Borealis

The TVO and National Film Board of Canada film Borealis by Kevin McMahon opens with ‘tree song’ and Diana Beresford Kroeger’s voice: “The design of Nature is music. If you listen to the trees, you will hear their song. And some people actually hear an individual song for certain species.”

Early in the film, you see Edmund Metatawabin, a Fort Albany First Nation writer, walking ghost-like in the forest. His voice tells us that when the trees look at us, we would just be like “these little things flitting by.” This simple comment underscores the difference that time plays to a tree that may live to a thousand years in contrast to a human who—if they are lucky—may live to a hundred. Says Metatawabin:

“We have a certain relationship with the trees, their living essence. The tree has been here for a long time, standing in the same spot but watching…They’re our older relations. We’re very happy and secure that they’re there, still standing watching over us. Some of us have heard them sing.”

Edmund Metatawabin
Boreal forest after a natural fire (Borealis)

In a frank interview with Madeline Lines of POV Magazine about the making of Borealis, filmmaker Kevin McMahon talked about how the rugged beauty of the boreal forest belies a fragility poised on a precarious balance with humanity.

The film discusses some of the major relationships and mechanisms of this complex and unique ecosystem through the voices of scientists and naturalists who study and know the forest: botanists, population and aquatic ecologists, atmospheric scientists, forest entomologists and researchers and guides. 

“The story of the boreal forest [is that] basically … it goes up, burns itself down and like a phoenix, goes up again,” says McMahon. “There’s a complexity—the trees influence the animals, the animals influence the trees, so a community grows up over at least two centuries, usually, and sometimes three, or four.”

Natural fire cycles through the boreal forest every hundred years to renew it (Borealis)

One of the narrators tells us that the boreal forest has “survived and thrived in this regime of semi-regular stand-renewing fire.” This natural cycle of creative destruction is common in most ecosystems where destruction engenders rebirth and renewal by a community of species well-adapted to these cyclical changes. Botanist Diana Beresford-Kroeger adds, “the jack pine cones will only open on fire. The resin needs to be melted off the cone and then they shed their seeds.” The cones of tall spruce trees aggregate at the top of the tree, where the fire provides enough heat to open them but not burn them. White birch saplings sprout—phoenix-like—from the burnt tree base and roots. Aspen roots also send up thousands of suckers to become new clone trees of a renewed forest. The dead trees provide substrate for mosses, lichens and fungi that bring in moisture and decompose the logs into nutrients used by the living forest.

Aspen clone saplings cover the forest floor after a fire (Borealis)

The movie showcases some of the most vivid details of tree function, including the microscopic view of opening and closing stomata (pores on a leaf). Stomata take in CO2 and release oxygen during photosynthesis. They also release water vapour as part of transpiration and other chemicals such as metabolic aerosols.

Stomata on the underside of leaf release aerosols, carbon dioxide and water (Borealis)

The devastation of climate change strongly features in the film as does our own mismanagement of the forests.  A particularly telling scene was shot in the Yukon by Joshua See where squirrels have co-evolved with spruce trees in a relationship they’ve developed over 1000 years. The squirrels have timed their reproduction with the spruce production of cones and release of seeds; but climate change has knocked the trees out of sync with the squirrels, which is threatening the survival of the squirrel.

Red squirrel eating spruce seeds from cone (Borealis)

“I think that’s probably the first time any human being has seen such a vivid example of the rhythms of nature being thrown out of sync by climate change. And the funny thing is, if you listen to the climate change debate, as I obviously do fairly closely, that is something that has not really sunk in with the general public,” said McMahon. “People know about storms, and because of Australia and California they’re starting to learn about the impact it has on fires. But the reality that the rhythms of the world are all screwed up has not really sunk in, and Borealis has two really powerful examples of this. One is what happens to the squirrels, and the other is what’s happening to the trees, with what’s happening with the pine beetles.” 

Aerial shot of river and boreal forest (Borealis)
Fern fiddleheads in boreal forest (Borealis)

McMahon then adds soberly, “That last big dramatic drone shot [in the film] where you see that, basically, the boreal forest is dying – that’s Jasper National Park. This iconic forest that Canadians have sort of hung their identity on – you know, the snow-capped pine trees, and whatever – that forest is dying. It’s in a death spiral.” 

McMahon admits: “I didn’t know when I started this project 10 years ago about the state of the forest. I was intending to make a film about how the forest worked. I did not realize until I started really talking to scientists that it is dying…The boreal forest is dying, and we are doing a super shitty job of taking care of it.” 

