Our series begins with human’s longest standing material relationship: Our connection with trees. In the simplest terms, we inhale their oxygen; they take in our carbon. They then turn that carbon into mass, better known as wood. Based on that elemental exchange, and over the course of humans’ relatively brief time on earth, wood has evolved from the foundation of technology to our most ubiquitous resource. 25.8 million hectares of forest were consumed by humans in 2020, double the amount of forested land lost in 2001.
Part of the reason for the Roman Conquest was a quest for wood, which fueled the empire’s expanse as well as their bathhouses. Roman clearcutting turned the Isle of Crete in Greece, which once resembled the thickly wooded areas of the Pacific Northwest, to an arid, plantless landscape. This leads us to the question: How has colonization shaped modern forestry practices?
Deep in a Wisconsin forest the sounds of an acoustic guitar float amongst the shimmering leaves of a stand of Sugar Maple. Comfortably seated under a tree, a Native American man and his son strum their wooden instruments together, singing in the Menominee Language. “We play for the forest each week, but it’s not a form of worship.” We hear the man speaking from an off camera interview, “These songs are a gift, an expression of gratitude for the life this forest has provided for our family and our ancestors going back thousands of years,” says Jeff Grignon. Jeff is a forester for the Menominee Nation, who have been sustainably harvesting their forest for over 150 years, drawing on wisdom gained from centuries of living off the land. Traditional Ecological Knowledge holds truths that can inform and improve life on our planet.
What would the modern world look like if we were to integrate Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Indigenous Science into mainstream forestry and conservation practices?
It's a very basic, almost transactional exchange within the grand ecosystem. An obvious ecological connection between humans and trees. But is there something more... more metaphysical at play?
After a career spent dangling from ropes hung from the canopies of the rainforest, Dr. Nalini Nadkarni has turned her attention from publishing in scientific journals to preparing a Tree Sermon for a Mormon Church in Utah. In the world of Academia, Dr. Nadkarni felt she’d been preaching to the choir. With 80% of the world population identifying as spiritual or religious, she felt she’d have a better job spreading the forest conservation good word by meeting people where their values are formed.
In between scenes, checking in with Dr. Nadkarni as her project progresses, the episode makes way for our narrator to take our audience on explorations into different interactions between spirituality and trees.
Each year, thousands of Buddhists make the pilgrimage to Bihar, India, to visit one specific tree. The Bodhi Fig is reputed to be the very tree under which Buddha himself found enlightenment. Of course, this honorific designation is not unique: Numerous religions believe in a “tree of life” that stands central to their faith. In this way, we see that the connection between people and trees runs much deeper than just cardboard and log cabins. For many, in fact, simply being around trees awakens something in the self.
Throughout the episode, beautiful cinematography provides intimate looks inside these cultures. Interviews with their devoted members provide an inspiring, alternative gaze into a healthier relationship with forests. Throughout the episode, Dr. Nadkarni brings her powerful presence and curiosity to places of worship – navigating a world many sciences have yet to explore.
Trees don’t “see” time anything like the way we do. What if we pause for a moment and examine the world from their perspective? What can we learn?
This is precisely the aim of the fascinating, if niche, field of Dendrochronology. In simple terms, dendrochronologists study tree rings to understand patterns of climate change and weather conditions. But their work is unexpectedly inspiring, drawing on arduous processes in which scientists compare the “records” of hundreds or even thousands of very old trees. And, with climate change knocking ever louder at humanity’s doorstep, their findings can be tremendously impactful. Through the insights of these surprisingly relatable dendrochronologists, we get an inside look into history – according to a 2500 year old giant sequoia. In doing so, we get a privileged look at the true distinction between “tree time” and “human time.”
Back in Japan, the cherry blossoms are in bloom. Pink and white petals float through the air in slow motion, all but suspended in time. In a nearby studio, Chiako Yamamoto, a national treasure, opens her window as we catch a glimpse of an indoor forest of tiny trees. The world's only Female Sensei in the art of Bonsai, Chiako has a unique relationship with trees. She cares for a tree that was handed down and meticulously cared for by her father – and his father, before. As an artist, she makes trees her canvas. Her paintbrush is time. Who better to provide insight into the juxtaposition of human time and tree time?
Utilizing time-lapse and stop-motion techniques, combined with visual effects, we will illustrate how trees experience time. From a day in the life of a tree, to a year, and ultimately over the course of decades, we see the tree sitting in a single spot, watching humans develop the land around it. Our voiceover describes the curious differences in the life cycles between the two species. This mesmerizing sequence, set to music, will kick off our episode while we acclimate audiences to a tree’s timescale.
For over 100,000 years, people have been shaping the world to our will. We now live in an era in which humans’ impact on the earth outweighs natural causes like weather and erosion. Moving forward, will we prioritize balance? Or will we bend natural order to our will, past its breaking point? In this episode we search for ways in which humans are manipulating the environment to make it better than it could be without us.
