Connection, grief, ecology and protection of trees are explored through the words of some of Canada’s most talented poets.
WHEN YOU STEP INTO A FOREST, the stillness is palpable but deceptive. Beneath the bark, below the soil, up in the crown is movement, exchange—activity visible and invisible. What seems like peace is a place of bustling connection, nurturing the host of life large and small that feeds and shelters in, on, under, and around the trees. If we are quiet and attentive, we can sense some of it with our eyes, ears, lungs. Deeper, we might feel ourselves touched in that less tangible but potent place: our hearts.
In BC, the politics of the forests are never far from view. But in the new anthology Worth More Standing: Poets and Activists Pay Homage to Trees (Caitlin Press, April 2022), editor Christine Lowther invites us to instead step into relationship with trees through the words of an impressive collection of poets.
Gathered from writers across North America, these works offer observations, experiences, memories, visions, imaginings, and remind us of what’s at stake in that relationship. As Kathy Page notes in her poem “We, The Trees,” “What matters is the sum of us,/ and what matters is what passes/ between the sum of us, and/ what passes between the sum of us/ and the sum of you.”
FROM THE FIRST PAGE, Worth More Standing is immersive. “I sat in a willow tarp lodge/ alone in the forest./ Inhaled the sweet birth of leaves,” writes Sky Dancer Louise Bernice Halfe in her opening poem “okimaw wahic—the Sacred Tree.” The act of breathing appears in many of these poems and in a simple and familiar way reflects the more profound intimacy of what passes between us. (Sky Dancer is the Parliamentary Poet Laureate for 2021-22)
Likewise, many poems feature the immediacy of physical touch: the leaning of a hand, a cheek, a whole body against a whole body. Like a tree’s roots meeting other roots, that touch allows connection to something larger than self. In “Backyard Beauties” (an excerpt), Valerie Losell reaches toward the way trees link us to family and culture when she writes: “Press your fingers in the/ deeply crinkled ridges of the/ greyed bark growing since/ your grandma’s youth.”
Avatar Grove (TJ Watt photo)
In “Western Red Cedar Stories,” Catherine Owen reflects on the very personal rituals a tree has watched over: “you, topped by a rudimentary fort, attended the burial of birds, gerbils, cats, the ashes of the man I loved.” And in her piece “Roots Anchored,” Haíɫzaqv writer Sheena Robinson traces connections back into history, through the ancient time that trees keep: “The stories are still here, lying/ in layers of detritus on the forest floor,/ feeding old relatives, resisting/ decay and the weight of oppression./ My ancestors hold me up to the light,/ like nurse logs cradling new growth.”
Connection is the book’s first section, the others being ecology, grief, and protection. The poems are a therefore a combination of love songs, elegies, calls to action. And while our provincial struggles over old growth practices and policies are referenced—in poems like Zoe Dickinson’s “To the Premier of British Columbia, on the enforcement of an injunction removing blockaders from logging roads on Vancouver Island, May 2021” and Weyman Chan’s “To the Old Growth Cedars of Fairy Creek”—that’s not the dominant focus. Rather, the book honours trees of all kinds—olive, linden, laurel, maple, cherry, pear, hawthorn, yew, cypress, cedar, pine, fir, hemlock, spruce, sequoia, oak, arbutus, krummholz, magnolia, chestnut, aspen, mulberry, eucalyptus, elm, beech, banyan, balsam, cottonwood, catalpa, shihuahuaco, ash, acacia, locust, tahli. And it takes us from Galiano to Galilee, California to Carmanah, Manhattan to Machu Picchu.
Lowther is a veteran of anti-logging protests. Her first blockade was in 1991, she was arrested in 1992, and she was part of the group that helped save Tofino’s 800-year-old Eik cedar in 2002. She is also a widely published poet and prose writer who wants everyone—“from the quiet small-town resident to urban raver to government rep”—to see, celebrate, and value trees for what they are, what they do, what they can teach us. As she tells me, with a love and reverence audible across the scratchy cell signal tenuously bridging Tofino and Mayne Island, “This book is for the trees.”
