The Wisdom of Old Trees and Our Elders

Everyone’s favourite old tree is a witness of living in earlier times.Years grow special strength in a tree. In 1874, John Muir climbed a tall tree and swung high in its branches in a storm. It was a moment he never forgot. He enjoyed the exhilaration of trees and storms many times throughout his life, and shared that passion through his writing and advocacy.”Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees,” Muir wrote. “The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature’s sources never fail.” (Our National Parks, 1901)The founder of Sierra Club knew wisdom in the trees and on the land, and made it his life’s work to protect them for future generations to enjoy nature’s wild moods. He looked to preserve the wild for its intrinsic life and values. Many Canadians, including James Bernard Harkin, our first commissioner of national parks, read and shared Muir’s writing and philosophies even then. And looked to his conservation work with knowing appreciation.The same kind of wisdom comes of our grandparents. They have lived long, like an old tree, watching a changing world.They know the wisdom of time and patience.They saw the first moon walk, and were deeply moved by a beautiful new image of Spaceship Earth broadcast back to our world.They experienced civil society in an earlier Canada that embraced the Berger Reporton northern pipelines, a new National Parks Act to safeguard ecological integrity, and progressive changes for stronger Canadian environmental assessment laws.They saw forests and parks protected from coast to coast, from Clayoquot Sound to Cape Breton Island. Water stewarded as a public resource for future generations.Today’s grandparents did not just watch these changes. They helped make them happen. And now, their wisdom endures to make it happen again, to begin dialing us back to (often) better and wiser times.Honouring our elders can mean listening and working together for change. “We are all in this together,” as Prime Minister Trudeau stated last month in Ottawa. And we all agree it is time to pull for the environment, together, now and for the future.But there is much to be done. Canada needs to repair its laws, definitions, and policies to rebuild strong protection for the environment, beginning with the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the Fisheries Act, and the Navigable Waters Protection Act.We need solid legislation and sufficient funding to embody the new government’s stated commitment to evidence-based decision making—for example, by restoring research and ecological monitoring funding for freshwater science, ozone layer testing, air quality, contaminants in marine mammals, parks and protected areas, and climate science.Restoring the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, or some similar structure, would create a forum to bring together the ecological wisdom of generations of Canadians and multiple voices, including Indigenous traditional knowledge—at just the moment when dozens of grassroot initiatives like SCCF’s Wild Child program are reaching out to the next generation and engaging free play in nature as a positive link to future. Much as its collaboration with Tree Canada is planting trees to green our cities for years to come.Sierra Club has been making positive environmental changes happen for more than 100 years. Like an old growth cedar or Arctic lichen, it weathers and keeps on growing. Sierra Club Canada Foundation is moving forward into the next era of civil society work for environmental progress, working with everyone from grandparents (and great-grandparents) to their grandchildren. We’re excited to see a return to an environmental politics of engagement and civil society, for Canada as much as for all of Spaceship Earth.Join us today to help make it happen.SCCF board member for Prairie Region PearlAnn Reichwein is an associate professor at the University of Alberta and author of Climber’s Paradise: Making Canada’s Mountain Parks, 1906-1974. Her research studies conservation history to understand people, parks and politics.