Trees by Lucy Hemphill

This is the third in a series of small books written by Lucy Hemphill and illustrated by Michael Joyal. I feel fortunate in having had access to the full set of titles, as it enriched my experience, allowing me to see how this author has grown over the years since 2015 when the first one, Clouds, was published. While that book looked to the sky as it looked to the past, the follow-up title, Stars, looked even higher. And both of them also looked back to that difficult past which we as settlers are only now learning about. 

This third book, Trees, goes further than either of the previous titles with its explorations. This one delves more deeply into the author’s own personal history but goes well beyond concerns of the self. Being First Nations/Métis with Scottish/Irish blood mixed in, Hemphill honours her Indigenous heritage and incorporates traditional language into the book. For those of us lacking such linguistic knowledge, she has included a glossary that offers translations, an addition (though smaller there) that she also included in Stars

It’s entirely suitable that the three books are known collectively as the ‘Overhead Series’ as overhead is exactly where they cast their gaze. But this book differs from the others in that, rather than looking upward, it opens with the author looking down from a plane, flying to her homeland on Vancouver Island. What she sees is ugly:

…I can see that much has changed since I was last here. Where once there were vast green swaths of trees covering every piece of land, now there are great brown patches where the old growth has been completely cut down. Mountains are marked with the scars of landslides where tree roots no longer hold the land to the rock face. Rivers and inlets are dammed with the wreckage of entire forests. 

Those of us who try to keep up with current information about woodlands and trees will find that some of what she imparts echoes notions we’ve learned from books by Peter Wohlleben or UBC’s Suzanne Simard, two writers who have done so much to educate readers about the interconnectedness of all living things in the forest. But Hemphill’s book goes beyond those, in that she has made it such a personal account, as she’s reaching for much more than knowledge. She sees the forest as a bridge to her culture and uses its gifts to reconnect to a past that was taken from her. Right from the outset, she lets us know her quest: “I have come home to find medicine and there is no time to waste.”

She imparts a surprising amount of knowledge (some of this, I always understood as being sacred and private) about various uses for trees, their bark and leafy bits. And it is through these explorations and in the course of becoming a mother that she finds herself. 

The illustrations, which appear on nearly every page (facing text) are also annotated at the back of the book, with the names of each tree or frond they represent, along with their Latin denotation. Although most of them look like pen or pencil drawings, the artist is a watercolourist. Knowing that this is the medium he uses only enhances my admiration for his skill, though I found it disappointing that his website is no longer active. 

Despite being barely seventy pages, many of them breathing white space, this little book is a small treasure, one worthy of looking at again and again. 


Lucy Hemphill is a writer and adventurer of Kwakwaka’wakw/Métis and Scottish/Irish descent. She is a member of the Gwa’sala-‘Nakwaxda’xw Nations, a Kwakwaka’wakw Community on the Northern tip of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Much of her life has been spent in the forest or on the sea. When she’s not surrounded by nature she writes about it. She also writes about contemporary and historical Indigenous issues.

Michael Joyal is a Canadian watercolour artist whose work focuses on reinterpreting characters from mythology and fairy tales through a modern lens. The paintings explore roles of feminine power through feelings of strength, anger, melancholy and joy. He has exhibited in Canada and the United States. His work is held in the permanent collection at the International Cryptozoology Museum and the Legislative Library of Manitoba.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ At Bay Press; First Edition (Oct. 15 2022)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 70 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1988168287
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1988168289

 -- Website

Heidi Greco lives and writes in Surrey, BC on the territory of the Semiahmoo Nation and land that remembers the now-extinct Nicomekl People. Her most recent book, Glorious Birds (from Vancouver's Anvil Press) is an extended homage to one of her favourite films, Harold and Maude, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2021. More info at her website, heidigreco.ca

(Photo credit: George Omorean)