Diana Beresford-Kroeger, an Irish-Canadian botanist and tree expert, was invited to Thunder Bay, Ont., to speak at a forestry conference in 2003. She spoke about the birch and cedar trees of Canada’s boreal forest, and about Indigenous people’s stewardship and covenant with nature. Afterwards, a representative from the United Nations took the podium and began to outline a proposal that involved cutting down half of the boreal forest. At first she was shocked; then she began to get angry.
Beresford-Kroeger has described the boreal forest — which is larger than the Amazon and circles the top of the globe — as “the last great working forest in the world,” a 30,000-year-old ecosystem that filters pollution from the atmosphere, nourishes oxygen-producing algae with its run-off, regulates oceanic salt convection currents, influences global weather patterns, sequesters billions of tons of carbon, generates fresh water and helps cool the Earth.
As she listened to the UN representative talk, Beresford-Kroeger felt her ire rising. Suddenly, she stood up and strode to the front of the room. She seized the mic. “This is genocide you’re talking about,” she said. Instead of cutting down the boreal forest, she said, the World Bank should establish a fund to support Indigenous people in protecting and managing it. As she spoke, First Nations leaders began filing to the front of the room to form a semicircle around her. One of them took the mic from her hand and said, “Diana speaks with one voice with us.”
More on Broadview: Stephen Blackmer on the Earth’s coming crucifixion
Beresford-Kroeger has spent her life studying the chemistry of trees and writing about their power to heal our bodies, our spirits and our planet. Her voice is distinct in the scientific community because she seeks to bridge the traditional divide between science and spirituality.
Orphaned at 12, Beresford-Kroeger grew up in rural Ireland, raised by her mother’s family to know the spirituality, language and law practised by the Celts since before English occupation. She learned to manage her emotions using a form of meditation, and to recognize the sacred and medicinal properties of plants and trees. But her scientific mind wasn’t content with esoteric explanations. She wanted to know how things worked.
“I can give you the proof of God in mathematics, but it’s beyond that.”
Later, while working on degrees in botany and biochemistry, she tested her elders’ plant-based remedies and discovered their chemical basis. During her PhD, Beresford-Kroeger was astonished to find how similar plants were to animals. Trees, she learned, have neural pathways much like human brains. They warn each other about predators and protect themselves by releasing chemicals into the air — including some that can directly benefit human immune systems or be used in our medicines.
Beresford-Kroeger has spent the latter part of her life writing books about trees for popular audiences and working to protect the world’s swiftly vanishing forests. A few years ago, she wrote a scientific analysis of Pimachiowin Aki, a pristine 29,040- square kilometre boreal forest in northern Manitoba that four First Nations were seeking to protect as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 2018, the forest received its designation.
“There is a deity in nature that we all understand,” Beresford-Kroeger writes in To Speak for the Trees, her recently published memoir. Science can explain part of the relationship between humans and trees, but on another level it remains a mystery, even to her. “I can give you the proof of God in mathematics,” she says, “but it’s beyond that. It’s a very powerful thing.”
This story first appeared in Broadview’s December 2019 issue with the title “Diana Beresford-Kroeger on the wisdom and spirituality of forests.”
Broadview is an award-winning progressive Christian magazine, featuring stories about spirituality, justice and ethical living. For more of our content, subscribe to the magazine today