Leadership Insights by Shannon Waters
A pivotal part of my family's recent winter road trip was experiencing the natural ecosystems.
From the familiar temperate rain forest to extensive oak woodlands to the awe of the California Redwoods, I returned home further committed to acknowledging and appreciating the forests, hwthithiqut-um in the hul’qumi’num language.
Forests have nourished my ancestors for generations, and I want to give back to forests so that they can continue to nourish my children and generations yet to come.
Trees can nourish us physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. A dear aunt of mine would bring me out on our territory and comment how her steps were easier after being in the river. She also mentioned if I was not near the river, I could brush myself against a cedar tree (xpey’) for similar effect. While I was training in Vancouver, I was very grateful for this teaching which I used regularly.
Western academic science is beginning to appreciate and measure ways that forests nourish us as humans. Studies from around the world have found that time in the forest can improve:
- blood pressure/lung capacity/artery elasticity;
- inflammation levels;
- parasympathetic nervous activity;
- stress markers;
- attention capacity;
- feelings; and,
The age of the forests were not mentioned in these studies of health effects in individuals.
The ways forest ecosystems nourish humans expand and become more complex as they live out their life cycle.
Old-growth forests are those that have attained great age without significant disturbance and thereby exhibit unique ecological features. Old growth forests are rare in my home territory and are becoming rarer around the province. In this time of climate disruption and biodiversity collapse, the ecosystem benefits that old-growth forests provide are more critical than ever. Old-growth forests are particularly adept at capturing carbon - able to store 1,000 tonnes per hectare - one of the highest rates on earth. A recent report from the Sierra Club of BC states that:
"The clear-cutting of BC’s forests is contributing more to greenhouse gases than the burning of fossil fuels."
Carbon sequestration “dead zones” are created that put more carbon into the atmosphere from decomposing matter and soil then newly replanted trees can absorb.
Old-growth forests support water as well as air. Studies in watersheds similar to Cowichan found summer stream flows were 50% lower in basins with approximately 40-year-old forests compared to basins with old forests. Retaining older forests throughout watersheds is a strategy to mitigate drought associated with climate disruption.
Nuu-chah-nulth elder, Umeek (Richard Atleo), has described how logging clear-cuts are a logical outcome of a western worldview that originates with humans able to 'subdue the land' and to exercise 'dominion' over all non-human life. He suggests that in conjunction with relatively recent western cultural developments, such as the notion of surplus for profit rather then need, this has contributed to devastation of the Earth’s environment. The Nuu-chah-nulth worldview originates with all life-forms having common ancestry, necessitating protocols in resource management.
If trees are not “properly respected and recognized, they cannot properly respect and recognize their human counterparts of creation.” All beings have needs, but “if surplus is married to the needs of a people, in a particular place and over the long term, rather than profit, clear-cutting become(s) impossible”.
Human interconnection to nature as relatives is shared amongst many Indigenous worldviews. In New Zealand (Aotearoa), a legal framework has been devised to better protect nature’s interests and thus better protect a healthy environment for all beings. A river and a forest have been accorded legal personality, with human guardians appointed to protect their interests. The forest is protected by the Te Urewera Act (2014) which states “Te Urewera has an identity in and of itself, inspiring people to commit to its care.” This is a practical expression of a new policy paradigm - “If we look after nature, nature will look after us.”
Leadership has just 11 months to enact the “decisive, political steps” for a 45% reduction in our carbon emissions by 2030. There is far more to be gained by supporting forests in their nourishment role and by leaving old-growth forests intact. Trees are beings that live on a different time scale than humans. Many trees in old-growth forests have been around since before western contact in BC over 240 years ago. Like human elders, we have much to learn from them, and they benefit us all physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
After all forests have done for us, how can we give back?
In my role as an Indigenous public health and preventive medicine physician, I strive to be a human guardian protecting the forests’ interests: remembering to 'speak for the trees'.
Until January 31st, 2020, one way to give back is to provide feedback on the BC government’s Old Growth Strategic Review through this online questionnaire. A relatively small investment of time and effort can provide a message to support health overall.
Caring for our old growth forests will allow them to nourish us and allow future generations to continue to honor this reciprocal relationship.
Cowichan forest photo credit: Barry Hetschko
Shannon Waters is a Public Health + Preventive Medicine Physician, Communicator and Bridge Walker. In her current leadership role as Medical Health Officer for the Cowichan Valley Region at Island Health Shannon works to bring a voice to all of her community, including Mother Earth.
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