To Speak for the Trees

My Life's Journey from Ancient Celtic Wisdom to a Healing Vision of the Forest


By Diana Beresford-Kroeger

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“A rare gift: an inspiring tale about trees, trauma and the very purpose of life.” —Andrew Nikiforuk, author of Empire of the Beetle
Diana Beresford-Kroeger—a world-recognized botanist and medical biochemist—has revolutionized our understanding of the natural world with her startling insights into the hidden life of trees. In this riveting memoir, she uncovers the roots of her discoveries in her extraordinary childhood in Ireland. Soon after, her brilliant mind bloomed into an illustrious scientific career that melds the intricacies of the natural world with the truths of traditional Celtic wisdom.
To Speak for the Trees uniquely blends the story of Beresford-Kroeger’s incredible life and her outstanding achievement as a scientist. It elegantly shows us how forests can not only heal us as people but can also help save the planet.



Also by Diana Beresford-Kroeger


The Natural Approach to Designing,

Planting and Maintaining a North Temperate Garden


Stories of the Rideau Valley


A Philosophy of the Forest


A Lifeline of the Planet


40 Ways Trees Can Save Us


Tips for Healthier, Happier and Kinder Living

from a Visionary Natural Scientist


Copyright © 2019 Diana Beresford-Kroeger

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Published in 2019 by Random House Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited, Toronto. Distributed in Canada and the United States of America by Penguin Random House Canada Limited, Toronto.

Random House Canada and colophon are registered trademarks.

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Title: To speak for the trees : my life's journey from ancient

Celtic wisdom to a healing vision of the forest / Diana Beresford-Kroeger.

Names: Beresford-Kroeger, Diana, 1944- author.

Identifiers: Canadiana (print) 20190080876 | Canadiana (ebook)

20190080884 | ISBN 9780735275072 (hardcover) |

ISBN 9780735275089 (HTML)

Subjects: LCSH: Beresford-Kroeger, Diana, 1944- | LCSH:

Botanists—Biography. | LCSH: Biochemists—Biography. |

LCSH: Celts—Biography. | LCSH: Forest ecology. | LCSH: Forests and forestry—Folklore. | LCSH:

Trees—Ecology. | LCSH: Trees—Folklore. | LCGFT: Autobiographies.

Classification: LCC QK31.B47 A3 2019 | DDC 580.92—dc23

Book design by Lisa Jager

Cover images: (forest) © Alberto Tondo / Unsplash;

(banner) © Forest Foxy /



To my ancestors at the Castle of Ross, Killarney, who lived in Lackavane and the Valley of Lisheens.

You gave me my greatest gift, that of the mind.


The countryside of Éire

has been put to sleep with poetry, long ago.



The land is murmuring.

Soft fields of dreams move slowly

filled with hares and long tail grass,

mountains strained with purple heathers

and foxes fevered with glints of yellowed furze.

Woodland words,

ragged with rain,

between the corncrake sky

and the fishtail sounds

sucking up the sea.

The yoke of the moon will shield the Laws of Liberty,

arís agus arís,

pointing us straight to




I have always found it difficult to think about the story of my life, let alone tell it. I suffered great traumas as a child. To protect myself, I took my pain and put it down a deep well in my mind. I hid it from myself so that I could function, and I moved through my entire scientific education and decades of research with my eyes always cast ahead, looking for the next question, the next answer, the next piece of understanding and wisdom.

But the person I am today could not exist without that trauma. It led me, as a thirteen-year-old girl, on stepping stones to one of the last bastions of the Celtic culture in Ireland, a place called the Lisheens Valley in County Cork. I arrived in Lisheens in need of something to help hold me together just as the place itself was falling apart. The ancient knowledge of the Druids and the Brehon Laws, kept safe, refined and handed down from one generation to the next for millennia, was on the verge of being lost. Instead, it was given to me, an understanding of the healing powers of plants and the sacred nature of the natural world that remains the greatest gift I have ever received.

The only thing asked of me in exchange for that gift was that I not keep it to myself. And though I have shared my ideas and discoveries freely during my fifty-year career in science, I have always held pieces of my story back, keeping the complete picture obscured even from myself.

