One of the first signs of spring is the budding of the leaves on trees and bushes. It feels good after a long hard winter to realize that the sun is coming up earlier and setting a little later. Those darker days of winter are lightening up and the sun is warming us all.

A lot of people don’t realize that up the James Bay coast as far as Attawapiskat and even further north, we are surrounded by all kinds of trees. Most of the forests in the far north are stunted because of the mushkeg swamplands and the long cold winter. A little further north there is tundra, which is more or less flat barren land that is almost treeless.

Spring in my mind has always meant the hunting of the goose. It is also been a time of renewal and I can remember feeling so happy to see the green buds coming up on the trees and bushes around Attawapiskat. There are actually forests of huge poplars, pines and all kinds of bushes close to major rivers. My awareness of trees has to do with being raised on the land and relying so much on them for survival.

The trees up the James Bay coast have provided my people the Cree with wood for fires and that has meant our survival in the frozen northland. We also used trees in the making of shelters such as the traditional askikan, a wood structure where logs are placed upright in a teepee formation, then covered in sod or thick layers of moss or peat. This structure is usually made in the fall and when the winter freeze sets it, the layers of solid log and frozen peat provide excellent insulation from the cold. Trees also provided the building materials for the MeeGwam (the Cree word for teepee) as well as providing the support structure for setting up a prospector tent.

During the spring flooding season, when families were caught out on the land in flood-prone areas, trees also provided the material to build scaffolding to raise a platform. When there was fear of flooding, these platforms were placed in safe locations in the forest where river ice could not do any damage. Raising a teepee or prospector tent 10 or 12 feet off the ground provided a measure of protection from floodwaters in the deep forest.

No matter where I am when I am travelling on our wonderful planet, I often notice the scent of pine. This unique odour always reminds of the cozy, warm and comfortable pine-bough floors of the askikans, Meegwams or prospector tents I lived in when growing up on the land. There was no need for a fancy mattress back then because we could simply take the soft ends of pine boughs and expertly weave then into a thick mat for our flooring. Back in those days, I went to sleep with the scent of pine and then I awoke with it in the morning.

My non-Native friends often joke with me and call me a tree hugger. I think that comes from my great respect for trees. I don’t like to cut down a tree unless I have a good reason and I am going to use the wood it provides. I don’t believe in cutting vast territories of trees for a short-term profit. When I am travelling in Europe and other parts of the world, it is obvious to me that greed and short-term development led to the destruction of most of the natural forests in much of the developed world. We are fortunate in Canada that we have some of the largest and most diverse natural forests in the world. However, if you look at a satellite image online of any of our Canadian provinces, you will notice vast tracks where the land has been deforested. From the perspective of space, it actually looks ugly and I find it unsettling.

If we want to keep our natural forests and not end up in the same situation as many countries in this world we must make sure to harvest our forests in a way where we can preserve them for future generations. So I am a tree hugger when it comes right down to it. As a matter fact I am proud to be a friend of the forest.