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There Is A Way: What Sumacs Taught Me About Resilience And Diversity

From the north wall of the St. Lawrence Seaway looking south at one of many industrial sites on the way (@ 26km mark on my run).

The long run One day in October 2020 I went for a run along the St. Lawrence River. My plan was to explore its banks more closely than I could zooming past in a car or train, and to hold a few questions as I went. Not expecting any particular answers, I wasn’t surprised when I heard less from the river and more from the trees clinging to its banks. Specifically I heard a lot from the Staghorn Sumacs (Rhus typhina). I’ll share some of what I found out in this article. I also created a related (and a bit strange) video about the experience, here.

In a nutshell, the Sumacs shared what it means to have very little to work with, yet to resiliently pave the way for diversity and healing.

I took heart from this lesson. Sometimes I feel like part of a thinly outfitted army that is fighting for a better option than our current industrialized, commodified, and financialized economy. I see an alternative where we recognize humans as just one young species among many others who are older, wiser and essential to our survival. I see a world where our economic norms are aligned with the way nature works because we are in and of nature, not separate. Like the Sumacs, sometimes I feel like I work in pretty barren circumstances.

I work with large companies to shift them into that world I see, what some call a regenerative or ecological economy. The logic and beauty of this world is obvious to those of us in that thinly outfitted army. Yet this is heresy for many people working in business today.

For instance, I note that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are still human-centric and short term, which means that “leadership” in applying them barely hints at what’s needed. This is not generally a welcomed message. I observe that massive funds shifting into environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing are still representative of the broken model that maximizes financial returns while reducing harm instead of increasing well-being. This is also not a thing most people want to hear.

Most people prefer to look at the colourful SDG icons in corporate communications, and the blizzard of articles on financial returns being made through ESG investing, and call it progress. It’s a bit like how people love the fall colours displayed by the Sumacs and their taller tree neighbours without asking questions about how they come to be there in the first place.

And yet that lack of anything more substantial is the barren ground we have to work with.

So I will tell you about this run and what I learned about creating the conditions for better things ahead, even if the circumstances seem daunting. It wasn’t all pretty, that’s for sure! But in Sumac style, I now know that it doesn’t need to look pretty to become something beautiful.

Some questions It was a long run — 88.63km to be precise, or a little over two marathons. I had been training for an ultramarathon that got cancelled on short notice, so I decided to use the miles I’d stored up in my legs to listen more closely to the river, something I had been considering for some time but hadn’t made the time to do.

Let me get the running stuff out of the way before going further. This may seem like a really long run, and to be clear it was my longest run to date and it was definitely a challenge. It’s actually pretty doable if you train for it, and it’s not a long distance compared to most of the ultra-running that goes on. Most of the difficulty was in the logistical stuff — getting the route sorted, making sure I could take in enough nutrition and hydration, that kind of thing — until the last 10km or so where the hardest part was keeping my right Achilles tendon from staging a mutiny.

Questions about how long it took or if I had to stop to go to the bathroom come up a lot when I talk about this. To me those questions are a bit of a distraction (though for the record, a little under 11 hours, and yes, a few times). I had been asking myself different questions in the lead up to the run and they were the ones I was holding as I trotted along on that beautiful autumn day. Questions such as:

  • Why do we listen to people who make little sense or even lie regularly, but we rarely listen to forests, migratory birds, or rivers who clearly hold a lot of wisdom?

  • How can I improve my listening skills with these wise non-human relations?

Some Answers On that first question, I’m not sure why this is so. Maybe it soothes us to listen to people who tell us what we want to hear even if it’s not in our best interest, like the drug feels good to the addict though it’s a form of slow suicide. Or maybe it’s because most of us have been trained through our mechanistic, linear, and capitalist worldview to ignore the natural systems that keep us alive, so listening to them is beyond our comfortable cognitive range.

On the second question, I think the way to improve my listening skills in relation to the non-humans (or even human-humans!) is to practice. This means putting in more time, in new and different ways, and holding different questions. It maybe also means asking the same question multiple times and listening for new responses.

Story-telling Sumacs I learned from a friend who knows a lot about forest succession and reforestation that in this region the Sumacs will often be the first tree to take hold after land has been badly degraded and left to its own devices. The soil may seem practically lifeless and hard as concrete, yet somehow they find a way to take hold and thrive. They break up the soil, bringing new life to it, eventually allowing for a more mature, complex forest to move in.

This would explain why so much of the urban landscape of my youth was lined with Sumacs. I walked to school along Toronto’s Bayview Extension, an urban highway that had been carved into the contours of the Don River Valley in the late 1950s, leaving treeless hillsides on either side of the roadway. The slopes were so barren that some parts needed netting to keep rocks and dirt from washing away with the rain. Barren, that is, until the Sumacs marched in and got things sorted. They were young and bursting with their fuzzy red berry clusters as my schoolmates and I walked alongside them throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. Now after more decades than I care to count, those hillsides are thick with a range of taller more demanding trees. Ash, Poplar, Spruce, and even some Maples and Oaks have now found their way to these improved soils courtesy of the low-slung Sumacs who are barely visible among taller neighbours crowding them out.