But now we find ourselves in a special time. On the one hand, climate change poses the most significant threat to our planet that humanity has ever faced. On the other, we are better equipped than ever before to take on that challenge. To do so, though, we need to understand the natural world as people once did. We need to see all that the sacred cathedral of the forest offers us, and understand that among those offerings is a way to save our world.

We are all woodland people. Like trees, we hold a genetic memory of the past because trees are parents to the child deep within us. We feel that shared history come alive every time we step into the forest, where the majesty of nature calls to us in a voice beyond our imaginations. But even in those of us who haven't encountered trees in months or even years, the connection to the natural world is there, waiting to be remembered.

In telling the story of my life and the leaves, roots, trunks, bark and stems that weave all through it, I hope to stir that memory. I want to remind you that the forest is far more than a source of timber. It is our collective medicine cabinet. It is our lungs. It is the regulatory system for our climate and our oceans. It is the mantle of our planet. It is the health and well-being of our children and grandchildren. It is our sacred home. It is our salvation.

Trees offer us the solution to nearly every problem facing humanity today, from defending against drug resistance to halting global temperature rise, and they are eager to share those answers. They do so even when we can't or won't hear them. We once knew how to listen. It is a skill we must remember.


Comfort in a Stone

My weeping stone sat on the highest shoulder of the valley, where it pointed to the blue above. The stone was way taller than my head, a huge rectangle except for the curve at its crest where chunks had broken loose long ago. Its surface was weathered into rough ripples interrupted by the rounded scabs of lichens. The stone was easily twice the size of the heavy dealwood table in the farmhouse kitchen, big enough that any changes to it occurred on a timeline far too slow for me to perceive, which gave it a welcome constancy.

I called it my weeping stone because I trudged up the hill to be by its side when I felt especially alone. I never really cried. I was beyond tears. Or I repressed my tears, never noticing because I swallowed them whole. I would sit at the stone's base and lean back against its sturdy flank, ready to slip around to another side and hide if anyone from below called out to me—a reassuring defence, even if no one ever did call.

As I sat there, the slow throb of the Earth settled its calm into my bones. Below me was the farmhouse with its puffs of smoke and, beyond it, the fields of my great-aunt's farm, each one named in Gaelic like an ancient song. Our neighbours' farms blanketed both sides of the valley in a patchwork that glowed with a green that seemed to have fire in it. I could watch the seabirds spread open the timothy veil of the pastures and sometimes see the Owvane River, packed with salmon, at the heart of the valley spilling westwards to the open arms of Bantry Bay. If I turned north, I could admire the great sleeping silhouettes of the Caha mountains, colours dancing on their hulking forms. Cnoc Buí—the yellow hill—electrified by its yellow flowers, seemed to vibrate with the chrome of gorse. At times, as I watched the aquamarine of the sea, I wondered about the bolts of bronze that came and went in a silent symphony of colour. From that vantage point, I could in fact see the entire landscape that had sustained my mother's family in body and in soul for the past three thousand years. The light playing with the clouds, the salt wind and the rain soothed me. While I never cried buckets up there against my weeping stone, I was a child with no shortage of pain.

On this particular summer day I'm remembering, I had climbed to the stone carrying thoughts of my father. I was an orphan, having recently lost both my parents. I had been lonely most of my young life—separated from most of those around me by nationality, religion and class, just for starters—and I had learned to live with that isolation. But my parents' deaths struck a blow that I wasn't sure I could recover from. Months and months had passed and still I felt numb. The daily freshness of their deaths was disorienting, as though the ground and sky had been pulled out from under me. My mourning for my father was constant, the loss so strong that at times I felt winded by its power over me. Some vital part of me was missing and would never come back, because death had closed a door. I just wanted to be small, only a dot, a tiny one. Maybe if I held my breath I could disappear altogether.

I huddled into myself at the base of the stone to survive. The sight of the valley below made me feel both safe and like a tiny dot, as small as the black-and-white cows down there, moving slowly with their pink udders swaying. They were content. I must be, too. And, as I calmed down, I was able to take sober stock of my life.

On my father's side, I was a descendant of the English aristocracy, the most fragile leaf on a Beresford family tree that included earls, lords and marquises by the branchful. On my mother's side, I was as Irish as the heather in front of me, the last living drop of a bloodline that could be traced back to the kings of Munster. My dual heritage had inspired resentments, the consequences of which I have borne all my life. As a female child among the Beresfords, I faced the stumbling block of primogeniture. I could not inherit anything of value from my father's estate other than my bloodline and my name. I was a crossbreed, too Irish for the English and too English for the Irish. My one saving grace in Irish eyes was that I was a female and therefore more important than the male.