This resonated particularly with me; I’d just published my latest eco-novel A Diary in the Age of Water with Inanna Publications. The novel—about four generations of women and their unique relationship with water—begins with a blue being in the unknown future as she runs through a dying forest of the north, the last boreal forest in the world… 

Clearcut logging the boreal forest (Borealis)
Pest-ridden boreal forest (Borealis)

McMahon adds a sober note about Canadian awareness:

“I think that in Canada – and this has been a theme of mine for decades – we pat ourselves on the back for being fresh faced boy scout-types, and we have this sense of ourselves as being green because we have so much green. The best thing about my career is I’ve been able to travel so much around this country. And it is a huge, huge country, and we do have just incredible, astonishing wilderness here–and we are wrecking it. We’re wrecking it in an extremely heedless, pointless, stupid kind of way. So I want that to sink in with people.

All those people at the end of the film that talk about the fact that the forest is collapsing, and we’re going to end up with a shrubland, and the forest emits more carbon than it sequesters–those are all Canadian government scientists. They’re not environmentalists. There’s no environmentalist voice in this film, in fact. I didn’t go to Greenpeace or any of those kinds of people, I went only to people who have a direct, material day-to-day interaction with the forest. Those people at the end of the film are on your payroll, and their job is to figure out what’s going. That’s what they’ve figured out, and I don’t think hardly anybody in this country knows that.”

Kevin McMahon

 But McMahon remains hopeful. He cites Ursula Franklin, a scientist and peace activist who said, “Despair is a luxury we cannot afford.” McMahon responds with, “That’s the model that I live by really, because if I didn’t have hope I wouldn’t bother making these films, I’d just retire.”

Tree planter Isabella plants spruce and pine in a clearcut (Borealis)

Near the end of the film, tree planter Isabella reminds us that, “We have the ability to make whatever it is that we imagine, so let’s just start imagining a new path, let’s start imagining a new way. We are so tied to this experience and whatever happens to that forest is going to be a reflection of what happens to us.”

The film ends with the powerful wisdom of indigenous writer Edmund Metatawabin: 

“We are here to make sure that the world, that the species, that humanity continues. The trees are the support, guidance, encouragement, and faith that things are just the way they’re supposed to be. That’s support from something that’s inanimate it looks like; but you’re getting it because it’s connected to the ground and its aiming for the sky. It’s a conduit between the earth and the sun. To see the tree as a living light … When you see that light you’ve gotten a gift; you’re going to be very humbled.”

Edmund Metatawabin

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.

“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.

Nature as Poet … The Forest in Winter

Woman and her dog walk the cedar swamp forest, Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu
Trail through cedar forest in first snow, Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Moss covered roots and trunk of yellow birch after snowfall, Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Young marcescent beech tree among moss covered glacial erratics in Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Snow-covered marcescent beech leaves in Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Heavy snowfall at bridge in Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)
Cedar pine forest after first snow, Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo and dry brush rendition 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.

To the Mystic Forest by Bev Gorbet–an Ekphrastic Poem

Path birch PPP

Trail through mixed birch-pine forest at Petroglyph Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Since moving temporarily to Peterborough during COVID-19, I have been on an adventure with Nature in the Kawartha region, north of Toronto. The region contains a chain of lakes that form the upper watershed of the Trent River; the lakes are situated on the boundary between the Paleozoic limestone region of the Golden Horseshoe and the Precambrian granite Canadian Shield of northern and central Ontario.

I’ve explored several local parks and lakes with wonderful swamp cedar on the Otonabee River and Jackson Creek and uphill beech-maple forest in the Trent Nature Sanctuary.

Farther afield, I wandered through the pine forests of Petroglyph Park, north of Peterborough, with its intriguing meromictic McGinnis Lake.

When I shared some of my Petroglyph Park photos with Toronto poet and friend Bev Gorbet, she was inspired to write this poem. I am overjoyed to share her ekphrastic poem with you here:

 

Path pine forest wide PPP

Trail through pine forest, Petroglyph Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

To the Mystic Forest: Reflections on Natural Beauty

Forests of the mind, wild forests of the heart…
The ethereal sounds: windstorm and echo
On a spring day…
The wind’s fierce flight through bended bough,
Through swaying treetop

High high above, the windswept call, the cry,
All the beauty in a wilderness forest…
The whispering grasses, below,
Song all bend, all flow in a cathedral clearing…

Trillium aging white

Aging white trillium, Petroglyph Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Radiant beams, sunlight and shadow peppering
The moving boughs overhead…
Azure and lavender, sky-swept cloud
And mystic glow…

Oh! great forests of the mind,
Great forest of the heart…
A deepest beauty along an existential meridian:
The heart passionately centred, deeply into reflection:
Haunted days and alone

Wind call and cry, whisper and sigh
Great wilderness lands, wide forested plains
All the wondrous beauty, all the holy mystery:
Windswept, wind-tossed skies, the great forests
Mystery glorious, mystic days beyond time.

Bev Gorbet, June 2020

 

BevGorbetBev Gorbet is a Toronto poet and retired school teacher. She has published several poems with the Retired Teachers Organization and most recently in “Literary Connection IV: Then and Now” (In Our Words Inc., 2019), edited by Cheryl Antao Xavier.

 

 

 

 

 

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Petroglyph Park pine forest trail (artwork by Nina Munteanu)

 

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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.

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.