result from our natural body processes or that exist as environmental toxins.”

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Western red cedar with burl, remaining Seven Sister in Stanley Park (Heritage House)

In Chapter 12, Shoroplova describes the cathedral-like grandeur of the Seven Sisters grove of western redcedars and Douglas-firs as witnessed by Mohawk poet E. Pauline Johnson in 1911 and the sad narrative that followed. The fame of this stately grove of giants became their undoing—in the early 1950s the Park Board cut them down, citing safety reasons. The seven stately trees became seven sad stumps—with just one western redcedar with a large burl of the originals remaining. In 1988 the Park Board planted seven young Douglas-fir trees to replace the Seven Sisters. It will take time but eventually they may rival the Seven Sisters in majestic height. The single original sister still stands, prompting Shoroplova to “return to feel the history embedded in this single sibling.”

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E. Pauline Johnson

“But in all the world there is no cathedral whose marble or onyx columns can vie with those straight, clean, brown tree-boles that team with the sap and blood of life. There is no fresco that can rival the delicacy of lace-work they have festooned between you and the far skies. No tiles, no mosaic or inlaid marbles are as fascinating as the bare, russet, fragrant floor outspreading about their feet. They are the acme of Nature’s architecture, and in building them she has outrivalled all her erstwhile conceptions. She will never originate a more faultless design, never erect a more perfect edifice. But the divinely moulded trees and the man-made cathedral have one exquisite characteristic in common. It is the atmosphere of holiness.”—E. Pauline Johnson, Legends of Vancouver, 1911.

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Prospect Point, Stanley Park, 1891 (Heritage House)

Subsequent chapters are devoted to singular trees and charming stories throughout the various gardens and paths of Stanley Park. Shoroplova brings them all to life with an animated history that weaves through the park to the present day.

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Nina Munteanu looks up at giant Douglas-fir in Lighthouse Park, BC (photo by M. Ross)

She ends on a high note for me by invoking the wisdom of UBC ecologist and forester Suzanne Simard, who parses out four simple solutions to forest managers. They include: 1) know the local region and ecology and act accordingly; 2) stop or at least curtail most logging of the old-growth forests; 3) save the legacies, the mother trees and networks so they can pass their wisdom onto the next generation of trees; 4) help regenerate the biodiversity of forest ecosystems by planting and allowing natural regeneration. “Forests aren’t just a bunch of trees competing with each other; they’re super-cooperators,” says Simard in a TED talk in June 2016. From Simard’s message I travelled to Ira Sutherland’s TEDx talk in October 2019, about the giant trees in Vancouver, which include Stanley Park; his message was also direct: 1) this is our story; and 2) Nature proves resilient.

I give Shoroplova a top score for ending her wonderful exposé on Stanley Park trees with action. Once we have connected with a forest and with a particular tree, we have walked through a door into awareness and ultimately responsibility. The wisdom and actionable message is clear. It isn’t enough to be a bystander. Just as E. Pauline Johnson raised the flag of awareness a hundred years ago for indigenous peoples and Nature by association, we must do the same. Or it will disappear. Sutherland points out that many of the sites where he has documented giant mother trees are not protected.

Bill Stephen, superintendent of urban forestry (retired), in his foreword to the book, wisely suggests how to use the book:

Read it first in a leisurely manner at home, and internalize the park’s history since its dedication in 1888. Then tuck it into your backpack and take it with you as a companion on your park wanderings. Take it on your smartphone or tablet as an ebook. Follow the maps, and use a maps app to enter the latitude/longitude coordinates of your place of interest for the day. Re-read its tales in the presence of the very trees about which it speaks, time travel with them, and return to the city with a richer sense of the connections between the trees of this great park and its human and animal actors. Then repeat…”

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North side of Sea Wall with view of north shore and Lion’s Gate Bridge, Stanley Park, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

References:

Johnson, E. Pauline 1911. “Legends of Vancouver.” Library of Alexandria. 196pp. E. Pauline Johnson (Takehionwake) was a daughter of a Mohawk Chief and a white mother.  She was one of Canada’s most famous performers, poet, feminist and indigenous activist of the Victorian era. Pauline Johnson documented legends, told to her by her great friend, Squamish Chief Joe Capilano, in the Vancouver newspaper, The Daily Province, and then a book, ‘Legends of Vancouver’, in print now for over 100 years.

