Nova Scotia

Haligonians can soon start texting trees — and they'll write back

Maggie the magnolia, Woodrow the American chestnut and Tree Tree O'Hara the yellow birch are among the 15 trees from the Halifax Public Gardens that will be standing by to receive your texts starting next week.

Text-A-Tree project aims to forge connections between people and nature

A sugar maple tree dubbed Sweetness by the project team will be available for texting as of July 7. (Text-A-Tree Halifax/Facebook)

It may a bit counterintuitive, but a Dalhousie University student is hoping to help connect people with nature — through texts.

Julietta Sorensen Kass has started a project called Text-A-Tree, which is, well, pretty much exactly what it sounds like.

The project, which launches on July 7, will allow people to text a phone number assigned to one of 15 trees in Halifax's Public Gardens, and a volunteer on the other end will respond.

The trees' replies will be casual — "as if you were talking to them in a coffee shop," Sorensen Kass says — but they'll also be educational.

"So, if I'm the yellow birch and someone asks me how my day is going, I might make a comment on how I'm feeling pretty good, I've been giving lots of shade to someone and that makes me feel wonderful."

Julietta Sorensen Kass is the leader of the Text-A-Tree project. (Text-A-Tree Halifax/Facebook)

Four of the tree species have connections to Mi'kmaw culture, and four others are linked to Japanese culture.

The trees' replies could share information about their cultural significance, biological functions or just discuss the weather.

Sorensen Kass, who received funding for the project through the Suellen Murray Educational Bursary, said she got the idea for the project from an incident in Australia that she refers to as "the Melbourne Mishap."

In 2013, officials in that city assigned each tree an identification number and encouraged residents to send an email if the tree had been vandalized or needed attention.

"But instead of getting tons of complaints, they received thousands of love letters to trees," said Sorensen Kass.

The first leaves of the year appeared in late May on the Wish Tree. People can text their wishes to the tree starting July 7. (Text-A-Tree Halifax/Facebook)

A student in Dalhousie's master's of resource and environmental management program, Sorensen Kass said she's passionate about connecting people with nature.

"My theory was that if we want people to, let's say, develop a relationship with a tree, for example — because trees are very charismatic members of our community — then perhaps we should emulate the way we develop relationships with one another. And for many of us that now includes texting."

People who aren't the chatty type can choose to simply send a text to the Wish Tree, telling the tree their hopes and dreams.

Maggie the magnolia tree can be your texting buddy this summer. (Text-A-Tree Halifax/Facebook)

But the project is more than just a social engagement effort. Sorensen Kass will use the findings to try to understand why people value trees.

"Do people value trees because of carbon sequestration, because of shade or do they value them because of biodiversity or do they value them for spiritual reasons, for esthetic reasons? What is it that people actually value about urban forests?"

The results, she said, could then be used to do a better job of managing urban forests in ways that meet residents' values.

The project will run until Aug. 31.

Sorensen Kass said participants' names will not be known or shared by the team members. Phone numbers will be deleted at the end of the project and won't be shared with anyone outside the study.

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