What do you call this?

How a single word redefined my understanding and relationship with the forest.

Life’s most impactful moments sometimes come in the simplest of packages and in the most unexpected places. This moment for me came in the form of a single word in the middle of a forest, 650km north of Thunder Bay. 

It was my first Green Job – a co-op placement toward completing the Forest Technician program at Confederation College. I was a summer research assistant, tasked with supporting an interdisciplinary team of graduate students, university researchers, and forest sector professionals exploring sustainable bioenergy opportunities in two northern First Nation communities. 

We had been invited to help determine how local forests could help reduce dependency on existing heating sources like diesel or electricity. But also with a bigger picture in mind – that sustainable forest management would also catalyze other community benefits like employment creation, business development and reduce wildfire risk. 

Data collection was key, especially for one fly-in community partner, located in Ontario’s Far North. Within that region, there are no accurate forest inventories. It’s beyond what’s known as the Area of the Undertaking—the zone in which active forest management occurs. We therefore needed boots on the ground to paint an accurate picture of whether local forests could sustainably meet the community’s needs. 

As the most junior person on the team, my role largely involved trailblazing inventory lines and trying to ensure we didn’t get lost along the way. Luckily by my side was our local guide, Fred. 

From my knowledge, Fred never had any formal forestry training—at least in the conventional Western sense. But he possessed a lifetime of experience in the bush. Beyond that, he possessed the collective knowledge of countless generations who had walked those same forests before him. I may have felt isolated in one of Canada’s most remote forested regions. Fred, however, was very much in is backyard. 

The days spent together traversing spruce bogs and jack pine sand flats gave Fred and I lots of time to together. Typical small talk of hobbies and disdain for the incessant the swarms of biting insects, quickly gave way to deeper curiosity. 

Turned out we are very much curious about the same things. Not least of which was learning as much as we could about the forest. “What do you call that?” became our go-to game. The rules were simple: point at a plant, big or small, and ask, “What do you call that?”, generally followed by, “What does that mean?”

At their best, I quickly recognized, the Latin and common names I was learning generally referenced some aspect of a plant’s physical appearance. Many others seemed completely arbitrary. Others, as I see it now, appear modern vestiges of the Doctrine of Discovery, where European explorers have given way to botanists, no longer naming “discoveries” after monarchs but rather notable scientific figures.

Fred’s OjiCree understandings couldn’t have been more different. Each name spoke to a relationship. Sometimes between a plant and its ecosystem. Others between the plant and the human world. For example, where the name I’d learned was simply tamarack, Fred’s spoke to its swampy home. Where I knew simply jack pine, Fred knew its relationship to fire.

Each new word opened my eyes a little more to a different way of seeing, knowing and appreciating the forest. 

One name stood out in particular, though, and continues to live with me to this day. Diverging from our usual pattern, Fred pointed to a tree we’d already covered—I knew as a black spruce. Its needles were brown, many lying on the ground around it. I knew he was looking beyond just a recap of its name. I struggled to find an answer. 

Fred on the other hand, did not. His name, roughly translated, referred to a standing piece of firewood. Where I merely saw a dead spruce and therefore a bypass in our forest inventory, Fred saw a new relationship opportunity. 

In the conifer-dominated forests in which Fred’s community is located, chimney fires are a real and constant danger. Knowing where to harvest dry firewood can be a matter of life and death. That name and the relationship it speaks to have helped keep generations of that community safe. 

In that moment, I couldn’t help but feel humbled. The words I’d learned in school suddenly seemed like just that—words. 

Fred’s on the other hand were glimpses into relationships, histories and ways of knowing the forest that could only ever be fully discovered through many generations of lived experience in that one place. The language itself was a reflection of and testament to the inextricable connections between a people and their home.

With so much collective knowledge contained in even a single word, imagine what else we could learn? 

I carry that experience with me today in my work at Sustainable Forestry Initiative. Through Objective 8, forest-focused community programming, knowledge sharing and convening, we create space where people from all backgrounds can come together, listen and learn from one another. 

Our hope is that through curiosity, conversation and collaboration, everyone can come to their own lasting, “What do you call this?” moment, like I had. 

Paul Robitaille is Métis with roots in the histroric Drummond Island community. He holds a Master of Science in Forestry from Lakehead University. Paul is currently the Director of Indigenous and Youth Relations at the Sustainable Forestry Initiative and Project Learning Tree Canada.