Nombre, Antonio Donato. 2010. “The Magic of the Amazon: A river that flows invisibly all around us.” TEDx Talk, 21:27 min. November, 2010. The Amazon River is like a heart, pumping water from the seas through it, and up into the atmosphere through 600 billion trees, which act like lungs. Clouds form, rain falls and the forest thrives. In a lyrical talk, Antonio Donato Nobre talks us through the interconnected systems of this region, and how they provide environmental services to the entire world. A parable for the extraordinary symphony that is nature.

Simard, Suzanne. 2016. “How Trees Talk to Each Other.” TED Talk, 18:20 min. June, 2016. “A forest is much more than what you see,” says ecologist Suzanne Simard. Her 30 years of research in Canadian forests have led to an astounding discovery — trees talk, often and over vast distances. Learn more about the harmonious yet complicated social lives of trees and prepare to see the natural world with new eyes.

Shoroplova, Nina. 2020. “Legacy of Trees: Purposeful Wandering in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.” Heritage House Publishing Co.Ltd., Vancouver. 288pp.

Sutherland, Ira. 2019. “The Great Vancouver Forest: A Story of Place.” TEDx Talk, 21:04 min. Oct. 2019. Growing up among the tall forests near UBC, Ira Sutherland developed an appreciation and curiosity for forests early on. This talk invites his audience to explore Vancouver’s extensive forests and to hopefully see trees in a new light (for more information, see http://www.vancouversbigtrees.com)

 

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Waterwas released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

The Ecology of Story: Revealing Hidden Characters of the Forest

 Story is place, and place is character—Nina Munteanu

EcologyOfStory coverI remember a wonderful conversation I had several years ago at a conference with another science fiction writer on weird and wonderful protagonists and antagonists. Derek knew me as an ecologist—in fact I’d been invited to do a lecture at that conference entitled “The Ecology of Story” (also the name of my writing guidebook on treating setting and place as a character). We discussed the role that ecology plays in creating setting that resonates with theme and how to provide characters enlivened with metaphor.

Derek was fascinated by saprotrophs and their qualities. Saprotrophs take their nutrition from dead and decaying matter such as decaying pieces of plants or animals by dissolving them and absorbing the energy through their body surface. They accomplish this by secreting digestive enzymes into the dead/decaying matter to absorb the soluble organic nutrients. The process—called lysotrophic nutrition—occurs through microscopic lysis of detritus. Examples of saprotrophs include mushrooms, slime mold, and bacteria.

Recipearium CostiGurguI recall Derek’s eagerness to create a story that involved characters who demonstrate saprotrophic traits or even were genuine saprotrophs (in science fiction you can do that—it’s not hard. Check out Costi Gurgu’s astonishing novel Recipearium for a thrilling example). I wonder if Derek fulfilled his imagination.

I think of what Derek said, as I walk in my favourite woodland. It is early spring and the river that had swollen with snow melt just a week before, now flows with more restraint. I can see the cobbles and clay of scoured banks under the water. Further on, part of the path along the river has collapsed from a major bank scour the previous week. The little river is rather big and capricious, I ponder; then I consider that the entire forest sways to similar vagaries of wind, season, precipitation and unforeseen events. Despite its steadfast appearance the forest flows—like the river—in a constant state of flux and change, cycling irrevocably through life and death.

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Cedar tree (photo by Nina Munteanu)

As I’m writing this, the entire world struggles with life and death in the deep throws of a viral pandemic. COVID-19 has sent many cities into severe lock down to prevent viral spread in a life and death conflict. I’ve left the city and I’m walking in a quiet forest in southern Ontario in early spring. The forest is also experiencing life and death. But here, this intricate dance has seamlessly partnered death and decay with the living being of the forest. Without the firm embrace of death and decay, life cannot dance. In fact, life would be impossible. What strikes me here in the forest is how the two dance so well.

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Cedar log, patterns in sapwood (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I walk slowly, eyes cast to the forest floor to the thick layer of dead leaves, and discover seeds and nuts—the promise of new life. I aim my gaze past trees and shrubs to the nearby snags and fallen logs. I’m looking for hidden gifts. One fallen cedar log reveals swirling impressionistic patterns of wood grain, dusted with moss and lichen. Nature’s death clothed in beauty.

