“Hey, I’m the white ash tree,” a voice says suddenly. I look to my left, trying to spot the tree in question. I’ve walked the Ken Reid Conservation Area outside Lindsay many times, but this is a new twist—headphones in, I’m exploring with the help of Kawartha Conservation’s Talking Forest app. At key points along the Woodland Loop and Marsh Lookout trails, the app triggers a short audio diary narrated by the forest itself. As I amble along, the white ash tree shares a few thoughts on its place in the ecosystem.
I’d wondered how it would all come together, but the process was virtually automatic once I’d downloaded the app (I used the iPhone version; it’s also available on Android). The location of each talking tree is marked on the digital map, spaced at intervals that allow a span of silence between each monologue. The trees are a diverse bunch, with some offering identification tips and others mentioning their links to important historical and cultural touchpoints. The balsam fir points out it’s a popular choice as a Christmas tree; an oak tree contextualizes its age against Canadian Confederation; a stump makes the case for its importance to the lifecycle of the forest.
They’re affable narrators, too. A maple sapling speaks with youthful exuberance, while the stump has the creak of age in its voice. All encourage an observant and mindful approach to the forest, which offsets the need to be connected to a smartphone. A chickadee landed on mine while I was taking notes for this article, otherwise I might never have needed to take it out of my pocket at all.
Curious about the app’s development, I reached out to Kristie Virgoe, Director of Stewardship & Conservation Lands with Kawartha Conservation, who told me the automatic triggers are very much by design. “You don’t have to scan anything, which was really important to us because we didn’t want to have that infrastructure sitting in the forest. We wanted to make it a little more fluid, a little more magical,” she said.
The Talking Forest was born out of an attempt to make interpretative signage more integrated and engaging. Virgoe notes, however, that in the early stages her team wasn’t even sure whether their idea was possible. The technical details were worked out by an app developer, with Kawartha Conservation supplying the idea, scripts, and voice actors. Work began in early 2020, with a “soft launch” of the first trail in February 2021. The first iteration was written by Virgoe and recorded by internal team members and their families, but as the project gathered steam it added additional clips from community partners such politicians, radio personalities, and a local theatre troupe.
In the fall of 2021, a Talking Forest trail was added to Windy Ridge Conservation Area outside Omemee, and in January of 2022, a second trail based on Indigenous teachings launched at Ken Reid. The former was written with help from seasonal staff members from Fleming College and Trent University, and the latter was written and voiced by Indigenous knowledge keepers. Going forward, Virgoe hopes to develop trails with more specific educational goals.
“Right now, the trails are set up for anybody that wants to come out, whether you know a lot or a little,” she says. “What we hope is as people walk away from the forest, they walk away with little tidbits of information. We don’t want to flood them with too much technical knowledge, but we’ve got a little bit of information from a bunch of different sources so that people can have a more well-rounded picture of the forest.” Future releases, however, may see the addition of trails focused on tree identification or Indigenous languages.
Kawartha Conservation is also adapting to feedback, including developing a better method to identify precisely which tree is speaking, but Virgoe says the response overall has been hugely positive. Particularly in an era of social distancing when the need for safe and calming outdoor activities has never been greater, Virgoe and her team are proud of the unique experience they’ve created. “You see trees and it’s sometimes often hard to tell how old they are and what that means, what that distance and age means. So when you stop and think about it from the standpoint of ‘Canada was just becoming a country and this tree was already fully grown,’ you begin to appreciate just how long that tree has been standing there. I think connecting nature to Canadian and local history and even language is really important because it helps put it into perspective.”
Considering I now know that the first birchbark paper dates to the first century CE, that white pines can be identified by their clusters of five needles, and a handful of other facts any naturalist would find fascinating, I’d say the project has succeeded elegantly. I also agree with the tree who talked about the Japanese concept of forest bathing—there’s nothing quite as relaxing as a walk in the forest. To come away a little wiser too is the icing on the cake.
To read more about the Talking Forest and to download the app, visit Kawartha Conservation’s info page.
Read more about conservation efforts in Kawarthas Northumberland in our feature articles, “Preserving the Kawarthas for Generations: Kawartha Land Trust,” “Return of the Tallgrass Prairie: Exploring Hazel Bird Nature Reserve,” and “Birds, Blossoms, and Big Skies: Exploring Carden Alvar“