“The Forested Sanctuary” by Bev Gorbet

Stream runs through cedar poplar forest in the rain, Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Oh! great mysterium:
Great forested sanctuary into the heart of being
Oh! to walk pensive, in solitude into the center
Of a cedar forest, worlds all russet and green,
Branch and bough, rain swept landscapes
The high treetops, far whisper and echo…
The great winds in high flight high above…
Songs to pierce the sullen skies,
Melodies of joy and of a deepest longing…

Cedars and poplars in a morning mist, Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Songs of immortality, worlds full aflame,
Mystic cathedrals and dawn memory,
Haze and gray day, silver sky, silver cloud
Rain downfall and mist…
Leaf, branch and bough, the wind and the rain
The bending and wind tossed land

Mist hangs over Trent Canal, Trent Forest Sanctuary, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The spring scents, spring grasses and nearby stream;
Rivulet and rhapsodic song,
The holy silences, the rain, fall, hiss and far echo…
Cedar forest cathedrals, branches overspread,
Red winged blackbird, soaring alone high above,
High into the receiving dome of haze and sky
Free swoop and whispering forest airs

White birch in Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

The far meditation:
Sacred journey into a holy wilderness:
Forested worlds beyond time…

Cedar root among ferns and moss in a light mist, Trent Nature Sanctuary (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Forested worlds of an existential beauty,
Great moss silences, tree root and bough…
Great worlds of hope and the tenebrous shadow
Of a rain swept day…
Holy encounters: the great mysterium
Sacred worlds beyond still time…

BEV GORBET
Moss and lichen cover an old cedar log, Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Tinder polypore fungus on white birch, Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Moss on a log in Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Cedar boardwalk in a misty rain, Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

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” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Chasing the Blue Forest Sprite

Cedar forest and extensive roots amid glacial erratics flank Jackson Creek on the right, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

It was a cold November day, after a light snow, as I wandered the Jackson Creek old-growth forest. Centuries-old cedar, pine and hemlock towered above me, giving off the fresh scent of forest. The trees creaked and cracked, swaying in a mischievous wind.  I left the main path and descended the leaf-strewn slope toward the river. My boots pressed through a frosty crust into the spongy ground of dead leaves and organic soil. I stopped and breathed in the fresh coolness of the air. A damp mist huddled among the trees, adding wisps of mystery to the ancient forest. It was as though I’d entered an enchanted forest in some fanciful fairy tale.

Cedar forest on slope of Jackson Creek Park in early winter, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Not far from the river, I approached an old yellow birch tree, large trunk rising as tall as some of the cedars and pines around it. Golden flakes of bark curled and formed craggy patterns around the girth of the old tree. Radiating out from the tree, moss-covered roots snaked out like tangled ropes in a profusion of brilliant green. This was fairy country, I suddenly thought.

I dropped to my knees, crouching down, and set up my tripod and camera to capture this magical tree from the perspective of the forest floor. Head almost touching the ground, I inhaled the scent of loam and decaying leaves. The fresh pungency of cedar, pine, and humid moss hung in the air. Nearby, the river chortled and bubbled in a content symphony of motion. A curious red squirrel parked itself on a log nearby to watch me. It didn’t scold me like they normally did when I entered the forest; like it understood… It then occurred to me, as I set up my equipment under the squirrel’s careful stare, that I was in the presence of an enchantment. Like I was peering into a secret dance of feral celebration. But being there and appreciating it, I had now become part of it; I was Alice going down the rabbit hole into a true wonderland…

It was then that I glimpsed it as I carefully took my timed pictures. A blur of blue. What had I witnessed? A motion? A colour? Then it was gone. But in that moment, I’d felt the spark of an elation that comes with a glimpse into a secret world.

Old yellow birch tree and moss-covered roots with approaching blue sprite from left (photo by Nina Munteanu)

When I returned home to look at the images I saw that my camera had captured a wispy blue entity that flowed into its view and peered around the old birch at me with a kind of curious though mischievous grin. 

Had I just captured a blue sprite? Something was unmistakably there!

