Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The not-so secret gardener

Author-activist champions rare and endangered trees

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Google "tree whisperer Diana Beresford-Kroeger" and you'll come up with a spate of entries that describe her as a bestselling author, a renegade scientist, botanist and medical biochemist.

Go to her home in Merrickville, south of Ottawa, and you'll see that she and her husband, photographer Christian Kroeger, live in a timber home they built 40 years ago with their own hands.

Walk outside into their 60-hectare forest and you'll see 100 breeds of rare and endangered trees, many of which the pair raised from seeds.

Then drop in on a book launch at McNally Robinson for her latest book, The Sweetness of a Simple Life, and you'll see a crowd of fans so densely packed it's standing room only.

A short lecture later and you'll see her unique brand of magic in the way she communicates with strangers.

The Q&A is full of people confessing what they do to save trees, even if they have to do it in secret.

"I'm a guerrilla gardener," one says. "I like to plant trees in parks."

He goes on to say that he has often hit Assiniboine Forest after dark with a tree, a shovel and good intentions.

He's never made such a public confession before in his life, he adds.

"You're doing a great thing, being a guerrilla gardener, planting trees," Beresford-Kroeger responds, then pauses as she takes a second look at the dude.

No tree hugger him, at least not the stereotype of a hippie with long hair and a tie-dyed T-shirt.

Tanned, the way a trip to Cancun in the middle of winter does, the self-confessed gardener is lean, fit and looks like he's retired with an affluent pension, the very opposite of a nefarious profile.

She grins.

"You don't look like a guerrilla gardener," Beresford-Kroeger quips.

The audiences laughs appreciatively. It's like they all share a secret.

And that's Beresford-Kroeger's special magic -- her writing style, her stage presence, her salty down-to-earth delivery serve to lure in listeners and make them feel part of the greatest show on earth, the life of plants, trees and people.

Her co-host this evening, Chad Cornell, a gentle herbalist who, with his wife Nancy, owns the Corydon Avenue natural-health store Hollow Reed, tells Beresford-Kroeger he admires the way she mixes science with storytelling.

In trademark form, Beresford-Kroeger nods and tilts the spotlight back on the audience: Her job, she said, "is to take the knowledge of the ivory tower down to the people who paid for it."

And with that the gate swings open on Beresford-Kroeger's secret garden.

In The Sweetness of a Simple Life, the book that drew the guerrilla gardener to McNally Robinson, Beresford-Kroeger outlines her dream for the Earth as a concept she calls a bioplan. It's about a lot of people planting a lot of trees.

"My idea of the bioplan is to patch the places that need mending... all of us, each one of us can pay attention to our own backyard. We will succeed because piece by piece the puzzle will go back to the clear view of nature that our human family once had... the bioplan is a blueprint for all the connectivity of life in nature. It is the fragile web that keeps each creature in balance," she writes.

The fact that Beresford-Kroeger owns such a garden that can serve as a seed repository for her bioplan underlines her commitment.

Her Merrickville property sees a stream of visitors to the locally famous Beresford Medicine Walk, filled with plants used as aboriginal medicines through the millennia and examples of the 10 trees Beresford believes Canadians should plant to save the planet.

It's the largest private seed repository in Canada.

One of the weirdest visits came the day she was handing out seedlings for 22 species of trees in decline. She and her husband had three-quarters of a million to give away.

"All went well went until the morning our garden was to be open for interested local parties to come to us to collect seeds or seedlings,'' she recounts.

"I heard motorbikes. A lot of motorbikes. The roadway to our garden is half a mile long. The bikes kept coming. I nearly collapsed when a saw a cascade of them swing around the circle of the black walnut allée that leads to the house. They were all in formation and in black leather. Christian (her husband) said, 'It's the Hells Angels.'

"To say my heart got stuck in my throat would be an understatement. I think my increase in blood pressure made my hair stand on end.

"It appeared they wanted Thomas black walnut trees. They were going to do their bit. They had land somewhere in Ontario. I will admit that I did not ask them where exactly. They received their nuts like everyone else. They thanked me very graciously and in perfect formation left the garden."

 

It's not just trees Beresford-Kroeger champions, it's people, too, and none more so than indigenous populations fighting to save land and nature from industrial development.

There's a traditional relationship Beresford-Kroeger sees in Canada that she recognizes from her childhood.

During one of her recent evenings in Winnipeg, she accepted a dinner invitation to a reporter's home. She talked about growing up in Ireland, about being orphaned when both her parents died, about being raised by a bachelor uncle in the city and spending summers with her mother's relatives in the countryside.

She's from the aristocracy and has no qualms admitting it.

Better yet, Beresford-Kroeger spent her childhood being put through a rigorous Celtic rearing, traditional in that it emphasized how to live with the land and how to live her life a steward for the land, almost exactly like medicine people with apprentices in indigenous societies still at work in North America.

Her elders gave little Diana a big job: "They told me to bring the old world to the new world." It's why she worships trees, not like a hippie might, but more like an ancient Celtic-tradition bearer might: understanding the science, the math and the wisdom of the land and how the parts are bigger than the whole of nature, as Alexander Pope, another Irishman, wrote.

The last time anyone did that on such wide scale in Canada was a century ago when Elsie Reford used whole Atlantic salmon as fertilizer to create the famed Jardins de Métis, now a park in Quebec on the banks of the St. Lawrence and Métis rivers, with rare and endangered plants. Both women took to their tasks in middle age.

It seems that Beresford-Kroeger is now tasking the rest of us with the job.

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 15, 2014 G11

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