The bark of a large pine tree that has fallen is riddled with tiny beetle holes drilled into its bark. Where the bark has sloughed off, a gallery of larval tracks in the sapwood create a map of meandering texture, form and colour.

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White pine bark scales with tiny beetle bore holes, Little Rouge, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

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Beetle larval tracks in pine sapwood (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Nearby, another giant pine stands tall in the forest. Its roughly chiselled bark is dusted in lichens, moss and fungus. The broad thick ridges of the bark seem arranged like in a jigsaw puzzle with scales that resemble metal plates. They form a colourful layered mosaic of copper to gray and greenish-gray. At the base of the tree, I notice that some critter has burrowed a home in a notch between two of the pine’s feet. Then just around the corner, at the base of a cedar, I spot several half-eaten black walnuts strewn in a pile—no doubt brought and left there by some hungry and industrious squirrel who prefers to dine here.

The forest is littered with snags and fallen trees in different stages of breakdown, decomposition and decay. I spot several large cedar, pine, oak and maple snags with woodpecker holes. The snags may remain for many decades before finally falling to the ground.

Fallen Heroes, Mother Archetypes & Saprophyte Characters

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Woodpecker hole in a snag (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The forest ecosystem supports a diverse community of organisms in various stages of life and death and decay. Trees lie at the heart of this ecosystem, supporting a complex and dynamic cycle of evolving life. Even in death, the trees continue to support thriving detrivore and saprophytic communities that, in turn, provide nutrients and soil for the next generation of living trees. It’s a partnership.

Decomposition and decay are the yin to the yang of growth, writes Trees for Life; and together they form two halves of the whole that is the closed-loop cycle of natural ecosystems.

Snags and rotting logs on the forest floor provide damp shelter and food for many plants and animals. Most are decomposers, including earthworms, fungi, and bacteria. As the wood decays, nutrients in the log break down and recycle in the forest ecosystem. Insects, mosses, lichens, and ferns recycle the nutrients and put them back into the soil for other forest plants to use. Dead wood is an important reservoir of organic matter in forests and a source of soil formation. Decaying and dead wood host diverse communities of bacteria and fungi.

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Turkey tail fungus, Little Rouge woodland (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Mother Archetypes

Wood tissues of tree stems include the outer bark, cork cambium, inner bark (phloem), vascular cambium, outer xylem (living sapwood), and the inner xylem (non-living heartwood). The outer bark provides a non-living barrier between the inner tree and harmful factors in the environment, such as fire, insects, and diseases. The cork cambium (phellogen) produces bark cells. The vascular cambium produces both the phloem cells (principal food-conducting tissue) and xylem cells of the sapwood (the main water storage and conducting tissue) and heartwood.

stages of tree life

Forest ecologists defined five broad stages in tree decay, shown by the condition of the bark and wood and presence of insects and other animals. The first two stages evolve rapidly; much more time elapses in the later stages, when the tree sags to the ground. These latter stages can take decades for the tree to break down completely and surrender all of itself back to the forest. A fallen tree nurtures, much like a “mother” archetype; it provides food, shelter, and protection to a vast community—from bears and small mammals to salamanders, invertebrates, fungus, moss and lichens. This is why fallen trees are called “nursing logs.”

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Uprooted tree covered in fungi, lichen and moss, Little Rouge, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

 

Heralds, Tricksters and Enablers

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Rotting maple log (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I stop to inspect another fallen tree lying on a bed of decaying maple, beech and oak leaves. When a fallen tree decomposes, unique new habitats are created within its body as the outer and inner bark, sapwood, and heartwood decompose at different rates, based in part on their characteristics for fine dining. For instance, the outer layers of the tree are rich in protein; inner layers are high in carbohydrates. This log—probably a sugar maple judging from what bark is left—has surrendered itself with the help of detrivores and saprophytes to decomposition and decay. The outer bark has mostly rotted and fallen away revealing an inner sapwood layer rich in varied colours, textures and incredible patterns—mostly from fungal infestations. In fact, this tree is a rich ecosystem for dozens of organisms. Wood-boring beetle larvae tunnel through the bark and wood, building their chambers and inoculating the tree with microbes. They open the tree to colonization by other microbes and small invertebrates. Slime molds, lichen, moss and fungi join in. The march of decay follows a succession of steps. Even fungi are followed by yet other fungi in the process as one form creates the right condition for another form.