Forest sprite peers around a yellow birch tree, Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I read up on sprites. According to European lore, a sprite is a supernatural entity. They are often depicted as fairy-like creatures or as an ethereal entity. The word sprite comes from the Latin spiritus (“spirit”), via the French esprit.

Given that the sprite I’d observed was blue and we were close to the river, I wondered if it was not a forest or wood sprite, but a water sprite. According to alchemist Paracelsus, the term ‘water sprite’ is used for any elemental spirit associated with water. They can breathe water or air and sometimes can fly. They also possess the power of hydrokinesis, which is the ability to create and manipulate water at will. Also known as ‘water nymphs’ and naiads (or nyads), these divine entities tend to be fixed in one place. Slavic mythology calls them vilas. Sprites are not corporeal beings (like selkies, mermaids and sirens) given that they are not purely physical; they are more like local deities than animals. This explained the wispy nature of the being I’d seen peering at me from the tree.

“Dancing Fairies” by August Malmström

After consulting with several friends—some who purported to know much more about sprites than I did—I concluded that this sprite was, in fact, a forest sprite and it was blue because it was near the water. Friend Merridy suggested that “forest sprites, normally green, may turn blue if a nearby brook calls to them.” She added that “water sprites can be distinguished by their chatty nature. They rarely go beyond the banks of a river or brook. Forest sprites are mostly silent.” Which this one certainly was. Friend Craig then pondered, “Are digital sprites in our world or in an electro-magnetic world? Or something else?” He was referring to them showing up on my camera without me even noticing they were there. When I told him I would return in search of them he observed, “if you’re looking for them that might be when they hide. Or maybe not. Any type of sprite is probably good, mischievous or friendly.” Thanks, Craig! That was helpful…  

Glacial erratic boulders in Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Century-old beech tree, decaying and moss-covered in early winter, Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Ancient cedar tree stands next to an ice sheet on the path beside Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I visited the forest many times after but saw no sign of any sprites. Perhaps Craig was right; they were hiding from me.

Then, on a foggy late December day, after a light dusting of snow, I returned to document the ice forming in the river. Islands and columns of ice had created a new topography for the flowing waters of Jackson Creek. Ice sheets also covered the forest path in places—making the walk somewhat treacherous. At times, I had to scramble and seize hold of branches to haul my way up precipitous banks from where I’d captured sculptures of ice ‘pearls,’ ‘platforms,’ and ‘columns’ on the river. 

Ice forming on Jackson Creek in early winter, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)
Ice ‘pearls’ forming on shore by rushing river, Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The fog grew thick as my walk eventually led me into an area of eccentric lopsided cedars in a ‘drunken’ stand by the river bank. The cedars sent out a tangled tapestry of gnarly roots I had to negotiate. I could feel the earth-magic. I dropped to my knees again and set my camera and tripod to the level of the roots. That is when I saw the blue sprite again! This time the sprite wasn’t playful; it appeared startled and disoriented. But, I managed to capture it as it fled the scene in wisps of blue smoke. As I left the forest, my thoughts returned to this serendipitous moment. Had I interrupted the wood /earth sprite in its work in the forest? These sprites are known to have the power of chlorokinesis, the ability to grow and control plants at will. When I checked my images at home, the sprite appeared to float near one of the cedars.

 

Blue forest sprite floats by cedar tree, Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

When she saw the image, friend Merridy asked, “was the sprite entering the tree?” Thinking of incantations, friend Dyana asked if I’d had my recording feature on, which I’d never thought to do. On second thought, she decided that it might be dangerous. Not a good idea to anger a sprite. Friend Gabriela then challenged me: “did you ask what message they have for you, Nina? They keep showing up in your way, they might have a message for you or to be delivered through you to…” whoever… I hadn’t thought of that either. How would I hear their message when they were silent and so fleeting, I challenged back. She wisely responded, “Just ask yourself the question; you might be surprised when your next thought brings the answer. Since everything is energy, and you saw them at least twice, you’re probably connected with them.”

Sprite vaporizes behind tree, Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I didn’t tell her that the question that came to mind after seeing the sprite was: I wonder what’s for dinner!

I must ponder this more, however. 