Thoughts that my father's family would continue to ignore me, as they had since my father's death, sent me into a panic. But that passed, too, as I looked across the pastures of the Valley of Lisheens, the handful of square miles of rural Ireland where I would spend my summers for the next decade. I had no inkling yet of the hope that existed right in front of me or of the ways the land and its people would guide and shape me. I didn't know that the older generation of my mother's family had already met down at Pearson's Bridge to discuss my fate. I didn't know that they had already decided to give me the gift of their ancient knowledge, their open secret, and that it would save my life. Or that they intended me to become their "child of destiny." All I knew, leaning against my weeping stone, was that I was invisible, crushed from too many deaths and utterly alone.

My parents, Eileen O'Donoghue and John Lisle de la Poer Beresford, met in England, most probably in London sometime during the Second World War, and fell in love. Though, as a child, I quite enjoyed digging up the romantic past of all those around me, I never got a chance to ask my parents for their love story. A few tidbits I did know. One was that my mother, in an evening gown with silver silken gloves to her elbows, adorned with seed pearls and sapphires, was hard to resist. Once, when I was young, I was brought in to watch her sweep across the dance floor at a private ball. Everyone present gave way to her elegance and beauty. Why a man might fall for a woman such as my mother isn't hard to parse in its broad strokes.

Jack, my father, came from the best of everything. He was an Eton boy who had been presented at court, the son of Lord William Beresford; he was related to the Churchills and Spencers and all the rest of English high society. He lived the ultimate aspirational lifestyle of the early twentieth century, and that alone would have drawn women's interest, but he was also a charming, cultured man. Even my mother's people in Lisheens spoke of him with a grudging admiration and fondness, despite his status among the Protestant Anglo-Irish elite. He was a linguist, fluent in thirteen languages including three dialects of Arabic, who taught at Cambridge. He was tall and he wore a monocle, which sounds silly now but suited him, I think.

Though my mother's pale skin gave her face a soft, delicate quality, she was spirited and adventurous, well read and outgoing—capable of commanding a room when she felt like it. And she was athletic, an accomplished horsewoman who'd ridden to school every day of her childhood. She had a wild streak and an uncommon bond with animals, especially horses and their kin, both qualities captured in my favourite story about her, which was that when she was a girl, she once managed to get a donkey onto the roof of her schoolhouse. No one could figure out how she did it and, so the story goes, she never told.

Neither of her parents lived to see her marry an English aristocrat, but like her surviving relatives, they would have seen it as a divisive act of disobedience. My father's family, in contrast, preferred judgment of the silent type.

Though we later lived in Bedford, England, for the earliest years of my life, I was born in Islington, a part of greater London, in the summer of 1944. My first memory is of being breastfed. I remember my mother's nipple touching the top of my palate and instantly going into ecstasy, then dropping off to sleep. I may have held onto that moment for so long because of the simple pleasure and contentedness I felt. More likely, though, it has remained with me because times of true connection with my mother were so rare.

When I was two or three, my parents began to make regular trips to Ireland, towing me along like luggage. Travelling the world and summering in the countryside was merely what people of their class did. Regardless of their taboo cross-cultural union and my mother's rebellious streak, on the whole my parents did what was expected. There was one point, however, on which my mother refused to bend: she insisted, against the proper English wishes of my proper English father, on taking me year after year to visit our ancestral seat in Ireland.

The two of us would travel by car to the border between the counties of Kerry and Cork, where we'd slow to a reverential pace before taking the narrow road up to the Pass of Keimaneigh. At the pinnacle, where the pass made its definitive cut through the rock, the mountains almost touched above us. There, my mother would stop and we'd get out of the car, looking up in awe at the boulders that seemed held in place by just a string of heather, flushed deep purple as if straining from the effort. Over the sound of the twin streams of water rushing across the black rock on either side of the pass, my mother would tell me the legend of the priest who'd used the pass to make a daring escape during the time of the Penal Laws. Those laws, inflicted on the Irish by their English occupiers for five hundred years, until 1916, made it illegal, among other things, for any "person of the popish religion" to run a school or teach children. The priest had not only educated the local kids, he'd done it out in the open in what the locals called a "hedge" school, with scouts on watch for trouble. Threatened with imprisonment or worse, and being chased by mounted English soldiers and their dogs, he had leapt the gap at the top of the pass and successfully escaped.