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Rotting maple log, covered in carbon cushion fungus, Little Rouge, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Most hardwoods take several decades to decompose and surrender all of themselves back to the forest. In western Canada in the westcoast old growth forest, trees like cedars can take over a hundred years to decay once they’re down. The maple log I’m studying in this Carolinian forest looks like it’s been lying on the ground for a while, certainly several years. The bark has fragmented and mostly fallen away, revealing layers of sapwood in differing stages of infestation and decay. Some sapwood is fragmented and cracked into blocks and in places looks like stacked bones.

Black lines as though drawn by a child’s paintbrush flow through much of the sapwood; these winding thick streaks of black known as “zone lines” are in fact clumps of dark mycelia, which cause “spalting,” the colouration of wood by fungus. According to mycologist Jens Petersen, these zone lines prevent “a hostile takeover by mycelia” from any interloping fungi. Most common trees that experience spalting include birch, maple, and beech. Two common fungi that cause spalting have colonized my maple log. They’re both carbon cushion fungi.

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Spalting through zone lines by carbon cushion fungus, Little Rouge, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

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Hypoxylon fungus (photo N. Munteanu)

Brittle cinder (Kretzschmaria deusta) resembles burnt wood at maturity. Deusta means “burned up” referring to the charred appearance of the fungus. Hypoxylon forms a “velvety” grey-greenish cushion or mat (stroma). As the Hypoxylon ages, it blackens and hardens and tiny, embedded fruitbodies (perithecia) show up like pimples over the surface of the crust.

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Green and Blue Stain fungus (photo N. Munteanu)

Much of the exposed outer wood layer looks as though it has been spray painted with a green to blue-black layer. The “paint” is caused by the green-stain fungus (Chlorociboria) and blue-stain fungus (Ceratocystis). The blue-green stain is a metabolite called xylindein. Chlorociboria and Ceratocystis are also spalter fungi, producing a pigment that changes the color of the wood where they grow. While zone lines that create spalting don’t damage wood, the fungus responsible most likely does.

Spalting is common because of the way fungi colonize, in waves of primary and secondary colonizers. Primary colonizers initially capture and control the resource, change the pH and structure of the wood, then must defend against the secondary colonizers now able to colonize the changed wood.

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Details of 16th century German bureaus containing blue-green spalted wood by the elf-cup fungus Chlorociboria aeruginascens

Wood that is stained green, blue or blue-green by spalting fungi has been and continues to be valued for inlaid woodwork. In an article called “Exquisite Rot: Spalted Wood and the Lost Art of Intarsia” Daniel Elkind writes of how “the technique of intarsia–the fitting together of pieces of intricately cut wood to make often complex images–has produced some of the most awe-inspiring pieces of Renaissance craftsmanship.” The article explores “the history of this masterful art, and how an added dash of colour arose from the most unlikely source: lumber ridden with fungus.”

Shapeshifting Characters

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Moss in forest litter (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I find moss everywhere in the forest, including beneath the forest floor. Moss is a ubiquitous character, adapting itself to different situations and scenarios. Like a shapeshifter, moss is at once coy, hiding beneath rotting leaf litter, stealthy and curious as it creeps up the feet of huge cedars, and exuberant as it unabashedly drapes itself over every possible surface such as logs, twigs and rocks, and then proceeds to procreate for all to see.

Moss is a non-vascular plant that helps create soil; moss also filters and retains water, stabilizes the ground and removes CO2 from the atmosphere. Science tells us that mosses are important regulators of soil hydroclimate and nutrient cycling in forests, particularly in boreal ecosystems, bolstering their resilience. Mosses help with nutrient cycling because they can fix nitrogen from the air, making it available to other plants.

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Green moss gametophyte with sporophytes growing out of it (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Mosses thrive in the wet winter and spring, providing brilliant green to an otherwise brown-gray environment. Even when covered in snow (or a bed of leaves), moss continues its growth cycle, usually in the leafy gametophyte stage. When the winter is moderate, like it is near Toronto, sporophyte structures can already appear on stalks that hold a capsule full of spores.  In the spring the capsules release spores that can each create a new moss individual. Moss is quietly, gloriously profligate.