Cedar forest on a misty winter day, Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Thinking of Gabriela’s interesting remark, I leave you with this rather sad but evocative tale by Vladimir Nabokov entitled “The Wood Sprite.” Told in the first person, it recounts the narrator’s experience when he was visited at his desk by an old wood sprite, “powdered with the pollen of the frosty, starry night.” The creature tells of his exile from a country wood in Russia, all cut down and burned amid the treachery of war. 

I was pensively penning the outline of the inkstand’s circular, quivering shadow. In a distant room a clock struck the hour, while I, dreamer that I am, imagined someone was knocking at the door, softly at first, then louder and louder. He knocked twelve times and paused expectantly.

“Yes, I’m here, come in…”

The door knob creaked timidly, the flame of the runny candle tilted, and he hopped sidewise out of a rectangle of shadow, hunched, gray, powdered with the pollen of the frosty, starry night.

I knew his face—oh, how long I had known it!

His right eye was still in the shadows, the left peered at me timorously, elongated, smoky-green. The pupil glowed like a point of rust….That mossy-gray tuft on his temple, the pale-silver, scarcely noticeable eyebrow, the comical wrinkle near his whiskerless mouth—how all this teased and vaguely vexed my memory!

I got up. He stepped forward.

His shabby little coat seemed to be buttoned wrong – on the female side. In his hand he held a cap—no, a dark-colored, poorly tied bundle, and there was no sign of any cap….

Yes, of course I knew him – perhaps had even been fond of him, only I simple could not place the where and the when of our meetings. And we must have met often, otherwise I would not have had such a firm recollection of those cranberry lips, those pointy ears, that amusing Adam’s apple….

With a welcoming murmur I shook his light, cold hand. He perched like a crow on a tree stump, and began speaking hurriedly.

“It’s so scary in the streets. So I dropped in. Dropped in to visit you. Do you recognize me? You and I, we used to romp together and halloo at each for days at a time. Back in the old country. Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten?”

His voice literally blinded me. I felt dazzled and dizzy—I remembered the happiness, the echoing, endless, irreplaceable happiness….

No, it can’t be: I’m alone….it’s only some capricious delirium. Yet there really was somebody sitting next to me, bony and implausible, with long-earred German bootees, and his voice tintinnabulated, rustled-golden, luscious-green familiar – while the words were so simple, so human….

“There—you remember. Yes, I am a former Forest Elf, a mischievous sprite. And here I am, forced to flee like everyone else.”

He heaved a deep sigh, and once again I had visions of billowing nimbus, lofty leafy undulations, bright flashes of birch bark like splashes of sea foam, against a dulcet, perpetual, hum….He bent toward me and glanced gently into my eyes. “Remember our forest, fir so black, birch all white? They’ve cut it all down. The grief was unbearable – I saw my dear birches crackling and falling, and how could I help? Into the marshes they drove me, I wept and I howled, I boomed like a bittern, then left lickety-split for a neighboring pinewood.

“There I pined, and could not stop sobbing. I had barely grown used to it, and lo, there was no more pinewood, just blue-tinted cinders. Had to do some more tramping. Found myself a wood – a wonderful wood it was, thick, dark, and cool. Yet somehow it was just not the same thing. In the old days I’d frolic from dawn until dusk, whistle furiously, clap my hands, frighten passersby. You remember yourself – you lost your way once in a dark nook of my woods, you in some little white dress, and I kept tying the paths up in knots, spinning the tree trunks, twinkling through the foliage. Spent the whole night playing tricks. But I was only fooling around, it was all in jest, vilify me as they might. But now I sobered up, for my new abode was not a merry one. Day and night strange things crackled around me. At first I thought a fellow elf was lurking there; I called, then listened. Something crackled, something rumbled….but no, those were not the kinds of sounds we make. Once, toward evening, I skipped out into a glade, and what do I see? People lying around, some on their backs, some on their bellies. Well, I think, I’ll wake them up, I’ll get them moving! And I went to work shaking boughs, bombarding with cones, rustling, hooting….I toiled away for a whole hour, all to no avail. Then I took a closer look, and I was horror-struck. Here’s a man with his head hanging by one flimsy crimson thread, there’s one with a heap of thick worms for a stomach….I could not endure it. I let out a howl, jumped in the air, and off I ran….