After a stop at Gougane Barra to meditate in the caves that the monks had inhabited, we quietly entered the gentle space of St. Finbarr's Oratory, which stood on its own sacred island. Then we swept northwest into Kerry and on to the family seat at the Castle of Ross on the shore of Loch Léin, the largest of the three lakes of Killarney. Rising from the car, my mother would light a cigarette, a Woodbine, and inhale, then release a tendril of smoke as she bent to smooth the skirt of her Parisian suit. Stepping carefully past the mud puddles, she'd look the building over with an appraising eye, as though she was a prospective buyer. She'd take in the top of the castle, open to the elements since the roof had been removed in penal times to reduce the rent, and the sow lying against one stone wall with her litter of squealing pink piglets. Stubbing out her cigarette and turning back to the car, she'd fire a parting shot: "Nobody has fixed the roof yet."

These pilgrimages were proof that my mother couldn't completely let go of her Irish heritage—that she still felt the pull of the ancient places, as well as some responsibility to allow me a connection to our past. But almost everywhere else, she dismissed the culture and beliefs of her parents as backward and full of superstition. She expected me to grow into a woman who was attractive and acceptable to my father's people, and then to make a good marriage. Otherwise, she expected me to stay silent and out of the way. So that's what I did, to the best of my ability.

When I was seven, my parents had a huge fight and separated. My father stayed in England, while my mother and I moved into a tall Georgian house at No. 5 Belgrave Place in Cork, Ireland. No explanation for the change or my father's sudden absence was offered to me; we were simply removed from him. This lack of communication wasn't unique to my parents. In that time and place, and particularly in that stratum of society, children were appendages who were not owed any emotional consideration. But my father's sudden disappearance from my life was a deep wound. He was a reserved man and never told me directly that he loved me, but in his quiet way he made me feel loved. He would draw me and paint me. (His oil portrait of me still hangs in my living room.) I have memories of him playing the piano when I was very young. He would pause in his playing, warmly call me to the bench and lift me onto his lap. He would then lay my hands on top of his. My hands were too small to follow the movements of his fingers, but he wanted me to feel the rhythm of the music as he played. I also remember him perching me on his shoes—a foot on a foot—and dancing with me at our house in Bedford.

At Belgrave Place we lived with two of my mother's siblings. My uncle Patrick had been a famous athlete, known across Ireland as the distance runner and hurler Rocky Donoghue. A lifelong bachelor, he worked as a chemist at the city's gasworks. My aunt Biddy had suffered a broken back in early childhood and the injury had left her an invalid. She was often in the hospital, maybe three times a year, and had difficulty walking. Biddy was kind to me. She spoke warm words and took an interest in me. I grew to love her fiercely and took care of her to the best of my ability. I remember I read her all of Jane Eyre, over and over again. Uncle Pat seemed indifferent—not cruel or cold, even occasionally up for a chat, but focused on his own business and not much fussed by the thoughts or needs of a child or, for that matter, of anyone else in the house. Now that she was my sole caregiver, my mother made her feelings plainest of all. "You're just a nuisance," she would tell me. "And my life would be better without you."

I had few friends outside the house. My last name marked me as not only different, but also potentially dangerous. The Beresfords were among the most powerful families in Ireland. If a child in the neighbourhood or on the school grounds were to hurt, insult or accidentally run afoul of me, I might report the incident to a relation capable of ruining that child's entire family. Were they to parrot one of their parents' political views in earshot of me, there was no guarantee it wouldn't find its way to the Beresford family. For the most part, the people of Cork simply left me alone.

