The Global Forest

DIANA BERESFORD-KROEGER is on a mission to teach us that trees are vital to the health of people and the planet. A native of Ireland, with degrees in medical biochemistry and botany, Kroeger now lives on a 160-acre homestead in Ontario where she has spent decades cultivating and becoming intimately familiar with over six thousand species and varieties of flowers, trees, and shrubs. She obviously knows what she’s talking about and it shows in her newest book, The Global Forest, a slender and oddly unsettling collection of short essays.

From the opening paragraph to the final page it is clear this is no ordinary book. I was immediately hooked by Kroeger’s poetic language as she speaks of growing up among the fields of Ireland. A remembered mushroom was “huge, with wide breathing gills like a fish.” And “mountain people came through the half-door with a windy billow of an Irish poem” to hear the tales of a visiting storyteller.

Kroeger approaches scientific discovery, medicinal healing, and tree-based mysticism with the same sparkling ardor. For example, the book’s first chapter is a fascinating treatise on the ancient mystical colors of red and green, represented in Druid ceremonies by the holly tree with its dark green leaves and brilliant red berries. Kroeger says these colors “were symbols for the human race long before written language,” and then goes on to explore the remarkably parallel biochemistry of hemoglobin (red) and chlorophyll (green) and the ways these two sister molecules “forge life for the entire planet.”

I underlined and asterisked about half the sentences in that chapter and settled in for a great read, but unfortunately my initial enthusiasm waned considerably as I plowed through her short chapters in quick succession. The Global Forest is an important book with many significant insights into the interconnectedness of trees and other life forms, but the author weakens her case by making a lot of unexplained statements that left me, as a reader, feeling increasingly confused and frustrated.

When I read, “The earth speaks in a voice that is green, she moves in millennia of motion and paints the spiral pattern of design that replicates,” I delighted in Kroeger’s style of merging poetry and science, but as these sweeping, elegantly crafted sentences piled up page after page, I soon lost all sense of what was going on in this book. And by the end of the book I suspected that other readers would find themselves as confused as I felt.

Still, when Kroeger’s language works, it works beautifully. In speaking of pesticides, she writes, “Thus it is so, that from these vast tracts of famine comes the sorrow of our food.” But more often she stretches her imagery to the point of incredulity. Writing about trees copulating (!) she says, “Plants have the good fortune of being outside the rigors of religion, so they do as they please, when they please, and much more important, how they please.”

Kroeger’s previous books have also drawn criticism for making sweeping claims, but when you consider that she’s calling attention to the fact that we’re cutting the world’s forests without fully understanding the vital roles they might play in our lives, then her questions and concerns can be seen as valuable and prophetic whether the supporting research is there or not.

David Lukas started biology studies at Reed College, but left college several times to spend much of the following 10 years traveling around the world working on biological research projects. These travels took him to Borneo for a year as part of a Harvard research team, and to the Peruvian Amazon under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution. While in Borneo, David decided to become a writer and later spent several years working with the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder in the Sierra Nevada. After graduating with a degree in English from Reed College, David returned to the Sierra Nevada and devoted himself to writing and teaching about the natural world.