Symbiotic Characters

Many twigs strewn on the leaf-covered forest floor are covered in grey-green lichen with leaf-like, lobes. On close inspection, the lichen thallus contains abundant cup-shaped fruiting bodies. I identify the lichen as Physchia stellaris, common and widespread in Ontario and typically pioneering on the bark of twigs—especially of poplars, and alders.

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Physchia stellaris lichen with fruiting bodies (apothecia), Little Rouge, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Lichens are a cooperative character; two characters in one, really. Lichens are a complex symbiotic association of two or more fungi and algae (some also partner up with a yeast). The algae in lichens (called phycobiont or photobiont) photosynthesize and the fungus (mycobiont) provides protection for the photobiont. Both the algae and fungus absorb water, minerals, and pollutants from the air, through rain and dust. In sexual reproduction, the mycobiont produces fruiting bodies, often cup-shaped, called apothecia that release ascospores. The spores must find a compatible photobiont to create a lichen. They depend on each other for resources—from food to shelter and protection.

Forest as Character

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Sunset in Niagara on the Lake (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In Far from the Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy personified trees as interpreters between Nature and humanity: from the “sobbing breaths” of a fir plantation to the stillness of trees in a quiet fog, standing “in an attitude of intentness, as if they waited longingly for a wind to come and rock them.” Trees, meadows, winding brooks and country roads were far more than back-drop for Hardy’s world and his stories. Elements of the natural world were characters in their own right that impacted the other characters in a world dominated by nature.

Place ultimately portrays what lies at the heart of the story. Place as character serves as an archetype that story characters connect with and navigate in ways that depend on the theme of the story, particularly in allegories that rely strongly on metaphor. A story’s theme is essentially the “so what part” of the story. What is at stake for the character on their journey. Theme is the backbone—the heart—of the story, driving characters to journey through time and place toward some kind of fulfillment. There is no story without theme. And there is no theme without place.
—excerpted from The Ecology of Story: World as Character

 

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Waterwill be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

 

 

 

How Trees Can Save Us…Five Perspectives on Humanity’s Relationship with Our Forests

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Cedar tree in Little Rouge Forest, Ontario (Nina Munteanu)

Alick Bartholomew, author of The Spiritual Life of Water, describes four geologic periods when forests thrived on this planet. The first was the Carboniferous, 350 million years ago, when land vertebrates established. The second was the Jurassic, 170 million years ago, when dinosaurs dominated the planet. The third, the Eocene epoch, 60 million years ago, witnessed the first primitive mammals. The last, the Holocene epoch, which began some 500,000 years ago, ushered in modern humanity. Bartholomew suggests that perhaps, “in each case the forests delivered a boost in the oxygen content of the atmosphere, which may have been a trigger for an evolutionary explosion of life forms.”

Ten thousand years ago, the land along the Mediterranean was covered in mixed forests of conifers and oak. Lebanon’s forests provided timber for the exploring ships of the Phoenician empire in third century BCE. North Africa, a fertile forest two thousand years ago, is now a desert. A thousand years ago, three quarters of the world was forest. Today forest and woodland cover only a third of the world. The UK is currently the least wooded area of Europe with 13% woodland cover; its ancient woodland is being removed at a faster rate than the Amazon rainforest. Humanity is currently cutting down trees at a rate of 15 billion a year. We are losing forests the size of New York City daily; every 100 days we lose forests the size of Scotland; within a single year we lose forest ecosystems the size of Italy.

Since humanity arrived, we have cut down trees for timber, agriculture and development. Our impact is a matter of scale. When humanity was a mere 300 million in pre-medieval times, forest ecosystems remained intact. We are now over 7 billion, doing essentially the same thing we did thousands of years ago. What may have been sustainable then is now extirpating entire complex ecosystems, along with species we may never know existed. Deforestation releases a massive carbon sink into the atmosphere, driving global warming. It is largely responsible for reducing populations of wildlife by half in the last 40 years, and for starting the sixth massive extinction event.

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Clearcut in Gordon Valley, Vancouver Island, BC (photo by T.J. Watts)

While too many of us do not understand or appreciate the global consequences of deforestation, we remain intimately and personally connected with trees: in ways we don’t realize or have forgotten.

