Walking Through These Trees, Knowing

We speak of losing ourselves in both books and forests, but only the latter bodes ill. We pine to escape dark thickets in phrases like “We’re not out of the woods yet.” However, this view of woodlands as sinister and impassible is lensed by colonizers—or, as we call ourselves in Canada, settlers. Fearing an expanse of trees only makes sense if you traffic in cities, industrialization, normalizing, conquering. It only makes sense if you have never been close to the earth.

I’m trying to learn unity and reverence, not fear, in a majestic old-growth forest on the Royal Roads University Campus, which rests on the Xwsepsum and Lekwungen families’ unceded lands on Vancouver Island. Moss emeralds the ground. It reflects not just light but touch; I can feel its cat-fur softness from six feet away. I’m breathing in the smells of mushrooms and pine needles, musk and lichen, and a further June rose.

Botanist and bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer suggests, “When botanists go walking in the forests and fields looking for plants, we say we are going on a foray. When writers do the same, we should call it a metaphoray, and the land is rich in both.” Such a metaphoray requires the writer to remain alert to the terrain, and indeed, my senses quicken as I fathom this forest from the ground up. As I grow, rustling and dappled, at its feet.

The Soil

“Daily, we are grateful to Xwsepsum and Lekwungen families, who continue to share their knowledge about the lands’ history and their cultural practices”—in Canada, such territorial acknowledgements have become common practice over the past ten years, especially at universities. We sign our emails with them and read them aloud at the start of meetings and courses. While some Indigenous peoples fear they are empty gestures, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which spent years conducting interviews and gathering documents related to the impacts of residential schools, recommends them as a first step.

Steps make imprints. In a workshop on Indigenous Cultural Acumen, the Métis facilitator talked about how he values territorial acknowledgements as chances for us to resituate ourselves. They force settlers like me to consider, even fleetingly, the implications of our presence on places that Indigenous peoples have long loved. He told us of an Elder he knows who asks people, after they hear such an acknowledgement, How are you going to walk on this land, knowing what you know?

This question softens my footsteps, then stills them. My head falls back. Douglas firs spire my gaze, evergreen plumb lines of time. They tilt the world 90 degrees, reminding me of the painting by local legend Emily Carr, Scorned As Timber, Beloved of the Sky. In that 1935 artwork, one proud tree, survivor of deforestation, is haloed against heavens, ruin made numinous and then something new.

Here, planted in this soil, I think about the many devastations that have overcome this land. And I think of the devastations, and the recoveries, that must follow.


The Seeds, Nuts, and Roots

Since I was diagnosed with lupus five years ago, I’ve changed my diet and become fanatical about seeds and nuts. Flax, chia, hemp, pumpkin, walnuts, cashews, almonds—I grow my day from their nutrients every morning. Once upon a time, humans got in into their heads to etch The Iliad on a nutshell and enclose miniature Bibles in walnuts. But seeds and nuts, nature’s netsuke, have already shrunk the supreme teachings of an entire organism into their small, intricately carved chambers.

This time we live in renders us all seedlings, young in the ways of our new world. A world we altered too quickly. The solution may lie in its moments, each one bigger than all of us. We have to let time unfold; we have to both act fast and accept that positive change will take a long time. We must put down roots even though we are unlikely to see their trees fruit.

I sense the life beneath the forest floor. The roots and mycorrhizae, the fungal system that feeds the trees and reaps the benefits of photosynthesis. In order to thrive, we must accustom ourselves to such symbiotic relationships. Relationships that nourish ourselves and our neighbors, just like my morning seed and nut feast nourishes me.

We need to rush beyond the tree line, so very far off, and toward deeper roots.


The Bark

Each ecosystem suffers endemic blights.

To visitors, Vancouver Island can seem an enchanted place, including Victoria, its biggest city and the capital of British Columbia. I made my first trip to it in 2008. Drug use at the time fogs my memories in the present; I drifted over the land back then, a hungry ghost touching no ground. Still, I don’t think I could have imagined much crime or poverty here on that visit, charmed by formal gardens and harbor views. Now I know better. Victoria hosts a tragically large homeless population, and too many of the island’s denizens perish from addiction, particularly to opioids.

Vancouver Island also faces a persistent issue, branching off from poverty and addiction, with timber theft. Old-growth Douglas fir, cedar, and big leaf maple trees are most commonly stolen. From January to April 2021, one hundred trees were pilfered from a single municipal forest reserve. As an article in The Atlantic about such crimes explained, timber poaching spikes in tandem with lumber prices, and the latter rose stratospherically during this period. Such theft harms ecosystems, and the resultant stumps and fallen wood endanger people in cars and on foot. Meanwhile, the logging industry, a driver of the island’s export economy and jobs, frets over its survival.

In 2020, the Government of British Columbia published A New Future for Old Forests. The 72-page plan attempts to reconcile these conflicts, stressing the importance of partnerships with First Nations communities and the conservation of biodiversity while leaving the door open for controlled logging. Despite its equivocation, the report represents a paradigm shift from looking at the trees as endlessly renewable to regarding them as precious resources, and in elevating ecosystem health over short-term gain.