“Long I wandered through different forests, but I could find no peace. Either it was stillness, desolation, mortal boredom, or such horror it’s better not to think about it. At last I made up my mind and changed into a bumpkin, a tramp with a knapsack, and left for good: Rus’, adieu! Here a kindred spirit, a Water-Sprite, gave me a hand. Poor fellow as on the run too. He kept marveling, kept saying – what times are upon us, a real calamity! And even if, in olden times, he had had his fun, used to lure people down (a hospitable one, he was!), in recompense, how he petted and pampered them on the gold river bottom, with what songs he bewitched them! These days, he says, only dead men come floating by, floating in batches, enormous numbers of them, and the river’s moisture is like blood, thick, warm, sticky, and there’s nothing for him to breathe….and so he took me with them.

“He went off to knock about some distance sea, and put me ashore on a foggy coast – go, brother, find yourself some friendly foliage. But I found nothing, and I ended up here in this foreign, terrifying city of stone. Thus I turned into a human, complete with proper starched collars and bootees, and I’ve even learned human talk….”

He fell silent. His eyes glistened like wet leaves, his arms were crossed, and, by the wavering light of the drowning candle, some pale strands combed to the left shimmered so strangely.

“I know you too are pining,” his voiced shimmered again, “but you’re pining, compared to mine, my tempestuous, turbulent pining, is but the even breathing of one who is asleep and think about it: not one of our Tribe is there left in the Rus’. Some of us swirled away like wisps of fog. Others scattered over the world. Our native rivers are melancholy, there is no frisky hand to splash up the moon-gleams. Silent are the orphaned bluebells that remain. By chance, unmown, the pale-blue gusli that once served my rival, the ethereal Field-Sprite, for his songs. A shaggy, friendly, household spirit, in tears, has forsaken your besmirched, humiliated home, and the groves that withered, the pathetically luminous, magically somber groves….

“It was we, Rus’, who were your inspiration, your unfathomable beauty, your age long enchantment! And we are all gone, gone, driven into exile by a crazed surveyor.

“My friend, soon I shall die, say something to me, tell me that you love me, a homeless phantom, come sit closer, give me your hand….”

The candle sputtered and went out. Cold fingers touched my palm. The familiar melancholy laugh pealed and fell still.

When I turned on the light there was no one in the armchair….no one!….nothing was left but a wondrously subtle scent in the room, of birch, of humid moss….

Now that I think of it, I know the blue sprite’s message. And now you know it too.

Cedar forest and roots amid glacial erratics in Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

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” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

When Nature Destroys … and Creates

Cedar roots dusted in winter snow, Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

It’s late December in the old-growth riparian forest of Jackson Creek, Peterborough. A light snow is falling on the cedars. When I walk by the creek through this deep forest, my senses reach out like tendrils, touching the mysteries of Nature’s complexity. To my right, the river’s multi-timbral chorus gurgles and chortles in chaotic symphony. Occasionally, I hear the percussion of ice cracking and booming like a designer rearranging furniture. The cedar pine forest sloping up to my left hisses and giggles as the snow falls and melts. My footfalls crunch over a frozen sponge of litter and loam. Nature’s sounds and aromas coarse through me like sweet nectar and my soul rejoices. I quiet my mind and become one with all of it. Serene in discovery. In sensing. Feeling. Embedding. I’m awestruck with the simple beauty of complex form, pattern and purpose: from the tiniest moss covering a boulder erratic to the largest cedar trees creaking and swaying above me in the whisper of a brisk winter wind. 

Today is different. 

I see something unexpected. A skull.

Red fox skull embedded in frozen shore of Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I’ve been following the icing of Jackson Creek. Huge ice “islands” have formed over boulders, creating new channels for the freezing water to coarse around. I stop near a small tributary of the river to study the formation of ice “pearls” on either side of an ice-formed channel. I venture out onto an ice shelf and set up my small tripod to take slow shots of water magic. The sun paints the water a brilliant turquoise hue.

