An interdisciplinary, multi-age unit based on imaginative education principles
Written by Lara Harvester
Tree. Tall. Green. Branches. Needles. Shade. Seed. Bird home. Lumber. Paper. Cone. Hero.
Wait, that last one doesn’t seem, at first glance, to fit the list of things we often associate with
trees. We might think of the protestors at Claquoet Sound as heroes, but the trees themselves?
Our human notion of heroism usually involves a superhuman, courageous act that results in the
saving of something or someone. Less often, heroism could be the quiet act of persistent sacrifice
along the lines of Mother Theresa. If we broaden our somewhat limited notion of heroism, we
can invite ourselves and students to imagine a wider range of heroic qualities; qualities that non-
humans, yes even trees, might possess. As students re-imagine trees as heroes, they deepen the
understanding that trees are individuals, have lives, care for others and need care themselves. As
empathy deepens through personal connection they are invited to open their hearts to trees.
When we think of heroes, there is often the assumption that only humans, and perhaps other
animals, may possess heroic qualities. Heroes and heroines are usually portrayed as bold, daring,
adventuresome, action-orientated, courageous, often beautiful saviors of the world. There is also
that subset of heroism occupied by the quiet heroes and heroines such as Mother Theresa, the
guy next door who cleans up the neighborhood without expecting any accolades, or the animals
that save humans from death with simple actions like barking if their owner is in trouble. But
heroic plants? Don’t heroes need to be conscious decision making mammals? Well, that depends
on how you define both consciousness and heroism.
Many indigenous cultures have legends of conscious plants, even talking trees. The story of
Ininatig, “The Man Tree,” is an American Indian legend about how Ininatig saved a starving
family by teaching them how to make maple syrup. Western society has its own creatures as
well. In the Lord of the Rings, Treebeard and the Ents are the wisest and oldest of creatures
along with the Elves. These talking, walking trees get angered by the actions of a wicked nature
killing wizard and bring him to task by tearing down his factories and trapping him in a tower.
Libraries are full of stories where trees
play the main protagonist, whether or
not that includes talking. Even Disney
gave a nod to conscious trees in
Pocahontas, where Grandmother Tree
offered wise advice, and comic relief.
Inter-species communication is a
growing field of science in modern
society, but it has been around since
humans began recording their history
and culture. It seems as if humans are
more likely to care about something if
we can communicate with it and in the
process make an emotional connection
of some sort. Natural history writers
and most environmentalists tell stories
of how they made emotional
connections with nature by spending time outside, often growing attached to a certain place, and
sometimes to individual members in a community. Yes, trees included. Most often the trees these
humans make a connection to are old growth trees, or trees that they grew up with, climbed
around in, and told their childhood tales to. I even had my own special protection tree, an alder,
which I climbed when avoiding discipline.
In this curriculum collection we explore the heroic attributes of trees through stories and
activities while building learners’ skills, knowledge base, and sense of empathy. Do trees talk?
Do they feel things and think? How can they be heroic? It is hoped that through engaging with
trees through their bodies and emotions that learners will either recover from, or prevent the
occurrence of “plant blindness” that seems to plague western society. In the process they will
also engage in activities that support the eventual mastery of various learning outcomes.
What heroic qualities might one identify with trees? Possibilities: adaptability, beauty, life-
giving, perseverance, strength, tenacity, wisdom, power, sustainability, and flexibility, to name a
few. One can also engage students imaginations by identifying the extremes and limits of trees—
those very extremes facts and characteristics of trees.
In this unit I will be focusing on one particular heroic quality: adaptability. Trees show their
adaptability through their toxin fighting abilities, communication skills and tenacity. This makes
them quietly heroic. Let’s meet some of these heroes.
Superhero Poplars bust toxins and turn them into beautiful leaves
Nasty chemicals that would kill many plants and animals have met their match in the humble
poplar tree. As I stood amongst a grove of poplars, admiring the sound of their leaves chatting in
the wind, I was told the most remarkable story. It went like this. Years earlier some silly humans
decided to dump a whole truckload of pesticides, fertilizers and old oil into a grove of baby
poplars that lived in a beautiful valley, not caring at all if all those poisons hurt the baby trees.
