Just a Dead Forest?
In the spring, I volunteered to take a group of Wet'suwet'en and Nedut'en high school students on a field trip to look at medicinal and food plants in our local area. We were accompanied by a couple foresters who were going to be showing the students some culturally modified trees. As we stepped off the school bus on an old forest service road, I looked around for a place that would be easy to enter the woods. I pointed to a low bank and suggested we enter there. One of the foresters glanced up at the stand of pine that had been ravaged by mountain pine beetle a few years earlier. Grey, listless trees towered above us and he muttered, "But, that's just a dead forest?". I chose not to answer him as I showed the youth how to walk heal to toe through the forest to try to be as quiet as possible. Silently, the usually loud and rebellious group followed me into the woods where we walked about 100 yards into the dead pine to a small clearing where we stopped and stood in a small circle. It was quiet, not a noise could be heard as I whispered to the group to close their eyes and listen. As the forest grew more comfortable with our presence, the sounds of the land began to surround us as though a switch had been flicked back on. After a few minutes, I asked quietly "With your eyes still closed, what do you hear?"
A squirrel chattering.
I asked the group to open their eyes. As our eyes refocused to the beams of light gleaming through the high canopy of trees I asked, "What do you see?" The group looked around for a few moments until finally one of the teachers said, "Trees". I asked, "What else? Can you be more specific". They looked around some more.
"What else?" I encouraged the unusually quiet group with smiles and eye contact.
A bumble bee.
Fallen trees covered in moss.
A spider web.
An ant hill.
The list went on as the group excitedly mentioned everything they could see around them. Competing with one another for coming up with something new until the group again fell silent. "So," I said, "Let me ask you this. Is this a dead forest?" With a sheepish reply, the forester was the first to answer. "No."
I pointed towards the under canopy of pine trees that were growing below the decaying pine and asked him, in his professional opinion, to guess the age of the pine understory. 30 to 40 years was his reply. For the next hour or so, we investigated our little clearing in the woods. I showed the class the kinikinik, plantain, alder, blueberry, saskatoon, morel mushrooms, strawberry, wild onion, spruce tips, and all the other plants I could identify and describe their use. We told stories of creation and how our ancestors were given gifts of knowledge from their dreams or animal brothers and sisters by treating them with respect. The forester showed us all the different types of moss he knew and gently lifted up a piece of yellow moss to show all the insects below as he stated how it took generations for an ecosystem like this to flourish. Some of the youth told stories about how their grandparents or parents used birch bark, picked berries, and ate pine noodles.
While our yintah has been clearcut and mined, ravaged by mountain pine beetle, flooded, and colonized we are still one of the few locations in the world to have old growth forests and a vast wilderness to support our diverse habitats. It is that closer look, the connection, that I hope to nurture in our children and youth. If all we see is stumpage rates and lumber supplies, we do not see the value in the life that depends on the forest, even the so-called dead forests that are now used as an excuse to open up the timber supply to get the last monetary drop out of the timber that remains. If we do not see real value, if we do not see life, we cannot love our land. Without love, we will not protect it.
Listen. Look closer.
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