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Can't See the Forest for the…..You Know the Rest.

In today’s blog, I am going to share with you many entertaining stories about trees. Trees! Trees! Trees! I just want to give you the head’s up though, that my blogs are or will soon be set up for affiliate marketing. In other words, as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. What this means is that I may make a commission from a sale that is made through a link from this blog. This in no way increases the price of the item you are shopping for or affects you in any way if you do not want it too. Feel free to simply enjoy the blog as you have in the past. 😉

There’s nothing like walking through a massive tree stand to have a quick reminder of where you place in life.

As Brad tells the story, he was at a highway gas station restaurant with a friend, stopping in for a bite to eat. Making small talk, the waitress asked them what they were doing in town (because in small towns, we all know everyone, right? And when someone is NOT from town, we want to know why). They told her that they were working for an orchard in the area, taking samples from trees for data collection in the tree industry. She responded with, “Oh trees. I hate trees.”

Wait a minute here….I hate trees? One must have gone through an incredibly bizarre experience with a tree to have such a loath for a magnificent thing of beauty. I hate trees? Did one fall on her house? Did her family pet get squashed by one? Did a nest of killer bees attack her as she lazed under the shade of a big ol’ beautiful bough? I hope she now lives in the Sahara Desert.

As I write this, I am at the farm looking out the window at a few spruce trees that have to be close to a hundred feet tall. If that were the top of an apartment complex, I would have a view as far as the eye could see. I can’t imagine my life not being immersed in the beauty of the most magnificent of natural things.

Take some time to stop and smell the pinecones!

Tree Memories

Basically, my whole life, minus my stint in Winnipeg at birth and my university years, (which is kind of like a re-birth) I have lived in northern towns where I am literally a 5 minute walk away from being smack dab in the middle of the trees. As a child, trees literally became our toys; we used the sticks to play TV tag in the sand, (DO YOU REMEMBER HOW TO PLAY TV TAG?!), we made goalie posts from tree to tree so we could have a mean game of soccer at recess, we climbed them and we built forts on them. I remember when we lived in Pickle Lake, we built a two-level fort and thought that it was pretty darn fancy. My sister even put an emergency escape just incase we needed to get down quickly. It was a rope that was attached to a near by limb that you could slide down to safety. As she demonstrated, the screech became forever embedded in my ear drums as an aural memory, and we all looked up at the top of the rope to see a massive chunk of my sister’s super long locks attached to it. No thanks, I’ll jump from the second level if need be. Maybe that’s what happened to the waitress that said she hated trees. Hmmmm.

This little ragamuffin always had short hair and apparently really.bad.bangs.

Learning From The Trees

It brings me a lot of joy to know that nature schools are really becoming a big thing in the education system today. As a matter of fact, in Red Lake, we have our own certified Forest and Nature School Facilitator through the Child and Nature Alliance of Canada.

That person is Melanie Ewen, and she has been doing programming through St. John’s School and the Ear Falls Public School. Lucky kids! You might think to yourself, why on earth would northern schools that are surrounded by trees and rocks and lakes need to incorporate nature in them? Don’t kids get enough since they live smack dab in the bush?

Sadly, they weren’t. With the advent of technology came a more sedentary form of education, focusing on the understanding and developing of computer skills. And in all honesty, we NEEDED to do that. We needed to be at the forefront of an educational paradigm shift and give our children these skills so that they could and can be competitive in today’s world. But it came at a price; too much time spent in front of screens playing video games, watching YouTube, interacting with friends through social media and so forth. Nature schools remove that, for a little while, to re-instill that necessary balance between being in and being out. Kids are connecting to trees once again (and more).

We have always lived for weekends and summer holidays so that we can be submersed in nature. Here, Alex is enjojying some outdoor time with his buddy Jake.

Perhaps you are reading this saying, “Hmppf. My kids have always been immersed in nature.” And to you, I give loud applause, as you understand the importance of touching the soft, damp moss or running your fingers along the scaly bark of a jack pine. There’s something to be said about the concept of “earthing” and what it can do for one’s soul.