Can you imagine? Well, many plants would have died almost right away from all that poison;
not the poplars. They got right to work, sucking up all that poison into their roots, limbs and
leaves. Inside their bodies, special toxin-busting abilities cornered the poisons and took them
down. They locked up the poisons in their leaves during photosynthesis, as if it was nothing at
all! Photosynthesis is when plants take sunlight, carbon dioxide and water and turn them into
oxygen for animals to breathe and sugars to use as food for energy. This ability to eat toxins is
adaptability at its most awesome! Could you drink down a bottle of poison and survive? No way!
You would have to be rushed to the hospital before you died!
While I pondered my fragile human body, some of the toxin-locking leaves fell down to the earth
and began a process of decomposition—helped along by toxin fighting bacteria that live in the
soil—and the whole mess was cleaned up. It look a while (years actually), but eventually the
poplars and their bacteria helpers cleaned up the poisons and made it safe for animals and other
plants to live in the beautiful valley again.
Some humans have heard about these very adaptable trees and now plant them in poisonous soil
on purpose, to help fight the evil toxins and make a place safe to live in again. We call this
“bioremediation” – fixing biological problems by using plants and other creatures. Thank
goodness for heroic, adaptable poplars and their toxin fighting friends!
Find your local poplar heroes and have a meet and greet
In this activity, students are brought to a grove of poplars, asked to close their eyes while
someone reads the above news report to them. You can frame the activity by asking them to
picture what is happening as you read the article to them. After the story, get your bodies
involved by meeting a tree:
Meet a Tree (from “Sharing Nature with Children”)
We can imaginatively engage students in learning about trees through their bodies. The senses
and one’s emotional responses to these are significant for somatic (or body-based)
This version of the activity is for groups of at least two, in an area where there are a lot of trees.
You could pair younger children up with older children. The basic premise is to blindfold one
child so the other can lead him or her to a tree (the younger the child, the closer the tree).
Teachers will guide
students in exploring their
tree by asking them to rub
their cheek against the
bark, put their ear against it
and listen, put their arms
around it, or explore the
ground beneath it to see
what other living things
live with the tree. As
students meet their poplars,
ask them to imagine the
trees fighting the evil
toxins. When they have
explored their tree, lead
them back to where they
began, take off the
blindfold and ask them to
try and find their tree
again. Students can be
afforded time to keep
coming back to “their” tree over the months and years. If that is not possible, at least have the
students keep an eye out for that particular type of tree, in this case poplars, through the seasons
to see how they adapt to changes in weather. Maybe you could even find a bioremediation site in
action where the students could become a part of a tree monitoring process.
Students could also role play the evil toxins being disarmed by the poplar and turned into
harmless leaves that are eaten up by bacteria. It might be interesting to try and have them do this
in a poplar way – quietly and slowly instead of the usual quick and loud action of cartoon
Take it further: have students observe trees and do research on how different trees adapt to their
environment. Consider having them interview a tree and try to imagine what sort of answers they
would get to their questions.
Some curricular connections:
Science: The study of trees could touch on ecosystems, environmental responsibility and
stewardship, adaptability and if you can find a bioremediation site, the experimental method.
Language arts: Learners can be encouraged to write a story, poem, or comic about their tree.
We are a humorous animal so the sense of humour/joking is important to include. Teachers can
choose a theme or leave it open-ended. Suggested theme: a story about how their tree is heroic,
especially through its ability to adapt to extreme circumstances.
Teachers might read a story or legend about a tree to learners, and then extend the activity to
have students write their own, and/or respond to the real story.
Art: Students draw or paint their tree. They could also do a bark and/or leaf rubbing using
crayons and paper.