This article overviews the perspectives of five writers on the role and history of trees in global planetary health and our journey with climate change. I explore three non-fiction books and two fiction books. The non-fiction books include Witness Tree (2017) by Lynda Mapes, The Global Forest (2011) by Diana Beresford-Kroeger, and The Songs of Trees (2018) by David George Haskell. The two fiction books include The Overstory (2018) by Richard Powers and Barkskins (2016) by Annie Proulx. Each work is a compelling testament of humanity’s connection with trees, both historically and in the present. All provide powerful and evocative optimism in different ways.

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Ash tree, Little Rouge River forest, Ontario (photo by Nina Munteanu)

 

The Philosophical OPTIMISM of Lynda Mapes

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Lynda V. Vapes

Seattle Times environmental reporter and author of Witness Tree, Lynda V. Mapes explores a changing natural world and humanity’s relationship with it through a single Century-old red oak tree over four seasons. Mapes brings in elements of physics, ecology, biology and sociology and philosophy to probe her witness tree and reveal a colourful history of aboriginal life, colonialism, commodification and human-caused climate change.

In describing her oak tree, journalist and author of Witness Tree, Lynda V. Mapes writes, “The big oak dominates its space…but it also supports a vast web of life and relies in turn on a menagerie of helpers, aboveground and below. With its crown in the wind and its roots in the teeming soil, the big oak connects earth and sky, and many millions of beings, and is home to each and to all. It is just one tree, and yet a whole world unto itself.”

WitnessTreeMapes reveals that her witness tree overcame a 1 in 500 chance of taking root from tiny acorn to seedling to become a thirteen-storey tall giant. Mapes considered her oak a living timeline that revealed through its phenology how climate change is resetting the seasonal clock. Mapes sought “the quiet testimony of living things.” Through an “intimate exploration” in which she dug below, climbed up and lay beneath her oak, Mapes found vulnerability, loss, renewal, and hope.

“No matter what else the future may bring, in an uncertain world forests are a repository of only good verbs:  Forests shelter. Nurture. Moderate. Cleanse. Regenerate. Provide. Connect. Sustain…Trees can be our wellspring of inspiration. More than building material, fuel, and carbon-storage utilities, forests are foundational to life on the earth, refugia for countless animals, and an endless source of human joy, renewal, and refreshment.”

“People and trees are meant to be together, and if we work at it, that’s how we will stay,” writes Mapes at the end of her book. It is both hope and warning. A quiet clarion for us to “remember” our place in the world and to embrace our relationship with trees as wisdom guide.

Mapes invites us to connect with the forest.

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Old growth forest on Vancouver Island, British Columbia (photo by Kevin Klassen)

The Practical OPTIMISM of Diana Beresford-Kroeger

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Diana Beresford-Kroeger

In her book The Global Forest: 40 Ways Trees Can Save Us, botanist and medical biochemist Diana Beresford-Kroeger tells us that:

“A functioning forest is a complex form of life. It is interconnected by its own flora and driven by the mammals, the amphibians and insects in it. It is kept in place by fungi, algae, lichens, bacteria, viruses, and bacteriophages. The primogenitors of the forests are trees. They communicate by carbon-coded calls and mass-market themselves by infrasound. The atmosphere links forests into the heavens and the great oceans. The human family is both caught and held in that web of life.”

TheGlobalForestWritten with passionate lyricism and a mother’s nurturing spirit, Irish storyteller Beresford-Kroeger weaves a compelling tapestry of ancient forest lore with modern science to promote the global forest. Tapping into aboriginal wisdom and ancient pagan legend, Beresford-Kroeger invites you into the forest to explore the many beneficial and pharmaceutical properties of trees—from leaves that filter the air of particulate pollution, the cardiotonic property of hawthorn, fatty acids in hickory nuts and walnuts that promote brain development, to the aerosols in pine trees that calm nerves.

The titles of her chapters reveal an overarching agenda: “The Global Forest Has Within Itself a Master Plan for Sustainability”; “Climate Change Can Be Reversed: Simplicity, Sustainability, and Sanity”.

“This [global] forest is the environment that drives and fulfills the dream of each leaf in a vast rhythmic cycle called life. Nothing is outside. We are all of it in a unity that transcends the whole. Maybe, just maybe, this resonates of God. If that is so, then we are all His children, every earthworm, every virus, mammal, fish and whale, every fern, every tree, man, woman and child. One equal to another. Again and again.”

