Diana Beresford-Kroeger is an Irish-born and Ontario-based author, scientist and environmentalist.
Her latest project is the feature-length documentary Call of the Forest, which was produced with Winnipeg’s Edgeland Films and Merit Motion Pictures. Five years in the making, the film investigates humanity’s profound biological and spiritual connection to forests, from Japan to California and Ireland to Germany, from Vancouver Island across to the great Boreal Forest.
Beresford-Kroeger is in Winnipeg this week for the Cinematheque screenings of Call of the Forest.
Winnipeg Free Press: What was it like going up into Manitoba’s boreal forest near Poplar River First Nation and working with some of the peoples there?
Diana Beresford-Kroeger: What is amazing there is that for the last 5,000 years, the people of Pimachiowan Aki, they have a pristine forest, they have a pristine boreal forest. Now let me tell how important that is: no forests anywhere in the world have been described botanically, from the ancient forests to the modern forests, we have no botanical description of them. Some of the species underground, we still don’t know what they are. In the Bloodvein area, those forests have been standing for 5,000 years and then some. So the pattern of growth within that forest is absolutely unique.
I saw all kinds of unique things in this area; it was like a paradise to me. It is a jewel in the heart of this whole continent and the aboriginal people have sacrificed so much to save that place. They’ve pushed away the gold miners and all kinds of people so as to save it. They have been guardians of this area for 5,000 years. Nobody on the planet has managed to do that.
FP: Manitoba is home to a generous swath of Canada’s boreal forest. Can you tell me more generally why it’s important to preserve the boreal forest?
DBK: The boreal forest is not one forest. It is a forest system all over the crown of the planet, like the tonsure on a monk. The boreal forest sits like a divine monk in meditation of the planet itself, going all across North America, going all across northern Europe into Russia’s taiga, going into northern China and northern Japan, into the Kuril Islands.
It is the last functioning intact forest left on the planet. And just in case you’re not sure of what this forest does, it oxygenates the atmosphere and absorbs carbon dioxide. What the boreal forest also does is produce prostaglandins from some of the trees and it is an activator in the atmosphere. It produces aerosols. It produces forest-bathing chemicals that bathes the whole of the atmosphere in the spring and it benefits people, even down in the south, even the people in Ottawa. So it floods the atmosphere with health-giving beneficial chemicals.
Fifty years ago, 100 years ago, we scientists did not know what a tree does. We didn’t fully understand it. The aboriginal people, hundreds of years ago, thousands of years ago, knew this by way of meditation, they knew it by way of ancient wisdoms. And their teaching was that the trees were sacred. And the trees are sacred, now in science we know the sacredness of the trees. We can’t cut the boreal down: we have to maintain it.
FP: Another aspect of your message is the importance of urban forests...
DBK: Well, first of all, let’s look at the children of the people in urban areas. They live in a concrete castle; everything they see is concrete or stone or asphalt on the road. They don’t see nature. And that becomes the landscape of their minds, of their imaginations. So the urban forest produces, on a very basic level, the landscape of nature for these people. And that instils some little tiny bit of feeling for nature, because we are part of nature, we are part of the tapestry of nature. The people who are walking on the city streets they earned the right to have a little bit of nature in their homes and in their hearts.
Then, on the next level, the particular trees that you have in Winnipeg, the species called Ulmus americanus. Now what they do is something really, really unusual, in that the elms in particular have trichomal hairs on the undersides of the leaves and they act like combs, pulling the particulate pollution out of the air for the human family. And that’s 2.5 micron pollution, which is about a 10th of a pollen grain; it gets into your lungs and causes asthma and other problems. When you have trees there like you have in Manitoba, like you have in Winnipeg — Winnipeg is unique on the face of this planet, believe you me —what happens is that the pollution load is really really low.
FP: Winnipeg has one of the largest collection of mature elms left in North America, but climate change, disease and age are taking its toll on our canopy. Do you have any advice for Winnipeggers, both in terms of how we might preserve what’s left and how we might best go forward?
DBK: My suggestion would that every second tree you plant be a burr oak, a Quercus macrocarpa. They’re super drought-resistent, wind-turbulent resistant, just as the elms are. So if you lose your elms to disease, you won’t lose your oaks.
Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.