Jackson Creek with ice formation on shore, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Breathing hard from my efforts and satisfied with the shots I’ve taken, I stand up and step back from the shore. It’s then, as I look down to where I’ve placed my feet, that I see it. A small white “rock”—No! A skull! Embedded in the frozen leaf litter and ground, not more than several centimetres from the frozen shore of the river, lies an animal skull the size of my hand with a long snout. How have I managed not to step on it and crush it with all my tramping there? I must have stepped past it several times to get to my photo op. I bend low to get a better look. What is it doing there? Who—or what—had brought it there, depositing it on the creek shore?

I returned the next day, eager to show my discovery to friend and naturalist Merridy; she suggested it was a red fox. Excited, I returned the following day with a ruler to measure it and a trowel and some hot water to help me extricate it for better examination. A light snow had fallen the night before but the top of the skull was still visible. I removed the snow and the skull came out of the ground rather easily, revealing several back teeth still embedded in it. While the skull was mostly intact, the lower jaw was missing and a loose tooth lay on the ground below it. I removed my prize and brought it home. After cleaning it with some bleach, I examined it further.

Red fox skull, left to right: front, back, ventral aspects (photos by Nina Munteanu)

The skull showed no signs of trauma or injuries to the head. I guessed that while this fox was an adult, it was young; the teeth that were there were in excellent condition. The skull measured 133 mm from end of snout to external occipital protuberance (inion). The average skull length of an adult male measures 129 to 167 mm and vixens 128-159 mm. Steve Harris in BBC’s Discover Wildlife tells us that dog foxes also tend to have broader and more domed skulls than vixens; my skull was rather sleek, I thought. From this I guessed that the skull belonged to a young adult female, a vixen. Statistics for fox deaths also favoured a young fox (see below). 

MeasurementValue
Skull LengthInion to prosthion133 mm
Skull widthWidest interzygomatic distance70 mm
Facial lengthNasion to prosthion63 mm
Facial widthWidest interzygomatic distance45 mm
Cranial lengthInion to nasion79 mm
Cranial widthWidest interparietal distance47 mm
Cranial heightMiddle of external acoustic meatus to bregma43 mm
Red fox skull, lateral aspect (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I couldn’t help wondering about this fox which had appeared as if by magic at my feet. What was Vera Vixen’s story? (Somewhere between bringing her home and cleaning her, I decided to name her). How did Vera meet her demise and where was the rest of her? Had the skull recently washed onshore or was it recently brought to the shore by a scavenging racoon, badger(they’re more common in this area than most people think) or another fox? Or had the skull been there longer and the winter ice and water just washed away the litter to reveal the embedded skull? Was it a death of misadventure? Had Vixen drowned when Jackson Creek flooded? Or was she hit by a car at the edge of the park, torn up by scavengers and her skull brought here to eat? Jake McGown-Lowe of BBC’s The One Showshares that “Fox bones are hard to find.” He had found his specimens at the edge of a wood. “In the countryside the main predator of foxes are farmers and gamekeepers, especially around lambing time, and the gamekeepers usually take the bodies away to dispose of… Be careful with the canine teeth because they easily fall out.” Jackson Creek is an urban park. Thirty percent of its perimeter is surrounded by urban and suburban streets of Peterborough; sixty percent of the park is surrounded by farmland and some marsh at its upstream end. A Bristol University study on cub survival determined that major sources of mortality included hypothermia, attack by domestic dogs, attack by badgers, and death of the mother. 

Red fox skull, dorsal side (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Various hunters have indicated that in a temperate climate it takes several weeks to several years for decomposers (insects, fungi and bacteria) to clean a skull left in the elements of nature. Temperature, humidity, presence of insects and water play key roles in the process of skeletonization. The skull at my feet could have died as recently as the fall of 2020 and as long ago as spring of 2019 during lambing season. Had Vera been shot or poisoned (including indirectly through scavenging) as she hunted for her kits? 