Majestic Trees – the oldest and biggest trees in BC (and the world)And
“Finding the age of trees”
This series of activities introduces learners to some of the oldest and tallest trees in BC and the
world, evoking a sense of wonder while bringing out the heroic aspects of some trees (strength
and tenacity) and the binary oppositions of gigantic/miniscule and sturdy/fragile. I wonder, what
has this tree seen, heard, smelled, and felt, over its very long life? What human events have
transpired over the course of the tree’s life? What has happened to this tree’s home, its
See Appendix: Majestic Trees for photos, specs and details on the largest and oldest trees in BC
and the world. Special note: the Chilliwack Giant (grand fir) and Norvan’s Castle (hemlock in
Lynn Valley) are worth considering as Lower Mainland field trips.
Everyone loves a good story. As imaginative teachers we want to shape the content we are
teaching in a way that brings out its emotional force. What’s the story on trees? For the literate
child, the extremes and limits of reality are particularly engaging: what extremes and limits
might shape a narrative on trees?
(See Appendix: Majestic Trees for suggested stories and legends. There are also lots of tree
books at the local library. Have children find some to bring to the group, or choose your own
ahead of time (or both). A group discussion about the heroic attributes of these trees would be
interesting. In addition to stories, the use of games and drama also appeals to learners’ at the
mythic stage of understanding. Some of the activities below build on the use of the stories
Materials: pictures of huge trees, cedar, Sitka spruce and fir seeds, tape measures, tree ID
Pass around the seeds and ask students if they know what kind of trees they came from. If they
don’t know, that’s okay, let it be a mystery for now. Then pass around photos of the Cheewhat
Cedar and Carmannah Giant (and any other trees you like).
Have the students create a circle in the dirt, using a tape measure and/or walking it out after
measuring their stride length, which equals the circumference of one of the largest trees in BC
and/or the world. Each group can do a different tree. Then have students link hands to form a
circle, imagining they are hugging that tree. Have them put the seed in the middle of the circle
and imagine that seed slowly growing into the tree they are now hugging. This brings out the
extreme limits of gigantic/miniscule and
the heroic aspect of a tree surviving and
adapting. Younger learners can be
involved in this activity as it appeals to
their somatic understanding through
If the place you are in has cedars, firs,
and spruces send children to find a
smaller version of the tree they were
“hugging.” First discuss how to identify
these trees and have students look at the
seeds, photos and tree ID books. Can
they find an example and take a picture
This could appeal to learners’ attraction
to the idea of collecting and organizing,
another romantic cognitive tool. We
might ask “What trees fall under the
category “big”? Teachers might expand
this activity by having students become
an expert on one kind of tree by
collecting details about it through observation and print or internet- based research. They could
also contact local experts (check out the SWANK database to find someone if you don’t know
any tree experts).
Language Arts: Students can create a journal entry about their tree-hugging experience,
including information about the majestic trees and the matching local tree they found. Students
can create stories, poems, and songs about the tree. A good activity might be the “Folding Poem”
from Sharing Nature with Children – see Appendix under Activities
Math: Students can measure the height, circumference and age of the trees they find. See
Finding the Age of Trees in the Appendix. There are a variety of activities for different ages in
this section of the appendix. They should be encouraged to organize the data they collect using
various visual formats including lists, tables, or graphs.
Youngest students can work on patterns by matching seeds, cones, branches and other features of
Art: Draw or paint the trees, make a tree collage, photo album, bark and/or leaf and needle rubs
The Oldest Tree in the World and
Create a Tree-Human history timeline
In 2008 the oldest living tree (known to us) was found in Sweden. It is a Norway spruce and is
said to be 9,500 years old! That is, its root system has been growing that long, although it is only
13 feet tall right now. What analogy might be used to help students understand just how old this
Bristlecone Pines in the western USA are generally recognized as the world’s oldest
continuously standing trees. In the White Mountains of California lies Methuselah’s Walk, a
grove of ancient Bristlecone Pines that contains some of the oldest trees in the world. The oldest
is said to be over 4600 years old and is called the “Old Man.” That would mean this tree began
its life during the middle Bronze Age! The Cheewhat cedar is 2500 years old, putting its origin
around the time of Jesus’ birth (or other non-religious age reference). The Cheewhat lives on
Southern Vancouver Island. If you are studying ancient cultures, have students complete a time
line of history, placing the various ancient trees we have studied on the timeline.