On an experimental apple orchard in upstate New York, multiple tree species are grafted together, resulting in a single GMO that produces up to 40 varieties of fruit. Likewise, there may be no better expression of a “naturally unnatural” forest than a Christmas tree farm, with rows and rows of evergreens just waiting to be harvested, by helicopter.
Later in the episode, we check back in with Menominee forester Jeff Grignon, who’s on Day Two of his annual journey deep into the forest. He teaches us how Native Americans discovered that when planted together, corn, beans, and squash – aka the “Three Sisters,” work together to help one another thrive in a way they never could have, alone. Yet in untouched nature these plants would never grow in the same place.
Drawing insight and inspiration from these examples, we ask: How far can we push – or should we push – the resilience of trees? Is there a future in which we use our good ol’ human cognition to shape a world that works better for both us and the earth?
Hanging 40 feet in the air, perched in a giant tree, Dr. Nalini Nadkarni is overcome with excitement about what she’s found. She has tracked something, which looks like a root, all the way from the base of the tree. Up here, it has found its way into a pocket of dirt suspended in the canopy, high above the ground. Many new discoveries about the connectivity of trees are taking our understanding to a whole other level.
Recently a scientist hiking through Germany’s Black Forest happened upon a tree stump. With no remaining means of photosynthesis, this stump should be dead and decaying. But after further inspection, he found something peculiar: This stump, clearly the remnants of a once-tall tree, was being kept alive. The surrounding trees were sharing their resources with this disembodied community member. And this support is not unique: Scientists have found that trees in general have a robust network, used not only for sharing resources, but also for communication. Yep, trees “talk” to each other.
None of this scientific breakthrough is news to Jeff Grignon. He grew up hearing teachings of The Sacred Underground Network, passed down by Menominee ancestors. Jeff says he’s just glad that science is catching up to what natives already know to be true.
In this seemingly sci-fi, episode we invert the assumption that life on earth is about what’s happening up here. Using these networks, trees warn each other of incoming threats, even as they share vital nutrients. We’ll use appropriately awesome cinematography techniques, visual effects, and animation to furnish viewers with a dazzling look into a resilient – and really amazing – community.
As we learned from our time with Dendrochronologists in episode three, Giant Sequoias are facing the life-threatening impacts of extended dry periods. These same droughts have increased the frequency and severity of forest fires in the past decade. The 2018 California wildfires laid waste to over 1.8 million acres, the most destructive in U.S. history. The 2020 Australian Bushfires took 25 times that. The good news for Giant Sequoias is that fire is part of their life cycle. Reminiscent of the story of the mythical Phoenix, Giant Sequoias release their seeds after a burn, allowing a new generation of giants to emerge from the ash.
But for humans displaced by forest fires, the story isn’t as hopeful. Despite how loudly we claim that “we can’t be defeated, we must rebuild,” humans are coming up against the capacity of our planet – and our homeowners' insurance – to support our desire to shape the world in our favor.
Year after year, news reports paint a grim picture, while people on social media send money and prayer emojis. Politicians and scientists argue and point fingers. But what actual steps are we taking as society? How can we be more proactive, and less reactive to the phenomenon of our planet incinerating itself? To help us imagine what a better future might look like we introduce our final character, a young activist working to reshape humans’ relationship with the natural world.
Less than 3% of the viable old growth forests of British Columbia remain. Natives, with a deep respect for their elders, grasp the value of these trees within the ecosystem, understanding in a way that their Canadian logger counterparts do not. Old growth forests contain millennia of bio infrastructure and nutrient diversity that can’t be replaced by humans. In our lifetime, will we protect our dwindling ancient forests, or exploit them to extinction?
On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, eighteen skyscraper-sized “trees” reflect a colorful, glowing light. This light sparkles against the dark moonlit waters of Singapore’s Marina Bay. Resembling something out of a futuristic fantasy movie, these human-made structures have introduced a vast amount of surface area for plant life to grow within this bustling metropolis. Here, technology harmonizes with biology for the benefit of not just the people, but the grander ecosystem as well. Is this what our future might look like if we treat the natural world with a bit more reciprocity?
As the series comes to close, our narrator reflects on the ideas presented, while Jeff Grignon, Dr. Nadkarni and Chiako Yamamoto offer their parting wisdom. Amplifying the important message of restoration experts, we put the call to action to our audience: Don't just plant a tree; grow one.
After all, things are being done that are positive. Progress is being made, in certain areas. Hope is definitely warranted, as is an invitation to action. It’s possible to shine a light on some of this progress without letting viewers off the hook – letting them realize that they, too, can and should answer the call to join in these efforts. What steps can the individual viewer, and society at large, take next? What is needed for us all to see both the forest and the trees?