This is a satellite image of a part of Pickle Lake. The area circled is where we lived for the two years that we were there. As you can see, in behind our house is nothing but forest. At the time, in front of our house was also forest. There were not any houses developed yet, and the elementary school was not even in our community. We took the bus every day to Central Pat. We played outside all.the.time.

The Family Tree

I remember when my son was starting to use his bicycle quite regularly at about the age of 5 or 6 years old, I wanted him to have the experience of feeling the wind in his hair. I do not advocate unsafe practices, such as not wearing a bicycle helmet, but on this day, we were literally going to be biking on a straight stretch for one or two house lengths. I wanted him to feel the wind through his hair. That’s all. He was not very keen on the idea, but tried it anyway, and drove his bicycle straight into a cluster of saskatoon trees in my parent’s yard. He had pre-determined his fate and we laughed about the experience for years. Part of the reason we laughed was because I said, “I just want you to experience freedom, Alexander!” And he replied, “Don’t say that bad word, Mom!” I said, “What bad word?” to which he replied, “Dumb!”. (Free-dumb. Haha) To him, crashing into the trees on his bike solidified the importance of wearing a helmet. It was not necessarily the type of experience I had hoped my son would have with trees. Fortunately, he has had many positive experiences since that have helped to salvage a healthy relationship with wilderness. Between Brad and I, his dad, Stan, and my dad, Martin, Alexander has really had a chance to explore nature in a true North Western Ontario way.

Brad and Alex on a back road 4 wheeler ride.

Grandpa and Alex on one of their many Christmas tree hunts. They found a good one!

Alex and his dad, Stan, on a fantastic hike in the Rockies!

And what’s more northern than hiking out into the wilderness to cut down a Christmas tree?! Regardless of the weather, we’d tromp out into the bushes where our job was to shake the snow off the trees to see if it was worthy of being in our home. I do recall there was a time when people were saying that cutting down trees is horrible for the environment, but now I know that it is actually a festive way to do some thinning of the forest so that other trees can grow bigger and stronger. I have never seen Christmas tree cutting have a huge impact on our environment or any of the wood industries in the area. As a matter of fact, I am thinking that it would be fun to ask people to come out to the farm and cut down their own tree in the second field in the winter. We have a field full of perfectly formed, natural Christmas trees that need to be taken down so they might as well be given some life in somebody’s home first!

Gifts From the Trees

Christmas trees are a lovely, decorative gift from nature, yes, but the gifts that the tree give go way beyond its beauty. I am just in the preliminary stages of really learning all that the tree gives, and it is far beyond maple syrup! I have been harvesting chaga and reaping the benefits of this wonder fungus for a few years now. My dad has been sharing hoof conk with me, which tastes like watered down turpentine, but has been known to scare away any kind of infection on sheer reputation alone (kind of in the same way that caster oil made many a child instantly feel better when the spoon was coming their way). But the medicinal benefits are out of this world. Just check out the link provided below to see for yourself. As an added fyi, the woman that runs the business provided in the link is not just a random whoever-you-are. She is the mom of Brad’s long time friend and co-worker, Adam, so we know that this is the real deal. She knows her stuff and sells an excellent product.

Recently I learned that hoof conk can also be stretched, yes, STRETCHED, to be used like material. I have seen hats, purses and very unique art being made with hoof conk. There is a part on the conk called amadou that feels as soft as velvet, and this is the stuff that is used to make funky stuff. It is definitely something I am going to learn more about as part of my explorative art practices.

turkey tail

hook conk

Be The Tree!

We only have to think of the quintessential Group of Seven windswept pine on the shores of the Georgian Bay to think of how trees have inspired the artistic masses since the beginning of time. I believe it was Emily Carr who spoke of not just seeing the tree, but being the tree in order to truly capture the essence of treeness in a painting.

Fred Varley’s Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay, 1921, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Canada.