Bristol University estimated that two thirds of the fox population die each year by predators (including humans), disease and vehicles with the single largest cause of fox mortality being through road collisions.An Oxford study corroborated this with observations that 60% of the fox population were run-over by vehicles. Apparently most of the fox deaths are the young.In their 2004 review of the red fox, David Macdonald and Jonathan Reynolds at Oxford noted that “roughly 75% of the fox population die in their first year.” Studies in Europe have also shown that three to seven-month old foxes are most susceptible to traffic collisions—associated with the cub’s increase in ranging behaviour around the den and their lack of experience—and larger propensity for misadventure.

BBC Wildlife Magazine tells us that “spring is a good time to look for mammal skulls. The end of winter is a peak period of mortality for many species, and skulls can be found virtually anywhere.”

Red fox pups in refuge park in Delaware (photo by Jennifer Cross, USFWS)

The red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is one of Canada’s most widespread mammals, living in a wide range of habitats including forests, grasslands, meadows and farmland. Known for their ability to adapt quickly to new environments, foxes have adapted well to urban settings and ecotones between city and wilderness; in fact, they prefer mixed vegetation communities such as edge habitats and mixed scrub and woodland. They are highly athletic, agile and incredibly fast (they can run up to 30 mph); foxes are known for pouncing on mice and other small rodents, burrowing in the snow using the earth’s magnetic field to help them hunt. Foxes have good visual acuity, capable of seeing small movements from far away and for navigating dense forests as they sprint after prey; but their most useful sense is their ultrasonic hearing. Treehugger reported on a 2014 study by the University of Duisburg-Essen and Czech University of Life Sciences who discovered that “red foxes have the best known maximal absolute hearing sensitivity of any mammal. They can hear a mouse squeak from 100 feet away.”This along with their ability to move swiftly and quietly through most terrain makes them effective crepuscular (dawn and dusk) predators in open country and nocturnal hunters in areas of concentrated human habitation. Foxes generally live an average of 3-7 years in the wild.

Foxes are monogamous. They live in family units in which both parents take equal part in raising their young. Older siblings also care for the young pups. The young kits remain with their parents at least until the fall of the year they were born in and sometimes longer, especially females. Pups are typically born from February-April. They are born blind, deaf and toothless, with dark brown fluffy fur. Mom fox stays close to guard the kits and nurse them for several weeks and the father or barren vixens feed the mothers. The kits leave the den a month after and are fully weaned by 8-10 weeks. The mother and her pups remain together until the autumn after the birth. After the pups are weaned and begin to play about the den’s entrance, Dad fox helps watch them while Mom fox gets in some hunting. If the mother dies, the father takes over caring for the pups. Kits reach adult form by seven months and some vixens reach sexual maturity by ten months—enabling them to bear their first litter at one year of age. 

Red foxes help balance ecosystems by controlling population of prey animals such as rodents and rabbits. They also disperse seeds by eating fruit. Steve Hall of Adirondack Almanack reminds us that red foxes play an important ecological role: 

“Now and then, vulnerable farm animals such as chickens, ducks and lamb will be taken. While farmers used to routinely trap foxes, many now realize that the fox brings far more benefit in its constant predation on crop-destroying rodents and insects, than the harm they cause in taking the occasional barnyard animal; secure enclosures for hens and [use of] guard dogs to keep the fox in the field but out of the barnyard, are the key to discouraging unwanted fox predation.”

James Fair of BBC Discover Wildlife noted that a single fox during its lifetime may be worth £150-190 to a farmer through rabbit predation. Most farmers in Wiltshire consider the fox a helpmate in reducing the pest of rabbits. Hall adds that while, “Deer are significant carriers of the tick, Lyme disease starts with rodents… [the red fox] eats huge quantities of rodents. If for no other reason, fox hunting and trapping should be banned.”

Cedar-pine-hemlock forest after first snow, Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Foxes take shelter in thickets and heavy bushes in the autumn until March of the next year. They are omnivores with a varied diet of small mammals such as voles, mice, squirrels and rabbits, and a variety of plants, berries, other fruit and nuts. Foxes have good eyesight but very keen hearing and sense of smell; this along with their ability to move swiftly and quietly through most terrain makes them effective crepuscular (dawn and dusk) predators in open country and nocturnal hunters in areas of concentrated human habitation. Foxes generally live an average of 3-7 years in the wild. 

