a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
This past summer I watched two dozen cedars slowly die outside my window in False Creek. In a matter of months, they turned from green to rust, stood like candles ready to be lit on a day of mourning. I watched men climb them with chainsaws, slice them, and feed them to the wood chipper. I sat behind my glass door in vigil. These trees have defined our horizon for as long as we have lived here. Each time I sit to write, we nod to each other across Sawyer’s Lane, cedars and I.
Before the stump grinder arrived a week later, there was a bouquet of flowers on one stump, a pair of shoes on another. I wasn’t alone in my mourning. During the summer of 2019 over a hundred cedars came down along False Creek. For months the saws screamed, the chippers shredded. Each time that triggered a chain reaction of worry and grief that has slowly been taking grip of me in all the devastation. More cedars are coming down today. Too dry for cedar, the sawyer said, when I asked. Too dry for cedar, in cedar country.
All my life I have dragged bits of nature into my house—pebbles, shells, twigs, logs, twisted driftwood, rusty river rocks. As if they were life-giving. And they were. As if I needed them closer than outside. They remind me where life comes from. Coloured leaves, and four-leaf clovers I pressed decades ago, still fall out of the pages of books. As if they were not the outside, but more like the inside of what I call home. As if that is what books were made of. And they are. We are entangled with trees whether we acknowledge it or not, even if the only tree embrace some feel today is in the wood frames of their beds. In the lockdown of a pandemic I was advised that even five minutes under a tree will change my mood, and my outlook.
One enters the world by admiring it, says French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, “the poet no longer describes; he exalts.” It is this feeling I get when I’m among the trees. I am interested in how wonder, and awe, are a point of entry, how admiration makes that which is admired the best it can be. Be that a child, or a tree. Bachelard says, “it is non-sense to claim to study the imagination objectively since one receives the image only if one admires it.” What if we were to study the imagination subjectively? But, isn’t that what poets do? And Gaston Bachelard also says that imagination is a tree. Which perhaps means we cannot study trees objectively either. And if we do, we rob them of their being-ness, deny that they are a powerful web of life-support we depend on. A fact we’ve become too arrogant to remember. Perhaps, we’ll remember when we no longer have the luxury to stand under a tree and look at the world from there.
In one of my poems I say: We are the children of the trees. That line surprised me close to two decades ago, but the more I think about it, the more it has grown true. We will not be here if it were not for the trees. Trees watch over us. They hold us in their gaze. And if they look away, we will fall.
I climbed trees as a child. Spent endless untraceable hours in them. Growing up in Nigeria, I climbed most of the neem trees on the periphery of our yard. I picked tomatoes, peppers, or guavas from the garden, got a book, and hid in my favourite tree with branches conveniently shaped like a seat. That tree arched its back over the road by the fence. I watched the world below go by. Our swing hung from a tree. My closest encounter with a snake was hanging upside down in a tree. Eye to eye, me and the snake (likely deadly poisonous). That might also have been my fastest descent from a tree, still my record time.
My friendships with trees were as special as my childhood friendships. To this day, I dream with them, think with them. Their dendritic neurons shape thoughts that obsess me. So few of the school aged children I teach have climbed a tree, or remember climbing one. At best, they have the names of common trees like maple, apple, pine. Mostly, they call them trees. Trees have become an amorphous category, without nuance. Rarely, would a student bring me maple leaves, or chestnuts from outside. And I know they have to step over them to get to my studio. One student asked me once: Ms. Elza, what are those things sticking out of the ground called?
In 2007, the Oxford Junior Dictionary dropped over forty common nature words, among them acorn, adder, bluebell, dandelion, fern, heron, kingfisher, newt, otter, and willow. The reasoning? They were not being used enough by children to justify keeping them? They were replaced with words like blog, broadband, bullet-point, cut-and-paste, attachment, and voice-mail. Aldo Leopold said it well in A Sand County Almanac: “Education, I fear, is learning to see one thing by going blind to another.” He refers to the natural world as giving an education, and the creatures in it, as being his teachers. He calls his dog his professor, and his farm—a textbook.
Children learn what we put in front of them, until they can make better choices. Not only are kids over-scheduled, lacking the free-play time needed to grow and develop their imaginations, minds and bodies, but they are also held hostage inside apartments with wall-to-wall carpets, and interact with flat screens more often than with people. An environment hosting a proliferation of allergies and mental illnesses and conditions. It’s not a secret anymore that exposing young brains to technology in the first five years of their life is detrimental to brain development and bonding. Brain scans show underdeveloped and disorganized white matter in the language and literacy areas. Playing computer games obsessively shows a reduction in the executive functions part of the brain. The same is observed in people who are drug addicts. We are slowly beginning to realize just how damaging that is to a child’s physical and mental wellbeing. Not to mention, the planet. These are not choices children make. Recently I came across another study claiming that teaching students empathy improves their creativity. Yes, but it is their creativity to begin with that holds empathy with the living world. So what are we doing to teach them out of both? In March of 2020, after the pandemic lockdown, we went online to teach and children have been further pushed into the containment of rooms and this time forced to sit in front of screens. Their tactile learning through, and with, nature has shrank, and their relationships have been limited and truncated. I have been teaching online since March 2020 and I can see the struggle at the other end with children and parents. I can see the detrimental effects it has had on my mind, my voice, and my body.
