Jim Fleming: Diana Beresford-Kroeger calls herself a renegade scientist. She's a botanist, a medical biochemist, and an expert on the healing properties of trees. She's also an avid gardener. On her 160-acre property in Ontario, Canada, she's planted more than 100 different species of trees. Some of them she believes contain cures for cancer and other illnesses. In a new essay collection called The Global Forest, Beresford-Kroeger writes that trees are sacred.
She told Anne Strainchamps that the lives of trees and humans are interrelated all the way down to the most basic molecular level.
Diana: Well, they are sister molecules working together, as a matter of fact, they're both designed by the genome. In one case, in the case of you and I, they're designed by our own genetic code and in the case of the tree, all trees, they're designed by the tree itself. For us, it's the hemoglobin. For you and I, the hemoglobin is an important oxygen transporter into our blood system and in fact, that keeps us alive. It is really the only thing that keeps us alive. If you're a tree, the tree does the very opposite with the same type of molecule, the same design of molecule.
What the tree does is it takes chlorophyll which is sequestering carbon dioxide out of the air in the presence of water, some water, and also in the presence of sunlight, photonic energy from sunlight and lo and behold, it makes oxygen. We, little creatures, creep around and breathe that oxygen. The tree can survive without us which makes it more clever because we cannot survive without the tree.
Anne: Yes, North America was once covered in trees. There are really very few stands of virgin forest left on this continent, but we do still have a lot of those native trees. In your book, you tell some marvelous little-known facts about well, for one thing, the medicinal properties of trees. For example, we were talking about those native species of trees in North America. The black walnut is one of them.
Anne: Which turns out to have some extraordinary medicinal aspect.
Diana: Well, really the black walnut for America is probably your most extraordinary heritage tree. In the black walnut itself, if you have a child and you bring a child for a walk when they're producing the green fruit and that would be in August for everybody in North America. Get the child to hold the green fruit and get to play with it for a little while. It gives them a protection to childhood leukemia.
Anne: [chuckles] That's extraordinary.
Diana: Yes, and it's called ellagic acid. Ellagic acid goes into the sweat glands of the child and helps the child to protect them against leukemia for about a year. For women, all of us because of the massive use of pesticides in the world day after day after day after day, we are susceptible because it breaks down beta-oxidation. This pesticide goes into our breast, stays in our breast, blocks beta-oxidation and we are prone to breast cancer. What we do is we go to the black walnut, pick a couple of leaves, and crunch the leaves in our hands. This is at the end of August and the beginning of September when the compounds called ellagic acid again are highest in the tree itself. Juglone is high again as a serenading kind of complex in it. Rub the inside of your arm with the leaf, that will give you some protection to breast cancer.
Anne: What happened to America's native black walnut forests?
Diana: Oh, we've only got 60 acres left and it is in the central part of America. The trees were cut down. The trees are extremely valuable. Now any of your listeners out there, if any of you want to become instant millionaires, you can go out and grow and plant black walnuts. One well-grown black walnut will outpace any mutual funds. You can snub your nose at Wall Street and you have got the money for your grandchild for their university education because it can be sold at auction for 60, that is $60,000 dollars because there is not enough black walnut wood left in the world.
Anne: It strikes me that what you've discovered from Science about trees is simply bearing out what so many ancient mystical legends have told us about trees. You're a scientist with a degree in medical biochemistry and botany.
Diana: God knows what, yes. [laughs]
Anne: You also have whole chapters on magical trees and mystical forests.
Anne: Why is it important to see trees in both ways using both sets of language?
Diana: Well, you have to have an open mind. You can't have a closed mind in Science. You can't go around with your eyes closed and a pair of blinkers on you. When I was child in Ireland, my whole family was killed off. By the time I was 11, I was an orphan. I'm a mongrel. I'm an aristocratic mongrel and I come from a very ancient family. That's a fifth-century family in Ireland. I was the last child of that family. All of the old 80 and 90-year-olds took me under their wing under the Brehon laws, but in the old style of the Druids, they took me under their care and they taught me all kinds of things of the druidic times, mediation, love nature, cures, all kinds of extraordinary things so I would be armed.
They told me for the modern world, for the new world that I was to face. They put on my head that I would be the last voice of the ancient Gaelic world. Indeed, some of the Druids were right.
Anne: As the last living descendant of an ancient druidic tradition, is their particular tree wisdom that you feel compelled to transmit to the rest of us?
Diana: Yes. Don't cut them down. Don't cut the trees down. If you cut the trees down, you kill yourself. It's really that simple. Easter Island is an example. All of the trees were cut in Easter Island and the fish went too after that and everybody died. We've got to stop this thing called greed.
Anne: You have a passage sort of sounds fictional in the book but it makes me think you've had this experience of standing in a forest grove, praying, and leaning toward trees, and opening your eyes and realizing that the trees were leaning towards you.
Diana: Yes. That did happen. The trees were listening to me as I was praying in Gaelic. The prayers of Gaelic are Ár nAthair, atá ar neamh, these Gaelic words into the air. I was praying just in my waiting time to focus my mind for doing other things. I found that the trees were leaning to me as I was leaning to God. Then I realized we were all leaning to the same thing and that all God was unity. This profound feeling of unity of the song of the land calling to me. It was really quite an experience.
Anne: I'm interested that you call it the song of the land because as someone who works in radio, I was especially fascinated by your chapter on trees and sound.
Diana: We're deaf and dumb, really. We are so arrogant. We assume that because we don't hear in the region of 1 to 400 Hertz, that nobody else really hears this. Of course, they do, dogs do and little children do, and cats do and monkeys apparently do. All large things produce, well like I say, a song of the universe. The elephants do, they produce from 0 to 400 again in messages of danger from one elephant to another even though they're 10 miles apart. The trees do the same thing. They are very large creatures and they produce these soft long waves of energy that actually can be measured.
The birds are very sensitive to this and the birds come and march to the trees that they want to march to and nest and come back to the same tree every time. Now, I want you to think about something. The shape of the human body. We're shaped like a viola or a big cello. We have a neck, we have the chest which is mostly an empty cavity, and we have our diaphragm. We are receptors. The hearing from trees is like the feeling of a symphony when you go into this marvelous symphony and you hear music overcomes you. It floods you. It goes through you. You are the music and you get this extraordinary feeling in your chest.
In Gaelic, in the Old Gaelic world, that is called, you say, [foreign language]. I have the feeling of squeezing in the chest, and that is the feeling of the trees.
Fleming: Diana Beresford-Kroeger is a horticulturalist with degrees in botany and medical biochemistry. Her bio plan for North America would reforest the continent with trees planted for their medicinal, environmental, and nutritional properties. She's the author of Arboretum America and The Global Forest. Anne Strainchamps spoke with her.