From the earliest times, forests have been sanctuaries. To this day, that’s how many aboriginal peoples perceive them. That’s certainly how the ancient Druids saw them, hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, as did the early Germans, whose Teutonic word for « temple’’ referred to forests. And who among us did not grow up within the imaginary embrace of Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest of the 1300s?
In our time, however, we’ve been robbing our forests of their mystery. Like a league of sheriffs of Nottingham, we’ve concentrated increasingly on collecting tithes, and that, translated into forests, means sawtimber, plywood, paper products, particle board, pharmaceuticals, tourism, rubber, gums, syrups … monocultures of harvestable commodities.
The more we do this — the more we allow our forests to be defined in a sheriff’s pound, shillings, and pence — the more we shrink our sense of self and place.
So it was with growing pleasure that I listened to Diana Beresford-Kroeger talk about forests. « They are the cathedrals of life,’’ she said. « That’s what Emily Carr caught in her paintings. Their majesty.’’
She and her husband, Christian, are following a dream of seeing the eastern black walnut restored to forests across Ontario. « It used to be the king of the forest,’’ she said. « It didn’t grow anywhere else in the world outside of eastern North America.’’
But it was so valuable a commodity, especially for making furniture, that it was almost wiped out.
We can only guess what the forest contained when settlers arrived, she said, because no one kept a record. « No census of the old forest was ever done.’’
For the past 25 years, on their farm near Merrickville, south of Ottawa, she and her husband have been developing a strain of black walnut, and of other trees native to southern Ontario, that can withstand cold temperatures. Their millennium project has been to give away free seeds of the new strains. The project is ending, but there is still time if you want to order seeds, or obtain more information. Write to them at, P.O. Box 253, Merrickville, K0G-1N0.
« What I’m doing really,’’ Diana said, « is planting a dream. Forests are the birthright of everyone. If we don’t have them, we have despair, and that’s what’s threading through our children’s minds right now.
« The kids who come through (the farm) are despairing. They’re going around with ghosts in their heads. They’re in denial. They see destruction of the natural world all around them, and all around the globe, and they say `I can’t worry about that. That’s too huge for me to take on.’
« My God, isn’t it enough just to grow up, without laying this despair on them? We have no right to do that.’’
She and Christian give tours of their gardens, which also contain heritage flowers and fruit-bearing plants that they are developing into strains able to withstand greater cold. The gardens are beautifully photographed by Christian in Diana’s new book, Bioplanning a North Temperate Garden (Quarry Press, $39.95 in paperback).
« When the children see what we’re doing, they’re absolutely fired; they’re elevated. It gives them hope,” Diana said. It shunts aside their despair.
Her comments have hung in my memory with a spectral persistence through the two weeks since I interviewed her. Statistics Canada has just published its new National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth which found that nearly 7 per cent of children entering their teenaged years have seriously considered committing suicide.
Girls (8.4 per cent) were twice as likely as boys (4.6 per cent) to have contemplated suicide.
I can’t help wondering if their despair is connected, at least in part, to our increasing estrangement from nature. We are, after all animals, who have evolved in communion with the land over millions of years. If we deny that communion, will we become dysfunctional? And will our children be our first victims?
These are not hypothetical questions. There’s a whole emerging field of ecopsychology that says just that.