My first love was a tree. We met in Sofia, on a different continent. Don’t get me wrong, there were boys and, oh, did they like me. But this was different. I walked out of Sofia University quite upset, burning with the fire of being misunderstood over a spat with a colleague. I crossed the street to the park and plopped myself under a tree. Compelled to look up, I was instantly transported by the sunlight filtering through the vaulted crown. Tension perceptibly drained from my body. Peace washed over me, as if some kind of healing had happened, some kind of balance—restored. My petty concerns paled away before a profound presence. As Annie Dillard put it in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, “It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance.” Love at first sight. I went on with my day, lighter, transformed.
In I and Thou Martin Buber says, “if will and grace are joined, as I contemplate a tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It.” I returned to my tree often during my university years. It never disappointed me. No matter the season or weather, it had something to offer. I gave my tree a name. I was not wise enough to marry him. I was restless, anxious to travel, to move around, to move away, and he could not follow me. If I’m lucky he’ll be there when I go back.
Years later, this experience showed up in a poem, in the voice of a much younger version of myself.
in her silent presence I would whisper
when from the world withdrawn
in her leaves I wrapped my secrets small
and left them to the crows.
A dozen years ago, I had a memorable exchange with a tree on a third continent, during a hike with my family in Capilano Park. We stopped by a brass plaque. The name of this massive, old-growth Douglas fir is Grandpa Capilano. Singled out, it didn’t look that different from the trees surrounding it.
I read the plaque to my seven-year-old son. Something about the distance in time—being a sprout at the time of Columbus (I wish there was a better point of reference)—something about the size of the tree (2.4 meters in diameter, 61 meters tall), or was it because the tree was called Grandpa (reminding me of our inherent, undeniable lineage), overwhelmed me. I encountered this ancient being in its all-at-once-ness, and my voice cracked.
“What’s wrong, mama?” my son asked.
I didn’t know what was wrong. I didn’t know what was right either. I buried the puzzlement at the back of my head. Time passed and another poem sprouted. And I knew it was in response to that moment.
and you do not know how
you know it is not grief that fills
the eye with tears.
I knew these tears were not grief. I wanted to know what they were. What was the overwhelming feeling, this recognition? A beautiful thing, ever so brief. How much of our lives is spent elsewhere. Now I know they were tears of love and also grief. You cannot grieve that which you do not love.
Words matter. Trees and humans share more than we can comprehend, but let’s begin with limbs, trunks, crowns, cells, verticality, roots, imaginations. How we name is how we remember. As if I have a memory of being them once. As if we have shared the same skin, as if our cells remember the urgency of what is life-giving. “Poetry is what I start to hear when I concede the world’s ability to manage and to understand itself,” says Robert Bringhurst in The Tree of Meaning. No wonder I turned to poetry for my answers. To be fully present one has to succumb to something bigger than logic, or reason. Poetry is an opening. In poetry we can do something with words that words shouldn’t be able to do. I can be a tree. We can be a forest together.
When we violate the ecosystems we are part of, our bodies grieve. It takes time for the mind to catch up, to rationalize this grief. I wish it was more immediate. I wish it didn’t take so long to wake up to it. Having taken the planet for granted, we are becoming more and more aware that it is something we can lose, unravel, destroy. We now speak of ecological grief. Ecology comes from the Greek word oikos meaning house. We are grieving the unraveling of our home. This is not something outside of us. This is an unraveling inside of us.
As I write this we are still fighting against the logging of old growth trees. In Mexico a group of women held marriage ceremonies to draw attention to illegal logging. Here in Canada, we are still filling out surveys and questionnaires to defend the rights of these ancient beings. Sadly, they distract us with questions like What does the term “old growth” mean to you? or What are the top three reasons you feel old growth forests are important? I’m not kidding. This is not a matter of perception. And facts, like corporations, do not have feelings or empathy. Just the other day I filled that survey. As if we are in some grade-four classroom just beginning to explore the topic. I suspect the questions are asked in a way that will angle the results to serve the decisions already made. Because words matter. Because politicians label “old growth” now as not the mature original trees, and that way they can pretend they are doing something. In this upcoming election I’ll be talking to another politician about this, and instead of a turkey for Thanksgiving I will be roasting them with questions. The question: What does old growth mean to you? does not seem so benign anymore. How we label things matter. How the meaning slips and shifts under our noses is significant.
All this as the forests burn, as the cedars come down, as we keep digging up coal and gas, and as our government stubbornly keeps subsidizing fossil fuel activity. We have found ourselves in the next predicament—the pandemic. A convenient distraction from the big issues, but also a wonderful moment of pause where, if we are lucky, we have more time to examine the many ways we are failing people and planet. We argue, protest, as if we need to convince anyone that we need clean water, or air to survive. Our bodies are screaming at us to pay attention. The bigger the awareness and love for the planet, the bigger the grief. We are the children of the trees, and our children are watching. If they look away we will fall.