Lowther has co-edited two previous anthologies—Writing the West Coast: In Love with Place (2008) and Living Artfully: Reflections from the Far West Coast (2012), both with Anita Sinner. She has published several collections of poetry, and her non-fiction book Born Out of This (2014) was shortlisted for the Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize.
As Tofino’s poet laureate for the 2020-2022 term, Lowther’s tenure began just as COVID-19 settled in. Knowing she wouldn’t be able to hold the usual in-person events, she wanted a project to work on solo that would still connect people and poetry. And that’s exactly what this anthology does. It brings together many familiar local poets—including Arleen Paré, Patricia Young, Terrence Young, Patrick Friesen, Rhona McAdam, Eve Joseph, Kyeren Regehr, Pamela Porter, former Victoria poet laureate Yvonne Blomer, and current poet laureate John Barton—as well as writers and tree lovers from across BC, Canada, and the US. A second volume is forthcoming this fall, of youth poets, called Worth More Growing.
“Anyone who knows me will say ‘Chris is a tree fan,’ and that is putting it very mildly,” she laughs, noting that she came to this admiration at a young age. “My mom was picketing developments,” she explains, “trying to save big old trees in south Vancouver when I was barely old enough to walk.” That influence endures in her own activism and writing, and in the acknowledgements Lowther thanks her late mother, Pat Lowther, “for teaching me not just to love trees but also that trees are worth more standing, leaning, twisting, bending, reaching, mothering.” We get to see some of Pat Lowther’s voice and passion through her poem “‘At the last judgement we shall all be trees’ —Margaret Atwood”:
in their roots and branches,
what we are
ambassadors between the land
and high air
setting a breathing shape
against the sky
as you and I do
WORTH MORE STANDING shows us that poetry, and the sense of relationship rendered by poetic vision, is, like the forest itself, transformative. Once you enter, you don’t leave unchanged. As Lauren Camp says in her poem “Forest Man,” “I lean in to hear better and the soft places/ of my heart open.”
Being opened and open to being changed means, perhaps uncomfortably, coming to a renewed sense of humility, of our smallness next to some of the almost ageless and towering, to-us silent giants. For instance, while our fates are intertwined with that of trees through climate change, forestry, development, and more, there are still basic arboreal processes that we are only just beginning to understand, as UBC forest ecologist Suzanne Simard describes in her 2021 memoir Finding the Mother Tree.
In her poem “Slow Love,” Joanna Streetly describes such previously undetected tree communication relative to our perceptual limitations: “murmurings/ you wish you were evolved enough/ to hear.” And in “Song of the Pando,” Lynn Pattison speaks to us as the Utah aspen grove that is actually one single, huge, ancient organism: “What can you know, standing there under my leaves/ admiring catkins, newly flowered? Thinking: grove of aspen,/ thinking: vast. No idea what a past is,/ one approaching a million years.”
Hopefully, this kind of renewed perspective—of the world, of oneself—will help plant the seeds of engagement. “Poetry has more freedom, maybe, than other literary forms, so it can provide more of a place for the imagination,” Lowther suggests. “And activism is about imagining a world and actually working towards that world.” There is so much room to grow in our relationship to the world around us. This valuable book reminds us that we aren’t the be all. Let’s hope we’re not the end all.
Living, as most of us do, on land that has previously been the home of trees and forests (cities being some of the country’s biggest clear cuts), we need to look outside our windows, into backyards, onto boulevards, and further beyond our urban borders to see trees as more than decorative, more than the euphemistic “fibre,” more than potential product. The poets in this collection help us re-view what was, what is, and what could be—whether good or ill—for our trees, and for us. Entering these pages is akin to what Jay Ruzesky writes about visiting the groves of Carmanah. You enter, he says,
…the way any frightened animal might slip
into cover. This is escape. This is a chance. This is
leaving behind Facebook and news on the hour,
every hour. Forget even the National Research
Council official time signal and turn it off, flip the
switch, what’s on the calendar for the next few
days? Well, nothing. No. Not nothing. Everything.
Having quit her job as an editor at the Legislative Assembly, writer Amy Reiswig is enjoying productive self-reinvention finally living full-time on Mayne Island.