See Majestic Trees in the Appendix for more information on the world’s oldest trees.
Social Studies: have students create a timeline that links the main events and epochs of human
history with that of a very old tree. See human history timeline in the Appendix under Majestic
Just BE a tree
Trees set a heroic example in that they endure and persevere without a lot of action in the way
we usually perceive heroism. They quietly go about their business; trees just being trees. There is
humility to their existence that we humans could learn from. Think about inviting students to BE
like a tree. Exist like a tree. Meditate on a certain stillness that takes place as a tree lives its life
Do Trees Talk?
This activity asks learners to consider the question “Do trees talk?” If so, how? Can we talk with
You could start by asking the students to share their ideas about talking trees orally and/or by
writing them down. See where it takes you. If appropriate, connect to one or all of the following
Read stories and legends about talking trees
From the Appendix: Legends consider the following:
The story of Ininatig: “The Man Tree” (Maple Tree) is an American Indian legend about
how Ininatig saved a starving family by teaching them how to make maple syrup. There
are connections to the idea of giving blood as being a heroic act, in that trees give us life
through their blood in the
form of sap. You could link
this story to how First
Nations closer to home
make syrup from birch
trees (Woodland Cree of
example). There is also a
family in Quesnel who
makes birch tree syrup for
sale (Birch Place Farm).
See story in Appendix
Several stories from “A
Forest of Stories” by Singh
(available at MR Library)
Pocahontas and her
Grandmother Willow Tree
(she asks for the tree’s advice and gives John medicine from the tree). Grandmother
willow also has a face like First Nations tree art. While there are many historical
inaccuracies in the Disney version of this story, the idea of a wise, talking female willow
tree is compatible with the First Nations and American Indian idea that trees are alive and
can pass on wisdom if you listen to them. Some Grandmother Willow quotes from the
movie are in the Appendix.
“The Lure in Stanley Park” from Legends of Vancouver tells the tale of a circle of trees
planted by the gods in Stanley Park to keep an evil witch from hurting humans who lived
in the area. The legends talks about how good people are reborn as trees and bad people
are reborn as rocks on which nothing will grow. This legend connects nicely to heroic
attributes such as life-giving, strength, wisdom, and power. The trees have since been cut
down for “public safety” (now there is some irony for you) although you can still visit the
cairn of Emily Johnson which was put up in the grove of trees. See the Appendix for
more on the trees in Stanley Park.
The Yellow-cedar is said to have long, hanging branches and lustrous inner bark because
they came from a trio of beautiful young sisters who were running away from Raven, and
having gotten too tired to keep running they turned themselves into yellow-cedars as a
disguise. If yellow-cedars could talk, what stories would they tell?
Find your own stories about talking trees at the public library. Have students write their own
If you like, bring in Treebeard from Lord of the Rings. One of the best chapters, titled
“Treebeard” is from book two The Two Towers by Tolkien. The idea of Ents, trees that can talk
and walk, is an interesting idea to explore. You could also show scenes from the movies that
feature Treebeard and other Ents (movie is rated 14A, so preview scenes first to assure age
appropriateness – again The Two Towers is the best one for Ents). This allows a consideration
that trees may actually possess emotions and intelligence. Treebeard is very old and wise. His
favorite saying is “Don’t be hasty.” This connects to the Heroic attribute of wisdom. Ask
students about ways they could apply Treebeard’s wisdom in their own lives. How do trees
embody the wisdom in “don’t be hasty”?
“There’s a good moment in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings when the Ents – half-human trees of
gigantic size – turn on Saruman, the evil wizard, and start to tear down his castle with their roots.