In 2018, in protest to the omitted nature words from the dictionary, Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris wrote and illustrated a “spell book” that conjures back twenty of the missing words. Lost Words has a poem dedicated to each one. It begins with summoning acorn back into the world, and ends with wren. The book is big and impressive—about fifteen inches tall. I have a copy in my office. My students peel the pages one at a time, and think about the connection between a word and what it represents, between signifier and signified.
How do we re-wild the childhood imagination amidst all this devastation and impoverishment? In my class I keep rocks, and leaves, moss and twigs, pinecones, and chestnuts. I have a bowl of beach-rocks to which I add water. We admire how the rocks change colour when they get wet. This is our stone soup. We inspire our senses to look longer, and deeper, and further. We read picture books by indigenous authors, with indigenous wisdom, and research indigenous plants and their properties.We write poems. Being in touch with where life comes from is something we, the adults, are depriving our children from. We also forget that as adults we too need to nourish ourselves from the source. Martin Buber says: the other does not fully come into being unless we form a loving relationship with it. What a simple idea: Love as methodology. It is how I treat my students, my children, people, animals, rocks, and trees. It’s hard to grieve that which you are not connected to in the first place. And you can only grieve if you have loved what is being lost.
When my older son was about seven, he drew a picture of… I could not tell what? Seashells? He corrected, “tree stumps, mama. See, the trees have burned.” Indeed two red glowing dots, the eye of tree or root, underneath a mouth or scar, as if the earth was hurt. The third stump had wispy lines coming up from it, faint, like the memory of something gone.
“Look,” he said, “and this is the spirit of the tree that has burned.” He is turning twenty four this year, and I do not have comfort for him that we are wiser now.
Again I hear the scream of the saws, and the rumbling of the shredders. They are back for the next batch of dead cedar. This is not a localized phenomenon. Cedars have been dying in the last few years with the dry summers. Too dry for cedar, in cedar country. The trees come down. The words disappear from the dictionary, and from children’s minds. Not because children do not use them, but because we do not find them important enough to keep, and to teach. And so species disappear on the edge of our inattention.
We spell, and speak the names in class: acorn, adder, bluebell, dandelion, fern, heron, kingfisher, newt, otter, willow. We write poems to them. We write letters to the Oxford Junior Dictionary to bring them back.
Anne Lamott says: “this business of becoming conscious, … is ultimately about asking yourself: How alive are you willing to be.” We cannot truly be alive if we do not connect to where life comes from. Polish philosopher Henryk Skolimowski says, “Life is a growing tree of sensitivities.” We are the ones that have to grow those sensitivity trees inside our minds first. We need these new dream organs to imagine the future.
Once regarded as You, the tree becomes a presence more than an object of investigation. In an article published in 1997 titled Listening with Courtesy, Tim Lilburn added to my hope with the following stance. I ran with it, even though he didn’t sound too optimistic. He said:
There is consciousness as thief, going in to this thing that is not it and taking stuff out; there is consciousness as stranger, never on the inside. But if this possibility is true there is consciousness as integral or necessary to the thing, participatory. Eros becomes part of cosmology: the tree in order to be this tree and no other tree needs me or you or somebody else to need it, love it, celebrate it. Then it becomes itself in the excitement of human consciousness.
I have been obsessed with this kind of eros ever since. We have diminished eros over the centuries. Limited it to ourselves and our bodily pursuit. How human of us. There is an ecstasy in transcending yourself, in leaving our small ego-driven worlds, in standing outside and beside yourself. To connect, and relax in the arms of something much more expansive and nourishing seems like a luxury. It is not. It is a necessity. I dare you to try it. The world looks different under trees.
I visited my first love a few years ago. It was hard to find him. I’d forgotten the details of his features. I didn’t know what state he was in. I was worried he might have gotten sick, might’ve been take down, like the cedars. The place had changed. We cannot sit still like trees, we are not satisfied, we constantly alter the world to feel like we are doing something, to feel “alive.” As children of the trees, what do we owe the trees?
And there he was. It was not a sunny day, so I couldn’t see the sunlight through his massive crown. I sat under quietly, until I felt he too remembered me. We sat like that for a long time. I told him this story. I told him about the next three rusty cedars looking at me through my window. Marked with big orange dots, they are slated for chopping. And I was not sure how to comfort him.
Daniela Elza lived on three continents before immigrating to Canada in 1999. She writes poetry and creative nonfiction. Some of her recent essays can be found in the Queen’s Quarterly, Riddle Fence, Grain Magazine, Motherwell, and The Tyee. Her latest poetry collections the broken boat (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2020) & slow erosions, a collaborated chapbook with Arlene Ang (Collusion Books, 2020) were published and launched under pandemic conditions. Daniela works as a Writing and Speech Arts teacher at the Bolton Academy for Spoken Arts.