The red fox communicates through a wide range of body language and vocalizations. Foxes use scent glands and urination to communicate their individuality through their skunk-like smell. They use scent to mark territory and show status. The smell increases during mating season. The fox vocal range spans across five octaves with at least 28 different sounds that include those for “contact” and those for “interaction.” Individual voices can be distinguished. One contact sound between two foxes approaching one another resembles the territorial call of a tawny owl. When foxes draw close together, they use a greeting warble similar to the clucking of chickens. Adults greet their kits with gruff huffing sounds.

Red foxes feature prominently in the folklore and mythology of human cultures with which they are sympatric. In Greek mythology, the Teumessian fox or Cadmean vixen, was a gigantic fox that was destined never to be caught. The fox was one of the children of Echidna. In Japanese mythology,the kitsune are fox-like spirits that possess magical abilities which increase with age and wisdom. This includes the ability to assume human form. Some folktales suggest that kitsune use this ability to trick others; others portray them as faithful guardians, friends and love. In the Cotswolds, witches were thought to take the shape of foxes to steal butter from their neighbours. In later European folklore, Reynard the Fox symbolizes trickery and deceit. In the actual world, this translates to resourcefulness, a quick study, and swift and decisive action. And perhaps that is the true meaning of Vixen.

Image of fox and crow from Aesop’s Fables 

Fox teaches us that gender equality helps to create a strong family, says Chris Lüttichau, author of Animal Spirit Guides. Fox’s medicine is family, survival and voice. Fox embodies resourcefulness and daring in her quest to feed herself and her young. “Fox survives and flourishes because she is clever and adaptable; she is now found living in cities. Fox teaches us to be flexible rather than to resist change.” According to Lüttichau, Fox’s medicine is “swiftness, surefootedness and a quick mind that always knows what to do.” Foxes have a wide vocal capacity and range, from screams and calls to low barks—something for each case as the fox calls and listens and calls back. We can learn from Fox’s varied voice to transcend traditions and prejudices through healing council and stories.

With thoughts returning to my Vera Vixen, I think that perhaps she is not a young unlucky fox who met with misadventure after all; rather, she’s a smart old vixen who’s birthed and nurtured several litters of four to six kits each spring. Her natural death after four to seven years of a rich life in the old growth forest and marsh of Jackson Creek would have led her to a quiet place to lay herself to rest; there her corpse was ultimately found by a badger, racoon or other fox and parts of her scattered throughout the forest to decompose and feed the ecosystem. Ever the mother, Vera now feeds the forest that nurtured her and her family’s existence. 

Jackson Creek during first heavy snow, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The Story of Fleet, the Fox of Surrey: In January 2014 it was reported that “Fleet”, a relatively tame urban red fox tracked as part of a wider study by the University of Brighton in partnership with the BBC’s TV series Winterwatch, had unexpectedly traveled 195 miles in 21 days from his neighbourhood in Hove, at the western edge of East Sussex, across rural countryside as far as Rye, at the eastern edge of the county. He was still continuing his journey when the GPS collar stopped transmitting due to suspected water damage. Along with setting a record for the longest journey undertaken by a tracked red fox in the United Kingdom, his travels have highlighted the fluidity of movement between rural and urban red fox populations.

Fox Prayer for 2021:

I call on Fox.
Shapeshifter and trickster.
Edge-walker and messenger.
Help me blend with my surroundings and adapt to the changing landscapes.
Show me the hidden paths between the worlds.
Teach me the ways of invisibility and camouflage.
Gift me your keen senses that i might see more of what is around me and use it to accomplish my goals.
I call on you, Fox, to bring magic and discernment into my life.
Lead me at your steady gait to those places where I might do the greatest good.
Let us walk the borders between day and night and follow the scent of divine mischief.
Fox, I call on you.