Saruman had been cutting down trees, and the trees had had enough. If only we had an army of
Ents around today! But in a sense we do. We have the western red cedar. No other tree combines
such a monstrous shape with such astonishing size. No wonder the coast Indians of the Pacific
chose the largest of them to carve into totem poles.” (Quote from a book that I have lost track
First Nations tree art is another way to approach the idea of talking trees. Most tree art features
faces, and is considered a way of connecting the spiritual and material worlds. This lesson can
connect issues of social justice with preservation of natural spaces, and to social studies PLOs
that explore First Nations’ culture. I could not find much on aboriginal tree art, but there has
been one book written on it: “Faces in the Forest: First Nations Art Created on Living Trees” by
Science Behind Talking Trees
Scientists have measured w-waves (wood waves) in trees. These w-waves are pretty much the
same as standing waves. If a tree is being cut down or hurt in any way, it sends out “loud” w-
waves, as if it were screaming (pardon the anthropomorphism). There is some evidence that
neighboring trees respond in the same kind of waves with varying strength. Specific w-waves are
emitted by trees as they respond to sudden climate changes and attacks by insects or animals.
Trees (and other plants) also emit chemicals as they respond to their environment. They warn
other trees of coming dangers, and call for help by sending out messages to helpful insects to
fight harmful ones. Trees can recognize siblings and strangers. Detailed background information,
such as the experiments used to arrive at these theories, can be found in the Appendix under
Science: Connect idea of w-waves to sound and light waves
Language Arts: Learners write a report and/or story about tree communication as a theme.
Follow up activity: “Heart beat of a Tree” from the book “Sharing Nature with Children” – see
The First Nations of BC have a long history of using trees for a variety of day to day needs.
Focusing on this aspect of First Nations' culture lends itself to learning outcomes associated with
Social Studies, but all learners benefit from coming to appreciate just how much trees have given
humans in the past, and still give us now.
Suggested activities: Have groups of students (or individuals) become experts on a specific tree
species such as the Western Hemlock, focusing on how the First Nations were helped by them.
Students can show what they have learned by using actual trees to make an “artifact” such as a
spoon or some tea to share with other learners. They could create art and/or written
representations of knowledge or create a play. If you like, have students integrate their
knowledge of tree communication so they can imagine how the tree might have communicated
with, or currently communicates with, humans about how the tree could be useful to them.
Conversely, we can ask what the tree would like in return for being so useful? Respect and
The following pages are photocopied from the book “Plants of Coastal British Columbia,
including Washington, Oregon & Alaska” by Pojar and Mackinnon (1994). They identify
different trees and indicate how First Nations have used each species in the past and present
under the subsection “Notes.” See the special entry “Cedars: Trees of Life” for a focus on the
peoples of the northern Pacific coastal region and their relationship to the cedar tree. All of these
trees are heroes to humans as they have given to us with great generosity and self-sacrifice,
showing great tenacity and adaptability over the years. Now we have a responsibility to be
heroes to them.
“A Coast Salish myth says the Great Spirit created red cedar in honour of a man who was always
helping others: 'When he dies and where he is buried, a cedar tree will grow and be useful to the
people – the roots for baskets, the bark for clothing, the wood for shelter'” (from Pojar and
Mackinnon, p. 42). This is reminiscent of the myth “The Lure in Stanley Park” where the cedars
are protectors against the wicked witch because good people come back as trees.
Note: the Western red cedar is BC's provincial tree (see The Trees of Canada, the next section of
this curriculum document).
There is also a whole section of the “Plants of BC” that is about shrubs and small trees if you
need more species or wish to expand the idea of heroic trees into other categories such as heroic
shrubs or flowering plants.
The Trees of Canada
This activity would be good for social studies focusing on Canadian culture and geography.
In the following photocopied pages you will find a summary of the official trees of each
province. They are from the book Symbols of Canada. Trees / edited by Deborah Lambert. From
the Surrey Public library.
Assign each student, or group of students, one of the provinces and have them prepare a
presentation about its official tree. Ask them to consider the heroic attributes of these trees. You
could extend this to include a map of Canada that has all the trees named on the map in the same
manner as one would normally name the capital cities. This could be further expanded to include
the official flowers and animals of each province. If a student created their own imaginary
country, what tree would they choose to represent it and why?
As part of growing learner’s vocabulary, there is a tree glossary at the end of this unit that you
can use for reference.