‘Grow, grow,” whispers Diana Beresford-Kroeger to a baby white cherry tree, which stands slightly askew behind a circle of wire mesh in her orchard.
The renowned scientist, botanist and medical biochemist bends down to look under its leaves, moving her arms in small circles as if to waft the right energy into its roots. Like a warden walking through an orphanage, she moves through the garden, where she and her husband, Christian Kroeger, a retired civil servant, have planted more than 100 indigenous and endangered species of trees.
She hugs some of the mature trees, flattening herself against their flanks in a prolonged embrace. With others, she reaches up to pull down one of their branches, and then smooths out their leaves as if inspecting the palms of their hands. She calls out their Latin names with ease, one by one, on the couple’s 160-acre property outside Merrickville, Ont., an hour south of Ottawa. Her husband follows in her wake, writing the names down dutifully in my notebook, to make sure the spellings are correct.
I have wanted to meet Beresford-Kroeger for some time, not sure what I would find. The Utne Reader named her one of its “visionaries” for 2011. I had first encountered Beresford-Kroeger a few years ago when I was writing about Archangel Ancient Tree Archive, a group cloning the giant redwoods in northern California in a bid to reforest the great carbon sequesters in other parts of the world. Beresford-Kroeger was a scientific adviser on the project. “Ah, the Druid spirit must have whispered in your ear,” were the first words she uttered to me when I explained what I was doing.
But now she has a new book, The Sweetness of a Simple Life: Tips for Healthier, Happier and Kinder Living Gleaned from the Wisdom and Science of Nature, which comes out this month. It is her most accessible to date, a collection of gentle musings about silence, her root cellar, tree medicines, pets, gifts for birds, and how she cured her husband of his three-pack-a-day smoking habit.
Previous works, Arboretum America: A Philosophy of the Forest and The Global Forest: 40 Ways Trees Can Save Us, brought the reader into a dense undergrowth of ecology, science, horticulture and spirituality that could be disorientating. Academic publishers insisted that she write in a more straightforward scientific manner; but Beresford-Kroeger refused, which led to her self-description as a “renegade scientist” writing “songs from my heart as a prayer for the forests.” (Nonetheless, Harvard science professor Edward O. Wilson, who has been called the “father of biodiversity,” wrote the foreword to Arboretum America.)
Tree people can be odd. But Beresford-Kroeger is one of those benign eccentrics, more endearing than off-putting, perhaps because we crave the wisdom of an alternate voice in a scripted society that doesn’t always deliver on its promises.
She has the appearance of a grown Cabbage Patch doll, a pillowy form in rumpled clothes, with apple cheeks and kind eyes. In the kitchen of the wood house she and her husband built by hand, I feel I have entered some childhood kingdom. Books on plants and birds cram the shelves. Cats climb onto the low, comfortable chairs, purring. Pinned to the beams of the house are postcards from places around the world where Beresford-Kroeger has travelled to speak or collect tree specimens. As she talks, her husband sits in a rocking chair, a quiet presence in slippers and a serious broom mustache.
Seated on a stool, waiting for a homemade quiche to cook for lunch, she alternates between lyrical passages about her garden and writing life and hard-core scientific information about why certain trees have the potential to cure cancer, and how the world is imperilled by the near-extinction of many tree species. Apart from their medicinal properties, trees are not only the lungs of the world; their roots are a natural filtration and flood-prevention system. “In a sense, the world at large is like the experience of Easter Island. Who thought of taking down the last tree?” she asks rhetorically, echoing a concern shared by environmentalists.
She tells me a story of once going out into the garden and, “in a form of worship to the sky,” calling down the birds from the trees and bushes. “Every single inch of my arms, my head, all down my chest was covered with birds,” she says. Another time, when she was with her daughter, Erika, she heard a swarm of bees overhead and “used a Gallic calling to call them down. The queen bee and her retinue landed on my arms.” She told her daughter to get a small hive box, and shook her arms so they would go in.
If all that sounds a bit far-fetched, she displays no hesitation in telling her tales, including the story of her lineage in Ireland. She was an “aristocratic mongrel,” orphaned as a young child after her parents were killed in a car crash. Her mother’s family included the ancient kings of Munster who ruled the southwestern part of Ireland before the Norman invasion in 1169. Her father was descended from a family of Irish and English earls and lords. She lived with extended family, and in the summers was taken in by relatives of her mother’s clan to impart Celtic and Druidic knowledge. “They put a sacred trust on my head,” she tells me solemnly. “I had to speak for nature. I was to be an ancient voice. There would be no more after me.”
Her confidence in her eccentricity is not just part of her Irish background – a bit of the blarney, perhaps; scientific-cum-spiritual wisdom is finding increased resonance in mainstream culture. In fact, in her late sixties, Beresford-Kroeger is becoming a star. Next year will see the launch of a multiplatform initiative: The Ten Trees That Can Save The World project includes television programming, a website, interactive educational components and a feature documentary directed by award-winning filmmaker, Jeff McKay, and starring Beresford-Kroeger in some of the world’s ancient forests.
“We are amazingly flexible,” she offers about the human race. “The human heart is incredible. We can’t leave this world for the younger generation and not hold their hands and give them guidance. From people can arise ideas, and ideas can change the world. I am hopeful.”
She told me that her husband reads poetry to her every morning before she starts to write. He is the civil, quiet servant to a creativity that has also produced “a great pile” of unpublished novels, whodunnits and poetry, all written on legal notepads.
I ask him what he thinks of all her tales, her dreams, her rising success and notoriety. “I have lived with her 40 years,” he offers with a friendly laugh. “I know it all. And I have seen it all happen.”