I hope your holiday season has been as quiet, peaceful and relaxing as mine! Winter is a time when I catch up on sleeping, eating with friends, strolling along the breakwater, and spending a whole lot of quality couch time with the cat. I finally get to read some of those books and magazines that have been piling up all year, and, I’ll admit, I watch a lot of TV. Naturally, some of my favourite shows are — nature documentaries! 

In late December, BC’s local Knowledge Network offered a special treat: Judy Dench in “My Passion For Trees”. If you missed it, or if you live outside of BC, here’s a synopsis for you.

Renowned actress, Dame Judy Dench owns a park-like garden in Surrey, UK. A camera team accompanied her with her partner and a number of researchers, to various woodland locations over the course of a year. The result is a delightful conversation on science, history, and art, with a healthy dose of Shakespeare sonnets mixed in. 

Judy Dench says she adored trees ever since she was a little girl, and considers them part of her extended family. Many of the trees growing on her property are dedicated to human loved ones, both past and present. 

It just made my day to watch tree experts explain to Judy some of the same astonishing facts that have been part of the Gaia College curriculum for over 15 years now: Trees communicate with each other and with other living beings; they live symbiotically with insects and microorganisms like bacteria and mycorrhizal fungi; and they deploy sophisticated messaging and defense mechanisms in case of attack. Beeches, for example, release bitter-tasting tannins in response to browsing deer, while pines send out a perfume-like substance to attract ladybugs who help them against aphids. 

Judy reacts by commenting on the forest being “a very social place”, and her perspective is changing beyond seeing a tree solely as an individual. The best part is the expression on her face when, with the help of a listening device, she is able to hear the rumbling and popping sounds of water traveling up through a tree trunk in spring! 

The film serves up a range of tree-related tidbits. It includes fabulous images of fungal hyphae and slime molds seeking out decaying organic matter. In a fascinating close-up, water, being released from a dead branch during cold weather, instantly freezes into bizarre hair-like structures. And, you might be pleasantly surprised to learn what ‘arborglyphs’ are. 

Further on, a mature oak on Judy’s property, serving as a study object for 3D-modelling, is found to have an astonishing 12 kilometres of branches, some 260,000 leaves, and around 25 tonnes of wood mass. 

Another take features a display of the well-preserved remains of a 130’ long warship from the time of Henry VIII. This single ship’s timber frame was made from 600 oak trees, representing 40 acres of woodland – a floating forest!  

For the bigger picture, a computer graphic shows seasonal fluctuations of atmospheric CO2 mainly around the Northern hemisphere, its levels falling in summer when trees absorb more of it, and rising in winter when deciduous leaves have been shed. 

The movie ends with two young native trees (an oak and a yew) being planted in Judy’s garden, true to the saying, “The best time to plant a tree was 50 years ago, but the next best time is today.” 

Check out Knowledge Network online wherever you are, in BC and beyond. I trust you are already well familiar with the CBC’s “Nature Of Things” series with David Suzuki. There’s never been so much choice of new and relevant information in all media. But above all, when the show is over, go outside and take a good look (and listen) around. My next blog will be on extinction — a rather less lighthearted and critically important topic.