Stories of the forest

A new book by local author Laura Stovel encourages us to look, listen, and learn from our forests.

Parks Canada interpretation officer based in Revelstoke, Verena Blasy, inspects a Lungwort Lichen. Photo: Rob Buchanan

On one of my walks, deep into the temperate rainforest that surrounds Revelstoke, I stumbled upon a mystery. As I meandered up a long-abandoned road grade adjacent to a tumbling creek, a thick grove of waist-high ferns slowed my progress. When I paused to appreciate their vigour, I noticed something odd; the ferns grew vigorously only on the roadbed. Why only here? Why only ferns? What was the story behind this? And what other stories does the forest hold, waiting to be told to a mindful observer? This last question is what spurred Laura Stovel to create her new book and art exhibit, Stories of the Forest.

Stories of the Forest book cover image.

Back in town, I peruse the exhibit at the Revelstoke Visual Arts Centre. In her book, Stovel poses this question to a varied group of forest enthusiasts and professionals, and curates their replies with the help of her co-creator Christy Shaw. Each of the twenty-two contributors shares the wondrous things they’ve found in the forest and elucidates what they reveal about nature’s delicate balance. Both the book and the exhibit combine this writing with the images of photographer Rob Buchanan and artist Claire Sieber to lead readers and viewers on a journey that encourages them to slow down, look around, and find their own stories in the forest. And for Stovel, that’s exactly how this project started.

“When Covid arrived, I spent a lot of time isolating in the forest on Mount Revelstoke,” Laura explains. “Sitting under a tree where I often write, I started to see things that I had never noticed before. There the dominant plant species indicated that a fire had burned through decades ago, and I wondered how many other forest stories were right in front of us just waiting to be told.”

Stories of the Forest author Laura Stovel. Photo: Aaron Orlando/Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine

To answer that, Laura enlisted the help of friend Christy Shaw. You may know Christy as a longtime local and founder of Mountain Goodness Natural Foods, but in recent years she has shifted her focus to working with Indigenous groups as an ethnobotanist. She not only helped to shape Stories of the Forest, but also contributed her own section:

‘A forest close to home is where I come to sit, where Devil’s club slowly fills the spaces between the cedars and the hemlocks and whispers that he has always been here… His leaves, reminiscent of giant maples, hang wildly like umbrellas. And just out of reach, a pyramid of green berries, bursting ruby red, beg me to be picked, but shouldn’t… It is medicine in its purest form.’

A little further into the exhibit, I recognize the name of one of the volunteers who maintains the garden plots just outside the visual arts centre, Ken Talbot. Ken is a lifelong forestry professional and avid outdoorsman with an infectious enthusiasm for nature. With a background in technical writing, he adapted his style to the project:

‘As spring arrives and the mosquitoes start hatching, the dragonflies and damselflies show up to eat them. Some, in turn, might be eaten by a small carnivorous plant called the sundew that grows around the bog. The sundew’s normal diet would likely be insects the size of a mosquito or smaller.’

Ken Talbot examining a mushroom. Photo: Rob Buchanan

Nearing the end of the exhibit, I pause to study a photo of man submerged calmly in an icy winter stream. It’s Giles Shearing, an environmental scientist with a particular interest in the beauty of winter and the various ways in which plants and animals adapt to the season. Where others see a barren frozen landscape, Giles sees another chapter in nature’s story:

‘Skiing and camping in the mountains are exhilarating, but just as important are the pauses, when we stand quietly to absorb the energy and wonder of our surroundings. Surveying the rounded peaks and sunken valleys — mountains older than the Rockies — we know we are guests on the landscape.’

Giles in the Jordan River. Photo: Rob Buchanan

Some days later, I return to the forest, to the mysteriously vigorous ferns. But this time I look more closely, taking note of the clues before me; the damp conditions, the surrounding cedars, and the age of the road. It seems likely to be an old corduroy road, built with a base of rot-resistant cedar that retains moisture like a sponge and creates acidic conditions in which only ferns can really thrive. I suppose it’s a story that I already knew, I just had to look closer to hear the forest tell me.

Bryce Borlick is a world traveler, outdoor enthusiast, and urban refugee whom you’re most likely to find wandering the mountains in search of nothing in particular. With an unruly interest in sustainability and permaculture, he may be the only person in Revelstoke dreaming of one day doing burnouts in an electric F-250 towing a tiny house.