Without those Sumacs to break the ground and create the way, we’d still see those erosion-controlling nets.

Starting from scratch (again) What I saw on that long run this past October along the banks of the St. Lawrence River was a familiar Sumac scene. Although the colonial settlement now known as Montreal was established over 400 years ago, the scrappy little trees along the banks of this part of the river have had to start from scratch due to multiple rounds of disturbance, where once there were mighty Oaks.

It was a beautiful day and the trees were putting on a great show of fall colours. But beyond the fiery reds and oranges was another less photogenic story, yet one worth noting, especially for those interested in our own human resilience.

The reason there are so many Sumacs is directly related to the way we’ve treated this river, and by extension a lot of the ecosystems and human communities around it. At first glance — or even thousandth glance if you weren’t paying attention — it may seem like the river carries on well enough as we live harmoniously beside it in this great city. But that’s a gross — and I would argue dangerous — over-simplification.

For instance, one very clearly disturbed stretch of the river bank is part of what now constitutes the St. Lawrence Seaway. This industrial shipping lane was cut into the south shore of the river (also in the late 1950s —apparently heady times for rearranging urban waterways in Canada) to bypass the Lachine Rapids which are impressive to behold but impassable for commercial vessels.

Along with doing extensive damage to local communities, including breaking the physical connection between the river and the Mohawks in Kahnawake (there is an excellent two-part documentary about this here and here), the construction of the Seaway completely altered the physical nature of the riverbank. Between the 10km and 24km marks in my run I was on a path on the north side of the seaway, running parallel to the suburbs of Brossard, La Prairie and Sainte-Catherine, up to the edge of Kahnawake. This is a recreational path now, and on the open river side there is a campground, a water park and an orientation centre for visitors to enjoy in the summer months. On the shipping lane side, there is a lot of industrial activity as some ships stop to unload their cargo there.

And all the way along there were beautiful Sumacs in their full fall foliage, creating the way for new life even on this little strip of land that had been radically reshaped for our big boats to pass with everything our economy needs to keep on humming, from wind turbines heading inland to oil tankers heading across the Atlantic, and many, many more. (All trackable, by the way, with this app).

These wind turbine components were destined for the port near Duluth, MN. I passed this ship around the 50km mark on my run.

There are seemingly less disturbed areas, too — parts of the river that more or less follow the original shape of its banks, pre-European contact. However a query to the Sumacs tells us that much has been disturbed along here too. There isn’t an inch of shore that hasn’t been rearranged. Whether to construct the stretch of Highway 15 that parallels the river (and the path I followed from the 45–75km marks of my run) along the south shore, or to develop the sailing clubs and other recreational sites along the river’s edge, there has been significant disturbance.

Some of the most remarkable features of Montreal’s infrastructure, like many river-based cities, are its bridges. The Champlain Bridge, for example, has been undergoing major reconstruction since 2015, and the new bridge is now open (though still being completed). The website hosted by the public-private partnership leading the project — Signature on the St. Lawrence — outlines details about careful environmental practices, yet there are still serious issues. In late 2020 bridge work was halted due to damage being caused to fish habitat, as outlined in this (English) article and detailed with video footage in this (French) news piece. The impact on the construction company — aside from delays which are politically fraught — is a potential $200,000 fine. However, it doesn’t take an extensive conversation with the river to understand that this money won’t undo the damage done to the fish. And damage to the river banks beside that damaged fish habitat is apparently understood as part of the deal.

Construction on the new Champlain Bridge on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River.

So said the Sumacs What does this lesson from the Sumacs tell me? Well, to be clear it didn’t take the Sumacs to tell me that there’s been a lot of human impact on this river, especially in the wake of European colonization. But there was a nuance to this obvious observation that I hadn’t thought about before: this impact has happened because we’ve mostly focused on getting over or under the river, controlling it, or in some way using it to our advantage. Any kind of appreciative relationship is either jammed into the margins, such as the bike paths I followed sandwiched between a roaring highway and Sumac-lined river banks; or tokenesque, such as the water park on the north side of the seaway overlooking the Lachine Rapids; or fairly exclusive, such as the sailing clubs for those with the means to moor sailboats near the city.

There are still a small number of people fishing in the waters of the St. Lawrence near Montreal, however this happens in spite of — not because of — our current approach, especially recalling how communities such as Kahnawake have been separated from the river’s banks.

Nonetheless, the Sumacs also reminded me of something very hopeful, which feels important for what lies ahead. If I sometimes feel like I’m working in an area where there’s almost nothing to go on, I can take heart. It’s more than possible to break new ground, draw on what looks barren but is in fact all we need to make room for the diverse — even healing — things to come.

Some may be wowed by the jazzier, colourful stuff — the fall colours, the new bridge lanes opening up, the SDG initiatives, and the ESG funds — and think that’s cause to celebrate. That’s okay. The Sumacs will keep busy taking what comes, with patience and persistence, preparing the ground for what’s next.

What I learned was that where there’s a Sumac will, there’s a Sumac way. Now when I run along the river I ask those beautiful small trees, what can we do to help you make space for those mighty Oaks to come back?

I’m listening.


Home stretch: I crossed the Concord Bridge at the 85km mark and headed home.

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