Yet something shadows this forest I’m seeing, smelling, hearing, and touching today beyond fights over stewardship and logging. In January 2021, a swastika and an anti-Black slur were spray-painted on its trees. Looking at them now, speaking to one another wordlessly, it’s painful to imagine this language disfiguring them, the one storm they can’t withstand.

Hate is primeval, a slash-and-burn technique. It’s hard as bark, but the outer coat of bark comprises dead cells. They can be stripped away. Slowly, carefully: the bark of a Douglas fir may be up to one-foot thick, and stripping too much will kill it. Slowly, carefully: as time joins hands, like children dancing in a ring, to engrave the trunk’s wisdom.


The Boughs

Our future health hangs in the boughs of these trees.

Maintaining their sanctuary is a prerequisite for avoiding pandemics in the years to come. The ascendancy of infectious diseases—they have quadrupled over the past sixty years—is partly a result of human encroachment on natural ecosystems, including deforestation. Wildlife are responsible for seventy percent of emerging infectious diseases, but we are responsible for animals’ burgeoning proximity to humans. The problem is much closer to home than wet markets in China. When we infringe on their habitats, animals live nearer to each other and to us, and zoonotic diseases pop up like mushrooms in the night.

Deforestation can worsen malaria and trigger Ebola outbreaks. And if it seems like you suddenly know a lot more people with Lyme disease, it’s not just because we’re more aware of it now—the tick-borne disease is more prevalent for the same reason. To complicate the issue, the chaos of COVID-19 provided cover for illegal tropical deforestation. Researchers found that in the first month after global lockdown measures were announced, deforestation alerts from Global Land Analysis & Discovery increased, compared to 2019, by 63% in terms of land area in the Americas and Asia-Pacific, and by 136% in Africa. Such opportunistic forest clearing creates a vicious cycle of more pandemics, more clearings, and so on.

COVID-19 has taught us that without sustainable practices, it’s not just forests that will die. Our limbs intertwine. When the boughs break, we do too.

I ask the trees if COVID-19 is a “once-in-a-lifetime” pandemic, as politicians are assuring us.

“What do you think?”

I move my head against their grain.

The wind blowing through them seems to answer: “You’re probably right.”


The Forest for the Trees

Years ago, I read Ovid on a night train between Prague and Budapest. The story of Daphne and Apollo called to me as the flirtations of the three other passengers in my compartment, all men, shaded darker with the advancing hours. Eros sets Apollo’s heart aquiver for Daphne, a free-spirited virgin, but with a separate arrow hardens her against love. Thereafter, Apollo relentlessly pursues her. In the moment just before capture, Daphne’s prayer to be released from beauty’s trap is only partially answered: “heavy numbness seized her limbs, thin bark closed over her breast, her hair turned into leaves, her arms into branches, her feet so swift a moment ago stuck fast in slow-growing roots, her face was lost in the canopy. Only her shining beauty was left.” In this land of perpetual chasing-after and being-chased-by, Daphne was now still, and free. Petrified, but no longer afraid.

Today, in this bower, I think about Daphne, about how self-preservation and preservation of nature merge like her hair and laurel leaves. Arbors console us; spending time in them may help us rest from our never-ending human race. By the same token, their loss wounds us.

Eco-anxiety, also called climate anxiety, is plaguing more people. Sometimes it manifests in those affected by climate change in a dramatic way. They may have been made homeless or forced to migrate to a new country due to a natural disaster or global warming. Others are responding to subtler tears in our environmental fabric. Even more frequent heat waves are suspected to negatively impact mental health, with children most sensitive to them because their thermoregulation mechanisms aren’t fully developed. But they can be a nightmare to people of all ages. In June 2021, British Columbia, trapped under a heat dome, smashed all previous temperature records, becoming one of the hottest places on the planet. On Vancouver Island, some days topped out at 100 degrees, about thirty degrees above normal, and I sweated over our future. For four nights, I barely slept, my memory foam mattress a hot rock. My gastrointestinal system faltered. I couldn’t think of anything but the heat, the here, and how we got to our foreshadowed fate so suddenly. As the heat moved east, wildfires created their own thunderstorms through the production of pyrocumulonimbus clouds, called the “fire-breathing dragon of clouds.” My mother-in-law’s brother, who lives in British Columbia’s interior, said the lightning strikes came down like an aerial blitz, one after another, demanding a fight.

Beyond these concrete causes, many people with eco-anxiety are reacting to something that is literally in the air: an existential threat of our own making but far beyond individual control. They grieve vanishing landscapes, maybe a beloved copse like this one, and wonder what else will disappear in the future, who or what will remain. Depression swells alongside anxiety. Mikkel Krause Frantzen writes in Going Nowhere, Slow: The Aesthetics and Politics of Depression, “More often than not [depression] is a matter of the world you live in, the work that you hate, or the job that you just lost, the debt that haunts your present from the future, or the fact that the planet’s future is going still faster and further down the drain.”