The house at Belgrave Place was part of a collection of ten, built as a unit in front of a large shared courtyard. The houses had been erected, likely in the 1700s, as English officers' quarters, and long before we took residence, someone had planted a small arboretum in the courtyard. This became my playground and I suppose, because I had no other companions, the trees seemed to welcome me. They became my friends. I would place my most precious doll, the one from America with the curly red wig and the porcelain face with blinking blue eyes, into the safekeeping of the giant bay tree. This was the tree in whose bole I played house, with the smell of bay leaves rich around my toy oven and all of my lesser dolls (the pecking order firmly established and ending with the limp cloth ones). Like my weeping stone, which I hadn't yet discovered, the trees comforted me with their immense size. Their presence had a dependability that felt like benevolence to me, and they were forever changing in ways I was hungry to understand. The trees kept coming into my dreams at night, too, with their long swags of shadow changing the landscape of the bedroom wall.

Two doors up from us, at No. 7, lived a man I was convinced could help me get to know the trees. Dr. Barrett was a naturopath who wore steel wire-rimmed spectacles and had no children. He lived with his wife and sister, both of whom also wore steel-rimmed spectacles, a commonality of no small import to my young mind. Many days, I would position myself in a laurel shrub across from his door, hidden from view by its curtain of spotted foliage, and wait for Dr. Barrett to arrive home. When he did I would meet him at his front door with my first prepared question and our lesson would unfold naturally from that starting point.

In the fall of that first year after my parents' row, a very curious thing happened. An immensely tall and immensely thin tree I'd had my eye on broke out all over in tiny ovoid red fruit I thought of as apples, having no other word for it. I had never seen anything like this tree before, over thirty feet tall and bursting with colourful bounty, and the belief that it must be a rare and special being occupied my mind completely. The tree spoke to me with its unusualness, and I was desperate to hear what it had to say. So I took my spot in the shrub and when Dr. Barrett stood on his doorstep to review his world, I approached and raised one of the apples towards his steel-rimmed eyes. "Are these apples safe to eat?" I asked. He told me yes, I could eat it, then explained that the treasure I held in my hand was actually a haw, the fruit of a species of hawthorn that he knew as the American haw tree, Crataegus douglasii. I took a bite and was met with a sweet and tangy flavour, a delicious discovery all my own.

From that point on, the arboretum became not just a place of fellowship and play, but also one of experiments and revelations. I remember Dr. Barrett telling me that the leaves of another hawthorn—the common variety I'd come to know by its Latin name, Crataegus monogyna—were both edible and good for your health. Armed with this information, I climbed as far as I could up the tree, enduring its thorns, and sampled its leaves for myself. They tasted like salad.

On another day, I was circling the bay laurel and stood on one of its small black seeds. The outer coat of the seed, its testa, split slightly under my foot and the fragrance it released was incredible. I picked up the seed and, with my fingernail, peeled the testa back to reveal something white and gleaming underneath. The smell intensified. It was the exact smell of the tree itself, only concentrated. I couldn't believe that the smell of the tree was contained so powerfully inside the seed. The connected wonder of that is still so clear in my head—both the feeling of discovering the link between the seed and its parent tree and the awe of the link itself.


  • “Using science and Celtic wisdom to save trees (and souls)…Beresford-Kroeger has been working to save some of the oldest life-forms on Earth.” The New York Times

    “Who speaks for the trees, speaks for all nature. Diana Beresford-Kroeger is one of the rare individuals who can accomplish this outwardly complex and difficult translation from the nonhuman to human realm.” —Edward O. Wilson, entomologist and conservationist
    “A rare gift: an inspiring tale about trees, trauma and the very purpose of life.” —Andrew Nikiforuk, author of Empire of the Beetle
    “To read her is to be revived by the best kind of animism.” —Richard Powers, author of The Overstory
    “This autobiography of learning ways to heal the damaged earth and break the tightening grips of climate crisis offers a rational and inclusive way to keep our future.” —Annie Proulx, author of The Shipping News and Barkskins

On Sale
Oct 5, 2021
Page Count
280 pages
Timber Press

Diana Beresford-Kroeger

About the Author

Diana Beresford-Kroeger is a world-recognized botanist, medical biochemist, and author, whose work uniquely combines western scientific knowledge and the traditional concepts of the ancient world. Her books include The Sweetness of a Simple Life, The Global Forest, Arboretum Borealis, Arboretum America, Time Will Tell, and A Garden for Life. Currently she is advocating on behalf of an ambitious global bioplan that encourages ordinary people to develop a new relationship with nature and to restore the global forest.

Learn more about this author