Beresford-Kroeger compels us to interact with and learn from the forest.

 

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Gnarly “feet” of cedar tree in Little Rouge River forest, Ontario (photo by Nina Munteanu)

 

The Existential OPTIMISM of David George Haskell  

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David George Haskell

In The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors, biologist David George Haskell pens an existentialist poem to life’s interconnected network. Haskell’s notion of ‘listening to trees’ arises not from metaphor or metaphysics but from a spiritual understanding of the woven tapestry of life.

 “For the Homeric Greeks, kleos, fame, was made of song. Vibrations in air contained the measure and memory of a person’s life. To listen was therefore to learn what endures. I turned my ear to trees, seeking ecological kleos. I found no heroes, no individuals around whom history pivots. Instead, living memories of trees, manifest in their songs, tell of life’s community, a net of relations. We humans belong within this conversation, as blood kin and incarnate members. To listen is therefore to hear our voices and those of our family…To listen is therefore to touch a stethoscope to the skin of a landscape, to hear what stirs below.”

SongsOfTreesIn his travels to visit iconic trees around the world, Haskell draws on the wisdom and moral ethics of “ecological aesthetics” to describe a natural beauty—not as individual property but as a world within a world of interactive life to which we belong and serve but do not own:

“We’re all — trees, humans, insects, birds, bacteria — pluralities. Life is embodied network…where ecological and evolutionary tensions between cooperation and conflict are negotiated and resolved…Because life is network, there is no ‘nature’ or ‘environment,’ separate and apart from humans. We are part of the community of life, composed of relationships with ‘others,’ so the human/nature duality that lives near the heart of many philosophies is, from a biological perspective, illusory…We cannot step outside life’s songs. This music made us; it is our nature…To listen to trees, nature’s great connectors, is therefore to learn how to inhabit the relationships that give life its source, substance, and beauty.”

In the vein of the naturphilosophie of Goethe and Schelling—and later of Carson, Thoreau, Eisely and Dillard—Haskell invites us to cultivate a strong sense of place and being, one that extends beyond “self” to the existential nature of experience. Glancing up a magnificent oak or beech tree reveals wood as “an embodied conversation between plant life, shudder of ground and yaw of wind.”

Haskell exhorts us to be the forest.

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Old tree in Deer Lake Park, Burnaby, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The Fierce OPTIMISM of Richard Powers  

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Richard Powers

At the heart of Richard Powers’s The Overstory are the pivotal lives of two women, botanist Patricia Westerford and college student Olivia Vandergriff. Both will inspire a movement against the destruction of forests.

Patricia Westerford—whose work resembles that of UBC’s Suzanne Simard—is a shy introvert who discovers that trees communicate, learn, trade goods and services, and have intelligence. When she shares her discovery, she is ridiculed by her peers and loses her position.  But, just as with Lynn Margulis and her theory of endosymbiosis, Westerford is finally validated. She is the archetypal ‘mother tree’, the metaphoric Tachigali versicolor, who ultimately brings the tangle of narratives together through meaning. Westerford writes in her book The Secret Forest:

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Moss-covered cedar, Alberta (photo by Nina Munteanu)

“There are no individuals in a forest, no separable events. The bird and the branch it sits on are a joint thing. A third or more of the food a big tree makes may go to feed other organisms. Even different kinds of trees form partnerships. Cut down a birch, and a nearby Douglas fir may suffer…Fungi mine stone to supply their trees with minerals. They hunt springtails, which they feed to their hosts. Trees, for their part, store extra sugar in their fungi’s synapses, to dole out to the sick and shaded and wounded. A forest takes care of itself, even as it builds the local climate it needs to survive…A tree is a wondrous thing that shelters, feeds, and protects all living things. It even offers shade to the axmen who destroy it.”

TheOverstoryOlivia Vandergriff miraculously survives an electrocution to become an ecowarrior after she begins to hear the voices of the trees. She rallies others to embrace the urgency of activism in fighting the destruction of California’s redwoods and even camps in the canopy of one of the trees to deter the logging. When the ancient tree she has unsuccessfully protected is felled, the sound is “like an artillery shell hitting a cathedral.” Vandergriff weeps for this magnificent thousand-year old tree. So do I. Perhaps the real heroes of this novel are the ancient trees.

