How to be like Trees:

A conversation with Craig Brant about the Camp Kawartha Environment Centre

Copyright Leigh Symonds
Copyright Leigh Symonds

Recently, I’ve been profoundly influenced by Suzanne Simard’s research on trees (2016). She speaks about the intricate communications between trees and mycorrhizae (fungus roots) and how forests celebrate diversity, redistribute resources (especially to those in need), support their children, warn and protect each other from threats and keep giving even when they become ancestors. She coined the term ‘mother tree’ to refer to those elder trees whose underground networks of roots and mycorrhizae nourish the growth of the entire forest (2016; 2021).

This is very much what Roorda means when he speaks about ‘sources of vigour’ – “strengths and opportunities” that offset the “weaknesses and threats” that endanger this world (2021, p. 9). These organizations, people, ideas, technologies and nature itself are wellsprings of hope (2021, p. 128). Trees are sources of vigour.

from Simmard (2016, Timestamp 10:44)
from Simard (2016, Timestamp 10:44)

And so, in the forest, surrounded by these gentle giants, I asked my students: How could we more like trees?

When we returned to the Camp Kawartha Environment Centre, I looked at the beautiful straw-bale building and thought about connection, reciprocity and community.

Copyright Leigh Symonds
Copyright Leigh Symonds

This place – right here – was a mother tree.

Inspired by this, I sat down with Craig Brant, the manager of the Environment Centre, to learn a little more about the web of interconnection it weaves through the human and other-than-human communities in the Kawarthas. Sitting by the wood fire inside, Craig remarked, “One of our main roles is to provide hope that -quite simply – people and nature can co-exist harmoniously” (personal communication, December 1, 2020).

Copyright Leigh Symonds
Copyright Leigh Symonds

I asked Craig how this place began. It is an offshoot, an acorn if you will, of Camp Kawartha, whose legacy of outdoor education stretches back a hundred years, and which has become leader of environmental education and sustainability under the guidance of executive director Jacob Rodenberg.

Originally, Craig recalled, the Environment Centre was a trailer, parked in a ball field on the edges of the Trent Nature Areas. The idea was to reach out to very young children and to provide them with a place to connect with nature. Craig smiled, “Jacob had the idea, well, let’s build something a little more inspiring… We can do this, is the kind of thing he always says.” Craig went on, “And we’ve always said that we want this to be more than just an environmental education centre but a hub for people to gather and meet and hold events and workshops and conferences, to be a place where people can discuss and make these changes [in the world]“ (personal communication, December 1, 2020).

Copyright Leigh Symonds
Copyright Leigh Symonds

The building that grew from this inspiration embodies sustainability, education and community. Trent University leased an acre of land free of charge to Camp Kawartha. The building itself was part of the then Sustainable Building Design and Construction program at Sir Sandford Fleming College, headed by Chris Magwood and Jen Feigin (now both with the Endeavour Centre). The Environment Centre was envisioned, designed and built by students in this program with the goal to showcase various different alternative building techniques such as three different styles of straw bale construction, rammed earth and hempcrete blocks. They even pushed industry standards by developing prefab straw bale walls that were constructed at Fleming and then transported to Trent. Craig laughs, “Perhaps one day a contractor could show up at the Home Depot and say ‘I’ll have 36 sections of straw bale wall by these dimensions, please’” (personal communication, December 1, 2020).

Solar panels gracefully co-exist beside bird feeders. The trees my students and I planted this fall were watered by a rain-barrel collection system. There is solar hot water and geothermal heat. A thatched entrance way and living roof nestle this building in the natural world. And the list goes on….

Copyright Leigh Symonds
Copyright Leigh Symonds

Like a sapling, the Environment Centre had a lot of support to get it off the ground, some forty or so organizations, Craig recalls, some which still give generously each year. As it has grown, it has strengthened partnerships and now provides generative growth to many of its sister organizations. Craig estimates that (in a normal year) 11,000 people come through the Environment Centre. One of its core activities is providing environmental education programs for schools, summer and school holiday camps as well as a thriving home school program. Of the camps and home school programs, Craig notes “these are the kids that are growing up here. They come year after year for camp – or a few weeks every year – or they come every Friday or every second Friday – some for 6-7-8 -9, years … So this place has become part of the fabric of their growing up as well as their families here” (personal communication, December 1, 2020). This year, with COVID-19, the Environment Centre has pivoted towards more day programming from kindergarten to high school (balancing the full Forest School programming at the main Camp Kawartha site on Clear Lake) to provide for families looking for one or two days of outdoor learning and well-being a week.

from Simmard (2016, Timestamp 11:39).
from Simard (2016, Timestamp 11:39).

Mother trees have networks of nourishment throughout their forest communities. Similarly, the Camp Kawartha Environment Centre is a hub for many education communities. Partnered with Trent, it provides an Eco-Mentorship certificate program as well as participating in and supporting other outdoor education endeavours from Trent’s School of Education and Fleming’s early childhood eco-mentoriship program, to innovative high school curricula, such as the Youth Leadership in Sustainability program initiated by Cam Douglas. The Environment Centre has close ties with Peterborough Green-Up, the Peterborough Field Naturalists, the Pathway to Stewardship and Kinship project and many other environmental organizations in Peterborough and the Kawarthas, often providing an accessible and beautiful meeting space. Last year, it hosted a tank of small salmon fry destined to rejuvenate the salmon population in the local rivers as part of the Lake Ontario Salmon Restoration Program. As I write this, I think of the symbiotic relationships between trees and mycorrhizae that Simard (2016) speaks about, or the symbiosis of fungus and algae that becomes lichen, a relationship “in which the balance of giving and taking is dynamic, the roles of giver and receiver shifting from moment to moment (Kimmerer, 2013, p. 269). This is what is happening here, this cooperative collaboration, where each person or collective brings their energies and abilities in a shared reciprocity which benefits the whole.