TRAVIS BOWMAN
Jackson Creek ices up in December, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The Tale of the Prayer and the Little Fox

Map of Jackson Creek Park and surrounding area, ON

Jackson Creek Old-Growth Forest:

Jackson Creek Old-Growth Forest (OGF) is a 4.5 hectare urban forest located on a glacial spillway slope littered with granite erratic boulders. The OGF lieswithin the Jackson Creek Riparian Forest, a 92-ha valleyland forest which extends into a major wetland of importance. Dominant conifers in the OGF include white cedar (Thuja occidentalis), white pine (Pinus strobus), and eastern hemlock (Tsuga Canadensis). Sugar maple, American beech, yellow birch, white ash and white oak contribute to the mixed riparian forest. Trees are commonly over 150 years old with some reaching over 250 years. Largest trees—which tend to be the pines and cedars—reach diameters of 97 cm dbh and heights of 35 metres. 

Cedar-pine-hemlock forest in Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The Jackson Creek valley was formed by the torrent of glacial meltwater that flowed from the ancient Lakes Algonquin and Jackson through the overlying till to create a glacial spillway some 12,000 years ago (Adams and Taylor 2009); the outflow of glacial Lake Algonquin was channeled to the former glacial Lake Iroquois—a body of water larger than the current Lake Ontario but in the same general area (Ecclestone and Cogley 2009).

The Jackson Creek OGF is a good example of a mature White Cedar—White Pine—Eastern Hemlock stand on a glacial spillway slope in Ecodistrict 6E-8. This eco-district extends in a band from south of Lake Simcoe eastward to the Bay of Quinte, north of the Oak Ridges Moraine, and is characterized by rolling till plains with drumlins, eskers, and intervening wide river valleys (Hanna 1984). 

Red fox skull found embedded on iced shore of Jackson Creek, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

References:

Adams, P. and C. Taylor. 2009. Peterborough and the Kawarthas (Third Edition). Geography Department, Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario. 252 pp. 

BBC. 2014. “BBC Two – Winterwatch, Urban Fox Diary: Part 2”. 23 January 2014

BBC. 2014. “Fleet the Sussex fox breaks British walking record”. 22 January 2014

Ecclestone, M. and G. Cogley. 2009. “The Physical Landscape of Peterborough and the Kawarthas.” In: Peterborough and the Kawarthas, Third Edition, ed. by P. Adams and C. Taylor, pp. 19-40. Geography Department, Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario. 

Hanna, R. 1984. “Life Science Areas of Natural and Scientific Interest in Site District 6-8.” Parks and Recreational Areas Section, Central Region, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, Richmond Hill, Ontario. 71 pp. & map. 

Henry, Michael, Peter Quinby and Michael McMurtry. 2016. “The Jackson Creek Old-Growth Forest” Research Report No. 33. Ancient Forest Exploration & Research. Online: http://www.ancientforest.org/wp-content/uploads/RR33-Jackson-Creek-OGF.pdf

Lüttichau, Chris. 2013. “Animal Spirit Guides.” Cico Books, London, UK. 160pp.

MacDonald, D. and J. Reynolds. 2005. “Red fox (Vulpes vulpes)” IUCN Canid Specialist Group. Online

Malkemper, E. Pascal, Vaclav Topinka, and Hynek Burda. 2015. “A behavioral audiogram of the red fox (Vulpes vulpes). Hearing Research Vol. 320: 30-37: Online

Monaghan, Patricia. 2004. “The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore”. Infobase Publishing. pp. 199–200. ISBN 978-0-8160-4524-2.

The Nature Conservancy: Nature.org. “Wetlands Mammals: Red Fox.” PDF Online

“Relatives are the worst friends, said the fox as the dogs took after him.” – Danish

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” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

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

Winter on Sea Wall StanleyPark

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.

Map of Stanley Park

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:

Hemlock on Cedar StanleyPark

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.”

Victorian woman giant trees 1901

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.”

Loggers springboard system Douglas-fir-1890s

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.

GeorgiaSt Entrance StanleyPark-bigfir-1894

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.”

NurseryTree StanleyPark

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.”

RemainingSevenSister burl

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.”

PaulineJohnson feather

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.

ProspectPoint 1891

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.

Nina looking up dougfir-LHP

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…”

Vancouver StanleyPark bridge

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.

Cedar trunk base

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.

Beetle bore holes pine log

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

larval tracks in pine wood

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

WoodpeckerHole on cedar

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.