Ottawa Writers Festival: Diana Beresford-Kroeger’s long and winding road to wisdom

Diana Beresford-Kroeger

On the day of our interview Diana Beresford-Kroeger was not out enjoying her trees as was expected. In fact she was cleaning a bathroom when the phone rang. “Nothing very exotic,” she said. “It’s one of the jobs of the world.” That’s Diana, down to earth, matter of fact and wise.

We were to talk about her latest book which is a memoir and an explanation of why she is so attached her life’s mission, the trees of our planet.

“I didn’t want to do it,” she said, with typical emphasis., when asked about the book. Her publisher cajoled her into it.

She thought, she said with her customary frankness, “Who the hell wants to write about stuff like this? I stuck it down a well when I was a child and as far as I’m concerned you try to ignore it as best as you can. It bubbles up to the surface every now and then, to smite you in the face. Then you trudge along and return to what you are doing.”

But she agreed because she does get asked when she speaks all over the world how she got this understanding of the natural world? Where did it begin? Why do she think the way she thinks?

Finally her editor Anne Collins persuaded her that her journey might encourage people to become aware of the environment and about climate change and the importance of the natural world. She did come to change her mind although she has bets with people abroad that the book won’t sell. The takers think it will. So if she loses, she wins.

Her life is really Robert Frost’s road less travelled by and her story could have been written by one of the Brontes or Dickens.

Diana was born into the English and Irish aristocracy. The Beresfords, her father’s people, are a noble English house.

Not surprisingly, Beresford-Kroeger disdains this side of her family.

“I am related to all that bloody gang and they are a bunch of thieves and liars actually.

“I have some family that are there in Parliament right now and they couldn’t have given one tinker’s damn for me as a child and they never encouraged me to do anything.

“When I was 21, I was issued a golden invitation to (essentially) breed with one of this gang. When you are in those upper echelons and you’ve got very good bloodlines, it’s like you are a cow or a horse and if your bloodlines are really good, maybe you’ll win the race.” She didn’t want to run that race.

On her father’s side she is related to the late Princess Diana, the Mitfords, Churchill and “all that gang. My cousin is Lord William Beresford. I am related to the Lansdownes.”

On her mother’s side of the family she is part of the line that has descended from the ancient Kings of Munster in Ireland. The family home is Ross Castle in beautiful Killarney. “That was my mother’s seat.”

She says she is the last of the line. She was brought up on all the traditions of the family. She speaks the Irish gaelic language still.

“That’s why I am so weird. I refused to marry into money and lineage and all that was told to me when I said I was going to marry Christian Kroeger that all I would get is six feet of rope” to hang hm with. With relatives like these…

As a child, Diana was often lonely because, in part, of her family name. The kids didn’t want to associate with someone who comes from a family is a part of the ruling English.

She is also, she said, still considered a disgrace because she does her own gardening. Try to imagine Diana without a trowel in hand.

She has written several books on botany with an emphasis on trees and the benefits they bring to us all. She is also a medical biochemist and has discoveries in cancer research to her name. She maintains a private research garden and arboretum Merrickville which contains many rare specimens, including her beloved hickory trees, that she has saved for future generations.

The American scientist and writer E.O. Wilson has said of her: “Diana Beresford-Kroeger is one of the rare individuals who can accomplish this outwardly simple but inwardly complex and difficult translation from the non-human to human realms.” And she is feisty as all get out to boot.

She says now that she has made something of herself, the family is paying attention to her. As far as she is concerned too little too late.

Her parents separated when she was seven and left with her mother, who was unsympathetic to Diana’s interest in science and study. By 13 she was an orphan.

But in many ways she was rescued by two bachelors who opened up the world to her.

The first was a neighbour who taught her about botany and allowed the lonely child to explore his books and wander into a nearby arboretum. Dr. Barrett was his name and he was a naturopathic doctor.

“He never had any children. He really loved me. He used to keep a bag of chocolate covered dates in a brown paper bag and he would ask, ‘Well, Diana what is our tree for today?'” If she could recite the latin name, she would get a date. She still likes dates.

He would also tell her about the medicinal properties of the plants.

The second hero was her mother’s brother Padraig “Rocky” O’Donoghue, who was a champion hurler, surely one of the roughest, toughest games ever played on grass. “Uncle Pat” took charge of her after her mother died. She says she was on the verge of being put into one of the infamous Magdalene Laundries in the city of Cork. This was one time when the Beresford name actually helped. Her uncle got custody when a judge could not bring himself to commit a Beresford to the orphanage.

So the young teenager ended up with her uncle who opened the doors of his massive library and allowed her to roam through his massive book collection.

“Books became my second companion.”

Initially she was frightened of her uncle, she said, but “he grew to love me and I grew to love him. He would say to me: ‘Diana, you know, education is no burden at all, so you keep learning there girl’.”

Education and intelligence in women wasn’t encouraged in the wider world then and Diana learned how to hide her academic success because it wasn’t approved, and soldiered on.

Her own determination led her to universities in Ireland, the U.S. and in Ottawa, a PhD and life as a scientist and researcher. She married Christian and settled in Merrickville where the two of them picked up a hammer and saw and built their home and started planting. Recently her work on preserving the natural world and its wisdom garnered an honorary doctorate of laws from Carleton University.

Along the way her mother’s O’Donoghue elders taught her the wisdom of the Celtic peoples of Ireland, in particular, she says, the truths of the natural world. And it has all merged into a philosophy about and understanding of, as the memoir says, the healing vision of trees, something which began, she said, when she was a small girl and laid her dolls next to a bay laurel and was enchanted. She also got to watch an apple tree blossom and produce fruit and “that to me was a miracle.” The trees would come into her dreams at night. “They haunted me,” she said.

What she would like readers to know from her memoir that “I have spent my life tracking the sacred trust I was given. I was asked to bring this knowledge of the forest and of the natural world into the new world of North America. I have tried to speak for the trees in all my work.” And as she watches climate change accelerate, Beresford-Kroeger says she feels an urgency to her work.

In town: Diana Beresford-Kroeger will be at Library and Archives Canada on Oct. 5 at 2 p.m. talking about her new memoir To Speak for the Trees (Random House Canada). For information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.