The Black Boreal Treasure, by Heather Leschied

For me it started with Tom Thompson’s haunting, autumn depiction, so inextricably associated with Canada’s Boreal Forest. The black spruce is often overlooked. Not quite as radiant as its cousin, the Sitka, but my love affair sees it as utterly majestic in its own right. For a forest that stretches clear across the country, encompassing more than half of our landscape, it no doubt holds tremendous mystery. Heading north to Fort McMurray, the black spruce could just be the gateway to this incredible, vast ecosystem.

The Boreal intertwines with our Canadian lives as gently as fingers in sand. And if trees were the lungs, and rivers and creeks the veins, then the Boreal could be seen as providing the steady foundation of the life of our country.

Under the roots of the black spruce lies a treasure, a watershed. For the bogs, fens, marshes, wetlands and 1.5 million lakes within this forest, water is filtered and provided, cleansed to ecosystems supporting caribou, bison, wolverine and 60% of Canada’s bird population. Water that feeds our great rivers and lakes, breathing existence into our nation, landscapes and bodies.

But under the roots of the black spruce also lies a treasure as rich and black as the dress of lichens that give the tree its name. A treasure that is being uncovered at an unprecedented rate, altering landscapes 10,000 years in the making, for short-term gain.

I am finding a different kind of treasure now, as we arrive at the 5th and final Athabasca Healing Walk, and drink in the spirit of the hundreds of people raising a collective consciousness and asking questions of themselves and others . . . short-term gain? At what cost? How much are we willing to give up and let go? Now, more than ever, I hope the black spruce is not overlooked.

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