Forest walks have been prescribed for depression, with a 2018 study showing that a 15-minute walk by participants reduced “depression-dejection,” “tension-anxiety,” “anger-hostility,” “fatigue,” and “confusion.” In Japan, researchers have analyzed the effects of shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing, for nearly twenty years, with results suggesting similar improvements to mood as well as physiological benefits like reduced blood pressure. But sylvan strolls may also induce depression when we witness shrinking habitats and ravished stumps. When we finally see our global forest for the trees and want to scream, What have we done?


The Red Forest

Can we reverse what we’ve done? It’s hard to tell. Trees aren’t invincible—not at all—but their roots run deeper than we can see, their trunks are strong, and their leaves and needles clutch at life.

Consider these Douglas firs. They lend their strength to our shelters on land, on water, and in the air. They light up the Christmas season, bringing us joy in dark days. Indigenous peoples have crafted fish hooks and snowshoes out of their wood and covered floors with their boughs. They have also used them to cure headaches, upset stomachs, and rheumatism.

The scientific term for Douglas firs is Pseudotsuga menziesii, the genus name meaning “false hemlock.” Menziesii nods to Scottish botanist Archibald Menzies, who documented the first Douglas fir during a 1791 expedition to Vancouver Island. This island is also home to the oldest-known Pseudotsuga menziesii, which has been alive for as many as 1400 years.

Trees can endure, and ecosystems can surprise us. For example, thirty-five years after the worst nuclear accident in history, the Chernobyl exclusion zone teems with wildlife. Following the disaster, a four-square-kilometer pine forest adjacent to the reactor died, almost overnight. The blushing-bleached needles inspired its nickname, the Red Forest. Today, though, the Red Forest is populated by bison and Przewalski horses, boar and birds.

I’ve always been transfixed by Chernobyl, partly because I’m the daughter of a physicist and the disaster was a big deal in my household. But it’s also because news reports about it were among the last media I saw before my own body detonated and I was hospitalized for anorexia, at age eleven. The fact that the Red Forest can flourish again moves me deeply. Like in a fairy tale, this forest teaches me life lessons. Sara Maitland has written exquisitely about the synergistic relationship between fairy tales and forests. We see the latter through the sprites and spells of the former, and no matter how dense and twisted forests can be, we long to save them in part because of these bedtime stories.

Yet the footprints of bears and lynxes in the exclusion zone today carve out an alarming truth. Scientists have hypothesized that the resurgence of wildlife in radioactive areas may be due to the fact that humans fled them. In other words, we’re more dangerous than a nuclear meltdown. As individuals, we’re weak, but our cumulative power—like an evil queen, like a scarlet forest—terrifies.


The Canopy

Children love trees not just because they can climb and swing from them. They love trees for the high vantage points they offer and their gentle management of growth. These giants are more dependable metrics of time than children’s own bodies, timbering years that for them first tarry, then spurt, then blur more and more with each summer lived.

When I was little, I treasured a picture book about people living in marvelous treehouses. I lost it and have never been able to find it again, having forgotten the title and author. With my feet on the soil of this forest, though, I wonder if this is the book of treehouses I dreamt of finding.

It’s safe from loss, for now. And after the graffiti incident, Royal Roads University held a small smudging ceremony to cleanse the area. Smudging ceremonies purify a place or a person. In the ceremonies of British Columbia’s First Nations, cedar boughs, sage, and sweet grass are burned in a container, often a shell. As the sacred herbs ignite, the elements join to drive out negative energy, with the plants symbolizing earth, their lighting fire, the shell water, and the smoke—which is wafted over the area or person with a hand or eagle feather—air. The leftover ashes are deposited in the ground.

Trees are sentient. Of course, they don’t think as we do, but I wonder if they felt relief once the hatred was exorcised around them in this way. Did light shine through their canopy?

I have to remember to look up. Douglas firs are dance made vertical. Just as human dancers flesh out negative space when they reach for a partner, these trees yearn upward, toward a dream beyond recall. As they do, space previously invisible is pined and needled, divulging a stenciled sky.

I want to see these trees as they are, but I can’t resist seeing them as standing for something else: for resilience and faith. Not blind-eyed faith, but the acute, searching, beyond 20/20 (and 2020) kind.

Seeing is important, but so is listening. Closing my eyes, I listen to the trees, their gasps and moans, their soughing and sighs. Since childhood, I’ve been assaulted by obsessive-compulsive thoughts, splintered nightmares and commands to self-harm sprinting through my mind. I grabbed at things to fill my head and drown them out—books, relationships, work, drugs, even counting the words in sentences. Now I wish I’d let nature’s speech flow through my ears. The poems on its soundtrack offer comfort. They murmur that along with the trees of this forest, I’m part of the whole.

I’m 47 on this day. If I’m lucky, I’m at the dead-center of my life, wedded to the world by the middle ring on my trunk. Not knowing where I’ll go from here, but thinking about how I’ll walk along the way, knowing what I know.