'We're a treed city': Winnipegger explores relationship with trees in new book

A Winnipeg author is asking readers to take note — and take care — of the trees around them in a collection of essays to be launched Monday.

Book by award-winning poet Ariel Gordon launched Monday

Ariel Gordon is the author of Treed: Walking in Canada's Urban Forests. (Cliff Simpson/CBC)

A Winnipeg author is asking readers to take note and take care of the trees around them in a collection of essays launched Monday.

In her book Treed: Walking in Canada's Urban Forest, Ariel Gordon explores her relationship with nature, whether it's in the northern Rocky Mountains or in Winnipeg's Assiniboine Forest where the book begins.

"I have this idea that the best version of myself lives there," Gordon said of the Winnipeg forest.

"I can take any mood I've got in there, and I come out feeling better."

Gordon said the book is a call for readers to care for their neighbourhood trees, including Winnipeggers.

While urban forests can help mitigate the effects of climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide, preventing soil erosion, trapping groundwater and offering shade, they're also vulnerable to it, she said.

"I think we're a treed city and we always have been," she said.

"My message is … pay attention to the trees. Realize you're living alongside these amazing old beings. But also … let's maybe work more to protect them."

Treed launched at Winnipeg's McNally Robinson Booksellers in Grant Park Shopping Centre at 7 p.m. Monday.

Book excerpt from Treed: Walking in Canada's Urban Forest

I want to go walking in Winnipeg's Assiniboine Forest.

I want to go walking in the forest whenever and however I can. It's hard to explain without sounding like a dirty hippy, a back-to-the-lander, but over the years, I've come to the conclusion that the best version of myself lives in its 287 hectares of aspen/oak parkland in southwestern Winnipeg.

This best-version thing is hard to explain, but let me try. When I sit down to write, my goal is to write something. Something worth all the sacrifices of the writing life, which means I am inevitably and irrevocably disappointed, even if I wind up with a couple of poems or even this essay. But when I go for a walk in the forest, my goal is to go for a walk in the forest. And so, having met my goal the moment I get under its trees, I'm content to spend two or three hours wandering around, getting sort of lost in the woods. Sipping my tea and holding my partner Michael's hand and trying to find mushrooms to take pictures of on a parcel of land that has somehow escaped development.

Author Ariel Gordon relishes her walks in Winnipeg's Assiniboine Forest. (Darren Bernhardt/CBC)

And if I fall in a puddle or can't find any mushrooms or get swarmed with bugs, I've still been for a walk. To lean on a Japanese concept, I've forest-bathed, which is to say that I've absorbed the angle of the sun and the sound of the leaves rustling as well as every beneficial molecule exuded by the plants and trees. I've also gotten some exercise.

But here's the trick. The kicker.

On walks, I spend a few hours looking at things. Feeling things. But since Mike is seeing/feeling the same things, there's no need to instantly acknowledge these sensations, to respond, except maybe with an extra squeeze of his fingers. This means that walking in the forest is a largely non-verbal experience for me, which is important, given that I've built a life around responding to things, out loud or in my journal, or even online.

The quiet of these walks has an additional benefit: we see more wildlife because we're not jibber-jabbering all the time.

And because walking in the forest feels like walking in a provincial park in the middle of nowhere, Mike and I do all we can to preserve this illusion. We actively avoid other people, their children and their dogs, so that we can be alone together. That can take some work, as people insist on acknowledging other people in the forest the way they wouldn't on the sidewalks in front of their houses. They insist on meeting your eyes and saying hello. They warn you about mucky sections or about the cop issuing fines to people with off-leash dogs. I find this urban/rural dissonance, this we're-all-in-this-together feeling interesting, but it somehow doesn't affect me. Which means that I'm not the friendliest person in the world, should you encounter me in the woods. But I'm awake, both full and empty, quiet and quieted. And that's the best way of being-in-the-world I can imagine.

I've pledged to periodically visit this best version, on good days but also on rainy days. In seasons when most of the forest's paths are under water. On hot weekday mornings.

* * *

Dead deer near the train tracks along the forest's southern border, come spring. Imagine the deer charging across, afraid of the train's noise. Wanting in/out of the trees. Imagine the body frozen all winter, overlaid with snow. Another year, in that same spot, a monarch emerges from its jade pot, wet wings unfurling.

* * *

The stretch of woods where I thought that a small plane en route from Flin Flon had gone down ten years ago, all eight passengers surviving, somehow staggering out of the trees. I thought that was what had created this burnt-out clearing, with blackened trunks that fell in a crisscross pattern. Except I was wrong, the crash was elsewhere. Ten years on, the mystery clearing is filled in with blond grasses, but the hardened trunks lurk below, like a pond filled with deadwood. Ten years on, we spotted a duo of lost moose there, their dark flanks disappearing into the trees.

* * *

It was spring 2012. I wanted to walk in the forest but I had to go to work. I got an email from Mike mid-morning saying that there was a fire nearby. And then another, saying, "nevermind, false alarm …" A few hours later, he emailed again, this time about a fire in the forest. This was no false alarm. Like other recent fires, it was a grassfire at the far end of the forest, near the CMU residences. Last time, we'd driven to the forest right away, worried that a large swath was gone, but this time it was mid-week and we were overbooked as it was.

Fires in the Assiniboine Forest make the author nervous about the possibility they'll grow out of control.

If I had to guess, I would say that the fires near the residences are caused by people having bonfires in the field near that entrance to the forest, as I've come across a makeshift fire pit there before. I got that people living in tiny cinderblock rooms, people living far from home, would find a bonfire comforting, and that cinders blown from their bonfire were probably what started this fire. But I also knew I should be preparing myself for the idea that people are burning the forest on purpose, that these are just arsonists with varying degrees of success/experience.

Neither of these ideas assuaged my the-forest-is-burning anxiety, so I scoured local media websites. The articles were short and illustrated by strange pictures of firefighters with brooms and heavy backpacks full of water. No obvious flames, just smoke and people in bulky suits, cleaning up the forest. This fire, as it happened, was relatively close to the forest's one fire hydrant, but others have been too far for the hydrant and its attendant hoses to be of much use.

It was Sunday before we finally managed a visit. In our headlong rush out of the house, I'd forgotten my camera, so I borrowed Mike's and its big macro lens. I'm used to my own camera. I can make it see what I see. Using Mike's camera was like trying to look at the forest using only my peripheral vision.

Mike waited at the edge of the fire, standing amidst the yellowed grasses and downed trees while I walked between the trembling aspen trunks, raising small puffs of ash and soot.

I spent a lot of time photographing mossy tree trunks, specifically on the boundary between burnt and green. It reminded me of depth marks you see on bridges after a flood recedes, except here it marked the height of the fire and the heavy steps of firefighters between trees.

I had a bath when I got home five or six hours later. I had been pleased in a middle-aged sort of way that I hadn't gotten too dirty while tromping around, but when I climbed into the tub, I saw that my leg muscles were outlined in soot.

It was like a charcoal illustration of a leg on my leg. So I had carried the fire home, in Mike's camera and on my skin. And somehow that seemed right.

With files from the Weekend Morning Show