I am drawn to the silhouettes that a tree creates, and the negative space in between the branches; abstract shapes that are painted with the colour of the sky. I love to be introspective, zooming in on the textural qualities of a tree’s bark or leaves, wabi sabi style. If I think back to my high school days with Gary Lovett as my teacher, we knew that in our Grade 10 year, everyone had to do a landscape painting as part of the course. It also became a part of landscape lore that you never paint a landscape without including a fallen tree. He wasn’t wrong. Including a fallen tree creates a diagonal line across the canvas, creating contrast and heightening one’s attention. Plus, it mimics the reality of trees in nature, as they are never all completely vertical! As one cursed with short leg syndrome, those diagonal, fallen trees are quite an obstacle for me. As my husband effortlessly glides over top the terrain, I am left huffing and puffing in behind, as if I did one of those tough mudder races.

Sometimes the terrian can be rugged in the north. This painting is based on a photograph I took at my husband’s old property in Waldhof, Ontario. Did you notice a couple trees are fallen over?

Again, reflecting on when Alexander was a boy, every fall we did something called “leaf hunting”. We would drive out into the wilderness and find a stand of birch and poplar, alders and willows and start hunting for incredibly colourful leaves to be incorporated into future art pieces. For a few years, I collaged these dried, pressed leaves into all of my artwork. I marveled at the way the sun would mottle the leaves into intense shades of hot pink down to the blackest cherry red.

I was once referred to as “The Leaf Lady” by someone that was starting to recognize my art by my integration of leaves into everything I created.

Deciduous! Coniferous!

In my first year of teaching, I took whatever jobs I was offered in my hometown, so as to get my foot in the door. That meant in the mornings I taught a Grade 9 English-History class at Red Lake District High School and then in the afternoons, drove to Balmertown to teach Grade 2 at the Golden Learning Centre. It was in this afternoon class, that I was given the responsibility of teaching Science and more specifically, a unit on trees. Awesome! I went into the bush and foraged for some huge boughs and brought them into the classroom. We played a game where I would give clues such as “This type of tree has cones on it” or, “this type of tree loses its leaves every fall”. The students had to decide whether the answer was DECIDUOUS or CONIFEROUS. Whenever they gave the correct answer, I would manically shake either the deciduous or coniferous bough, not only out of sheer enthusiasm for their learning, but to visually reinforce their learning as well. Practically every day that I am out walking in the wilderness, I get a visual of myself standing in front of those big eyed 7-year olds, waving big branches around saying “DECIDUOUS! CONIFEROUS!”

It may seem silly to state this, and I have never thought of it this way before, but not a single day goes by that I do not interact with trees in some very important way. As many in the north would surely agree, we are truly symbiotic with trees. Yes, there are facts that make that statement obvious; we live in buildings made out of wood, trees supply us with the necessary oxygen to live, we burn trees to keep us warm and to cook food and so forth, but it’s really so much more than that. I mean, in terms of my overall happiness and well being, I NEED TO INTERACT WITH TREES IN SOME FORM EVERY DAY. I am not kidding when I tell you that I take a photograph of a tree on my walks almost every single day, no matter where I am. I am delighted to come across a tiny robin’s nest with its vibrant turquoise eggs nestled in wait for life. I love to see the snow built on top of the withered mountain ash berries that escaped the beaks of ravens. I marvel at the brilliant colour that is exposed when birch bark slowly slips away from its trunk. I chuckle at the squirrel that swings from limb to limb, yet again outsmarting my frustrated dog. I think back on the memories I have had and many of them are connected with trees.

There was enough mountain ash for the birds and for my buddy Tai and I to make mountain ash jelly. Check out my blog all about it!

It’s no wonder that trees have whittled their way into the hearts of poets and novelists as part of their life’s work from Robert Frost’s “Stopping By the Woods on a Snowy Evening” to Shel Silverstein’s “Giving Tree”.

This book though! Gah!

I do hope that the woman who proclaimed that she hated trees has had a change of heart. I for one, never will. Trees will always be a part of makes me the person I am today.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep 

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