Trees are the answer. No matter the question. That was the title of my talk for the Ontario Woodlot Association’s conference in Shakespeare in April. It was such an honour to be there – a great day with lots of information and tools for anyone with trees on their property.
In preparation for my talk, I did a lot of reflection on the value of trees. Of course, there is value to sustainable harvesting of a woodlot or tapping the trees. There is evidence that suggests, over time, there may be as much profit made from an acre of woodlot as an acre of corn.
However, there is a deeper value to trees. One of my favourite examples of this is Wangari Maathai’s forest. She was a Nobel Peace Prize recipient from Kenya and founded the Green Belt movement. She worked with village women to grow trees from seed and plant them in areas that had been deforested long ago. After years and years of work, the trees worked to bring vibrant green ecosystems back and effectively reverse desertific-ation. She saw springs begin to flow again after decades of dust.
If we remove trees, we inherit their jobs. This is true for any organism in an ecosystem. It is what Aldo Leopold realized only after he saw the ‘fierce green fire’ die in the wolf’s eyes when he shot her. He didn’t understand yet the job that the wolves had. But it was a lesson that ecologists learned when they reintroduced a few wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1995. The wolves changed the behaviour of the deer, so they stopped grazing many areas of the park, and this allowed for more trees and vegetation to grow and new animals to thrive, including beavers who altered the river which then developed riffles and pools. This is how wolves improve water quality. In the same way, the example of Kenya demonstrates how trees can restore the water-cycle through evapotranspiration and recharging ground water.
Trees and wild areas do many jobs: they control soil erosion, improve water quality, mitigate flooding and sequester carbon. Trees really are the answer. And it takes billions of dollars to do their job; in many ways, it is cheaper to just plant the trees back. But, then again, we’ve got to eat too. While there seems to be evidence of overproduction, there is no easy way to grow less food. For a farmer, there is tension between using land for their livelihood today or donating it for these ecosystem services for the greater good tomorrow. If society does not value the job that trees do, then how can we expect farmers to?
On their farm near Belgrave, Murray and Wilma Scott worked with the Maitland Valley Conservation Authority to create wetlands, berms and grassed waterways, along with nitrate filters, to mitigate annual flooding and drain clean-outs. They were successful in restoring the cold-water trout stream, but also demonstrated (to me, at least) how much time and money it costs to restore the function of the original forest.
Murray Scott passed away in 2017 and I sorely miss him. The year prior, my friend Maria Spaleta and I were touring the conservation project with Murray on his Gator when he came to an abrupt stop. I lurched forward from my seat in the back. Turns out it wasn’t an emergency – he had seen a bird in the trees. It must’ve been a rare bird, but I wouldn’t know the difference anyways. Then Murray started laughing and turned to Maria, “I started this because I didn’t want to clean out the ditch every year, then one thing led to another and now all I care about are the damn birds!”
Murray saw a deeper value to the wild areas on his farm, more than income or “ecological services”. It was the same reason Paul Day drove back on his Argo to his woodlot everyday. And it was the same reason that Gordon Hill went fishing at the back of his farm every chance he could. He got inspiration and energy from the river and the trees, and he brought this energy into the farm organizations he worked with and the causes he fundraised for.
And all three of these men have passed away in the last two years.
My family says I wouldn’t be so sad if I would just hang out with people my own age, but I am lucky just to have known these great men.
There is ground-breaking research being done by Dr. Suzanne Simard in British Columbia. She has used isotope tracers to prove that trees share carbon (food) with each other, demonstrating that forest communities are interacting closely below ground, across different species, supporting each other. She highlights the importance of elder trees that contribute to the younger trees around them and she lichens (sorry, I couldn’t help the pun, I mean likens) their last contribution before they die to the downloading of their wisdom to the next generation.
In the last two years of his life, I was blessed to spend many afternoons with Gordon Hill to prepare his memoirs and, quite literally, download his wisdom.
Forests have many layers of value: for income, for the environment and for the soul. I have been blessed to have been connected in a community with “elders” that have taught me about trees, but also have given me valuable lessons in life. Oh, and in case you are wondering, Gordon Hill’s book is called Knocking on Doors and is available at Varna Grain to help fundraise for his most treasured causes. ◊