“A Genealogy, Mostly Plants”
By Pamela Banting
I was born and raised in a place that takes its name from its trees. The name of the village in central northwestern Manitoba is the direct translation of the Swampy Cree name for the area, Wuskwi Sipihk, or Birch River. The land on which our house was situated, bordering the Birch River itself, had never been inhabited by non-indigenous people until my parents built their house there on the edge of the village. As such the house was surrounded by bush, a mixture of balsam poplar and trembling aspen (or, as we called them, black poplars and white poplars), spruce, maples, red dogwood, olive-green willows, highbush cranberries, chokecherries, pincherries, thickets of hazelnuts, ferns, and wildflowers.
Six large Manitoba maples had been left in the front lawn. They were like relatives – exuberant cousins – the way they hosted and incited endless play. They made me into a tomboy: how could one climb a tree while wearing a dress, I argued with my mom? Shading the grass as they did it grew thick, soft and luxuriant under our bare feet. They often stood in for the bases in the endless scrub baseball games my brother and I played in the front yard. Those maple trees framed my childhood sense of place, sheltered my own brown limbs from the summer sun and acted as diurnal and seasonal clocks. They animated me; they coloured me into the picture, giving me definition and spirit.
My parents used to tell me that once I learned to walk I would pick a pansy from the garden bed adjacent to the house and walk around all day talking to the face of that pansy.
My very earliest memory is of one spring evening after supper when I was three my dad took me outside, and we stood hand-in-hand for a long time as we watched a red tulip slowly close for the night. Witnessing that plant going to sleep was the moment of the awakening of my own consciousness. Sometime after that, I began my own project of tracing a path from the house to the river using only the imprint of my footsteps: I allowed no rakes or other implements, not even toy ones. I walked the path – likely an occasional wildlife trail – many times a day, stopping to attend to individual trees and to spend a few minutes with the wild bluebells, violets and columbines that were knee-high to me. Once in a blue moon I would gently pull the blossom away from a single bluebell and sip on the nectar inside. Back and forth from the edge of the lawn through the bush to the giant anthill just above the river and back, again and again, as the path gradually became more and more legible.
The wild ferns were almost my height or only just slightly shorter.
In late summer, the light filtered down through large lime-green leaves illuminating bunches of red cranberries overhead, and my dad would strap a berry pail to his belt and pick pails full of cranberries and mom would make jars of jelly that glowed like jewels. We could eat the bush, put it on toast and take it into our bodies, and become it from the inside as well as the outside.
Four gigantic balsam poplars growing together from the same spot – each of them a primeval, original tree of an unimaginable girth – were, I thought, my grandparents. Maples were my cousins, ferns my companions, bluebells my non-imaginary friends, and four giant poplars my ancestors: we were all part of the same daily and seasonal rhythms and adventures, the same genealogy. Maybe this is why I am only mildly interested in the anthropocentric notion of a family tree. Maybe a person’s sense of genealogy needs to embrace not just a metaphorical diagram of a tree and the nodal human beings that culminate in you but the literal trees of your youth and the roots, trunks, branches, leaves, and flowers of your childhood’s botanical familiars. At least as a child, our concept of our family tree incorporates not only bloodlines but sap lines, chlorophyll, fronds, and nectar. Ultimately, what trees and other plants have to teach us is less about diagrams of ourselves and our place in human history and more about the radiant complexities of understories, overstories and stories of inhabitation. It is trees, those poets, who give to airy nothingness a local habitation and a name.
Author: Dr. Pamela Banting teaches nature writing and environmental literature, particularly literature and culture of the Anthropocene, at the University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta, Canada.