In his review of Overstory in The Guardian, Banjamin Markovits wrote, “ There is something exhilarating…in reading a novel whose context is wider than human life. Like Moby-DickThe Overstory leaves you with a slightly adjusted frame of reference… And I found, while reading, that some of what was happening to his characters passed into my conscience, like alcohol into the bloodstream, and left a feeling behind of grief or guilt, even after I put it down.”

Powers challenges us to champion the forest.

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Ancient cedars in Lighthouse Park, West Vancouver, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The Intellectual OPTIMISM of Annie Proulx  

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Annie Proulx

Annie Proulx’s Barkskins chronicles two immigrants who arrive in Canada in 1693 (Rene Sel and Charles Duquet) and their descendants over 300 years of deforestation of North America starting with the arrival of the Europeans to contemporary global warming. “Barkskins” (woodcutters) are, in fact indentured servants who were brought from the Paris slums to the wilds of New France “to clear the land, to subdue this evil wilderness,” says their seigneur. Sel is forced to marry a native woman and their descendants live trapped between two cultures; Duquet runs away to become a fur trader and build a timber empire.

barkskinsProulx immerses the reader in rich sensory detail of a place and time, equally comfortable describing a white pine stand in Michigan and logging camp in Upper Gatineau to a Mi’kmaq village on the Nova Scotia coast or the stately Boston home of Charles Duquet. The foreshadowing of doom for the magnificent forests is cast by the shadow of how settlers treat the Mi’kmaq people. The fate of the forests and the Mi’kmaq are inextricably linked through settler disrespect and a fierce hunger for “more.”

The novel rolls out events in a relentless stream of life and death; no character is safe from the ravages of nature or the notions of that time period. While most of the book flows like a great amoral river—filled with feckless, unheroic and at times miserable characters—there are moments of emotional shoring. They act like exclamation marks for their rarity. By the 1830s, the character, German forester Armenius Breitsprecher, expresses anger and frustration with his colleagues:

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White pine, Little Rouge River forest, Ontario

“Not for the first time he saw that the acquisitive hunger of Duke & Sons was so great they intended to clear the continent. And he was helping them. He hated the [lumber companies] clear-cut despoliation, the insane wastage of sound valuable wood, the destruction of soil, the gullying and erosion, the ruin of the forest world with no thought for the future—the choppers considered the supply to be endless—there was always another forest.”

Proulx’s unsentimental narrative and grand historic set-pieces lure the reader first to passively observe humanity’s struggles with the grand forest; then, once immersed, we are nudged to participate along with the awakening of the human consciousness over the generations of her 300-year long saga—first in the early 1900s through Conrad and Charley who recognize the importance of a functional forest ecosystem then through current day ecologist Sapatisia Sel (descendant of Rene), who responds to a scientist’s claim of  “A great crisis is just ahead” with “The forests, the trees, they can change everything!”

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Giant Cedars boardwalk, Alberta (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The suggestion is that, while we remain inextricably embedded in time and place—we are also progenitors of change to our future generations. Three hundred years ago, our beliefs and knowledge prevented us from acting sustainably. We know better now. The time to save our forests and let them save us is now.

“The reader comes to realize that the novel isn’t really about the human characters so much as it is about the forests,” Gus Powell of The National Post concludes of Barkskins. “As [the forests] disappear, the narrative seems to recede in importance, revealing a crucial interdependence between the human and the natural world previously handled almost entirely as subtext. This is especially true in the novel’s closing, where the anger and despair that have characterized the novel shift into an outspoken environmental advocacy.” This is the essence of optimism…

Proulx dares us to believe in the forest.

*****

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Forest in Metchosin, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Whether philosophical, pragmatic, existentialist, fierce or intellectual, “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement…No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit,” wrote Helen Keller. In her recent book Breaking Murphy’s Law, Suzanne Segerstrom demonstrates the connection between optimists and their investment in goal setting and achievement. The trick to avoiding the cynicism that may come with complacent optimism (thinking, hoping and wishing for good things to happen) is through the simple action of engagement. “Optimists,” says Segerstrom, “are happy and healthy not because of who they are but because of how they act. Optimism is more what we do than what we are, and thereby can be learned.”

I hope so. If we connect, interact and learn, and be the forest, we may find the strength and passion to champion the forest we believe in.

 

 

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.