by Kami Kanetsuka
I fell in love with trees without knowing how sacred they are. Growing up in London, although not in the heart of nature, I was lucky enough to live close to one of the city’s crowning glories, Hampstead Heath — 800 acres of rambling woods with duck ponds, wild flowers, nettles, brambles and a wealth of glorious trees.
One of my strongest childhood memories is one freezing cold winter’s day walking with my father, across what felt like unfathomable miles, to visit my grandparents at their home in Belsize Park. In my mind’s eye I still can see this winter wonderland, with ice skaters having a wonderful time on the frozen ponds, while I bundled up, trudged along the crunchy paths crying from the cold.
During my tumultuous teenage years, I roamed among the ancient oak and chestnut trees of London for hours without understanding the healing power from these gnarled giants. In the sixties and seventies I spent much time in India and Nepal, countries where forests and groves of trees are considered sacred.
In 1971 I immigrated to Canada and chose British Colombia to live as I could stay with Indian friends I had met in Nepal there. The untamed forests delighted and overwhelmed me. I had never been surrounded by so much nature and I loved the province’s magnificent cathedrals of trees.
Occasionally I made trips back to India, a place I considered my second home. During the early 1970s I became aware of the Chipko Movement in the Himalayan foothills of India. To stop the violent deforestation, peasant women started Chipko, which means to embrace, by hugging the trees to protect them and the forests that were being violated. When men came with their axes, they said “we put our bodies around the trees so you can’t cut them, as they are our mothers and the source of soil, water and pure air.”
Vandana Shiva, the vociferous Indian environmental activist, author and spokesperson for the Chipko movement said, “Now, so much of what is called expertise from the multinationals is there to destroy the earth, to exploit and to reward the exploiters.” In India non-renewable GMO Monsanto seeds have been responsible for the suicides of thousands of farmers.
After one Indian trip in the seventies, when I was staying with a local family in Manali, Himachal Pradesh, I would sit in a grove of sacred ancient deodar cedars, where people had placed offerings of flowers, cloth and rice on the roots or lower branches. Here, sitting under one of these magnificent cedars one day, I worked out the next chapter of my life. I would become a travel writer and give slide presentations on budget travel, where one could stay and connect with local people. I followed through and for a while it was extremely gratifying. It even sustained me and gave me a free trip back to Himachal Pradesh. All those years later, when trees had taken root in my consciousness, it became clear why I had felt so much happier after my long walks over Hampstead Heath.
In 1987 I found myself back in London in my childhood home, after my mother had a stroke and was hospitalized. That autumn London experienced what was to be called The Great Storm of 1987. The hurricane-force winds blew down hundreds of trees on Hampstead Heath. It was weeks before I could bear to witness the damage. As I walked through the debris, it seemed like the aftermath of a great battle with fallen warriors all around. I truly grieved the loss of those trees.
In my 50th year I sat under a knobbly aged tree in Santineketan, West Bengal near where Rabindranath Tagore built his open-air university, a place brimming full of creativity and nature. In this tribal area many women in colourful saris passed by me carrying water on their heads. At that time I was feeling quite travel worn and when I examined the tree up close, its dusty leaves also seemed a little weary and I felt a close kinship with it. It was here that I decided it was time to write a memoir. I knew I would need to be strong like the tree as writing a book can be demanding work. I still struggle with this task and the need to dig deeply into the roots of my story.
Back home in B.C. in 1997, it was no surprise that when the protests to protect the old growth forests of Clayoquot Sound arose, I wanted to get involved. Daily I read about people being arrested and I decided to spend some time at the Black Hole camp, supporting those who got arrested and recording what was happening, in order to inform the world. During that time I met many interesting people, especially young people from Europe who bemoaned the fact that they had lost most of their large forests and felt strongly enough to risk getting arrested in a foreign country. I became friendly with a young Irish woman who was still studying and who went home and wrote a paper on the situation. Later I visited a young German woman who was in the Burnaby correctional centre with no friends to visit her.
One memory of that time remained strongly. One early morning as I stood on the road a logger looked down at me with my camera. “Get a life and get a job,” he snarled at me. During that period my freelance writing and photography was very much my life and my job and I couldn’t think of anything more important than what I was doing at that moment. Later a small piece I wrote about it was published in an anthology on Clayoquot Sound.
For years I had contemplated where I wanted to be at the turn of the century and through an invitation from the Government of India Department of Tourism I arrived in India to cover the Buddhist pilgrimage sites and had planned it so I could finish in Bodh Gaya where the Buddha attained enlightenment. On the eve of the millennium in 1999 with thousands of monks, nuns and pilgrims, I spent the night in the Mahabodhi Temple under the much-revered Banyan tree, in Bodh Gaya. This offshoot of the original Banyan tree, where Buddha had sat for many days over 2,500 years ago, was strung with Tibetan Prayer Flags. Just after midnight en masse we slowly circled the banyan tree holding candles as an eerie mist enveloped us. This surely was one of the most memorable days of my life.
Today my life continues to be surrounded by trees, as I take long walks through the forests of my home, Bowen Island, British Columbia.