Copyright Leigh Symonds
Copyright Leigh Symonds
Craig speaks about building a relationship with chickadees (personal communication, December 1, 2020).

If the community connections are the roots and mychorrizae of this mother tree, then nature connection is its trunk, branches, leaves and fruit. This connection also takes time to grow, as Craig reminds me, with a story about the chickadees that now routinely feed from kids’ hands. He speaks about the strength that this connection with the natural world brings to humans: “because they have in their heart caring for all aspects of the living world, so, therefore, they wish to take care of it and to use their time and energy and resources to protect and nurture and regenerate the landscape and habitats” (personal communication, December 1, 2020). It’s beautiful work to connect kids with nature and to watch them grow into adults who feel themselves to be a part of nature and in a reciprocal relationship with it.

I ask Craig if he can share a particular story about connecting kids with nature. He pauses and begins with a gratitude: “For even having these ways of seeing there’s a debt of gratitude there to Indigenous peoples of various nations all over the place who, it seem to me, have always been saying that there are relationships and accountability we have to the natural world” (personal communication, December 1, 2020). We are after all, one tree in a forest of great age and wisdom.

Copyright Leigh Symonds
Copyright Leigh Symonds
Craig tells the story of tracking foxes (personal communication, December 1, 2020).

He tells a story about one day in winter where he and a bunch of kids went fox tracking. They spent about five minutes really tracking before imagination kicked in and creative play emerged. They became foxes! They leapt and ran and sniffed the wind. Kinesthetics, imagination, creativity and deep nature connection: a little bit of embodied fox knowledge. Craig speaks about Sir Ken Robinson (2020, Timestamp 9:30) who, drawing on an agricultural analogy with plants and soils, remarked that, if you get the culture right, then people thrive. Craig agrees: “I think that is really important to what we are trying to create here at the Environment Centre … We’re creating those kinds moments day in and day out, in as many different ways as possible, to reach as many different styles of learning and providing a nice variety. Then we hit repeat!” (personal communication, December 1, 2020).

Copyright Leigh Symonds
Copyright Leigh Symonds

When I ask “What now? What does the future hold?”, Craig brings the discussion back to the importance of stewardship, one of Camp Kawartha’s missions. He talks about tending the land, about planting trees, and caring for those already here, such as the heritage apple trees from the old homesteads that now make up the Trent Nature Areas. Trent University is in the midst reviewing their plan for the nature areas and this has promoted discussion and strengthened relationships between Trent and the Environment Centre in terms of stewardship. Certainly, there is a lot of work that can be shared here. The Environment Centre has further partnered with TRACKS to provide them with additional program space. Craig takes a moment to reflect: “We have a lot of people that come through here in a year and one of our visions is to become more involved in that landscape tending and, really, once this pandemic passes, we want to be working with more adults in the local community We do a lot of work with kids, and there are all those young adults across the way at Trent. We’re trying to strengthen those possibilities” (personal communication, December 1, 2020). He brings the conversation back to Robin Wall Kimmerer and her comment that North Americans often seem as though they have only one foot on the shore while the other is on the boat. She challenges us “to set aside the ways of the colonist and become indigenous to place” (2013, p. 207). Craig sees this as integral to a regenerative future: “What does it look like to behave and act and conduct ourselves as if we were going to be here and build the types of relationships with the land and the other peoples and with each other – with humanity – that are healthy and that are giving and acknowledge these sources that give us life?” (personal communication, December 1, 2020).

Indeed, what does it look like? I think it looks like a forest of trees, each supporting each other and giving life to the world around us.

Copyright Leigh Symonds
Copyright Leigh Symonds

The Camp Kawartha Environment Centre embodies its mission of stewardship, nature connection and community building. The individuals that come here to learn, to work, to share and to play are all involved in building and strengthening the relationships and responsibilities humans have to this world and to the generations that come after. Roorda speaks of sources of vigour and inspiration that mend the ‘flaws in the fabric’, bringing humanity back into harmony with the natural world. (2021, pp. 9, 137-139). The Camp Kawartha Environment Centre is, surely, one of these!

List of References

Camp Kawartha. (n.d.) Environment Centre. Camp Kawartha.

Camp Kawartha. (n.d.) Camp Kawartha. Camp Kawartha.

Endeavour Centre. (2017). Peterborough links. Endeavour Centre.

Fleming College. (n.d.) Early childhood education. Fleming College.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. (2013). Braiding sweetgrass. Milkweed Editions.

Ontario Wildlife Foundation. (2020). Lake Ontario Atlantic Salmon restoration program. Ontario Wildlife Foundation.

Pathway to Stewardship and Kinship. (2018). Raising healthy children for a healthy planet. Pathway Project.

Peterborough Field Naturalists. (2020). Peterborough field naturalists. Peterborough Field Naturalists.

Peterborough GreenUp. (2012-2017). Green Up. Peterborough GreenUp.

Robinson, Ken. (2020, August 23). Creating a new normal. . The Call to Unite.

Roorda, N. (2021). Fundamentals of sustainable development. 3rd edition. Routledge.

School of Education. (n.d.). Eco-mentorship certificate program. Trent University.

School of Education. (n.d.). Environmental & sustainability education in teacher education. Trent University.

Simmard, Suzanne. (2016, August 30). How trees talk to each another. . TED. .

Simmard, Suzanne. 2021. Finding the mother tree. Discovering how the forest is wired for intelligence and healing. Allen Lane.

TRACKS. (2020). TRACKS youth program. TRACKS.

Trent Lands Plan. (n.d.) Trent lands and nature areas plan. Trent Unviersity. (2017-2020). Youth leadership in sustainability. Youth leadership in sustainability.

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