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Ancient redwoods tower in the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park in northern California. (Josh Jackson for The Globe and Mail/Josh Jackson for The Globe and Mail)
Ancient redwoods tower in the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park in northern California. (Josh Jackson for The Globe and Mail/Josh Jackson for The Globe and Mail)


The enduring power of trees Add to ...

The forest was our childhood Las Vegas: What happened there, stayed there.

Part of a family of five children, my two older siblings and I were a threesome separated by several years from the younger two. During the summer, no matter where we happened to be on holiday, our parents often dispatched the Original Three, as we later came to call ourselves, into the woods. “Vamoose, have fun, don't bother us until lunch or suppertime,” came their directive.

We had to occupy ourselves, and so off we would go to build another GeSaraDa – the name, a compilation of our given ones, for the forts we liked to build with sticks, broken branches and logs, layered and mud-packed into place, leaning against a tree trunk to provide a damp, earthy home.

Entering a forest is “almost like leaving land to go into water, another medium, another dimension,” John Fowles wrote in his meditation on nature and creativity, The Tree. “When I was younger, this sensation was acute. Slinking into trees was always slinking into heaven.”

And so it was for us. You could do anything in there, have your own rules like Robin Hood, think anything – imagine enemies in the trees or fairies, believe that you were a lost family Robinson or that your brother was a hunter and you Pocahontas, able to communicate with animals and hear whispery voices of trees in the swish of their branches.

It's no wonder J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis situated their fantastical children's fictions in forests, a place, like the inside of a creative mind, that's secret, overgrown and interlaced with vines of this and branches of that, thrumming.

As a retreat, a forest is a cocoon. You can lose yourself yet feel safe. Sheltered on the soft floor of a lush, green enclosure that towers high into the air, you're not exposed as you are in other landscapes, a desert or mountains or water.

And with the presence of trees, standing there, straight and tall, their arms outstretched, you don't feel alone in the way those other places can make you feel. They're loyal guardians. Hours would slip by unnoticed when my siblings and I disappeared into a forest. Then, at the end of our day, we would emerge, calmly prepared to once again take our place at the table of the adult world of manners, expectations, duties, rules.

Now, let me make a little clearing here in the woods of my words. I like high heels, okay? I don't wear hemp. I resist ponytails. I would never ride a bike in the deep downtown no matter what the carbon-footprint police say. Too dangerous. Besides, I need to be in a car bubble, air-conditioned, with music, floating down the avenues, untouched by the throng. I have never hugged a tree in my life.

I make that little clarification because even a philosophical love of trees can feel earnest and New Agey, not the sort of conversational fodder for the cool, ironic denizens of urban centres, which is where more than 80 per cent of Canadians now live.

While the variety and abundance of trees help to form the identity of a place – the cedars of Lebanon are featured on that country's flag, Florida would not be Florida without its iconic palm trees, and Canada is the land of the boreal, the last intact forest on the planet – we are disconnected from them.

Tree people (as those who love them like to call themselves) don't tend to broadcast their interest. They keep it to themselves, secretive as the forest itself, communicating it only among themselves, like collectors of esoteric art or cultish members of a lost Druidic tribe.

Richard Louv, the American author of Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle, writes about “nature deficit disorder” in children of the technologically immersed generation. But we have all made nature a reduced, pencilled-in, occasional-weekend appointment.

And because of the abundance of trees in Canada – the country has 397.3 million hectares of wooded land, 58.3 per cent of Canada's land surface that makes up 10 per cent of the world's forests – we take them for granted, as we might a spouse who remains present despite disinterest and lack of respect.

We can read that this is the United Nations International Year of the Forests and wonder why that should capture our attention. There has been tree news this summer – the conservationists' outcry over logging in British Columbia's Great Bear Rainforest; vicious forest fires; the threat to Toronto's urban forest from an infestation of the emerald ash borer – but many digest it as they might reports of famine in Somalia, held at a distance, as though none of it affects daily life.

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