Barbara Nickel

In the Mind of Trees

No clouds with fluffy brims, only this haze and eerie sun, bear scat full of cherry pits on the dyke where I run. About 600 wildfires are burning across British Columbia, a state of emergency. Even one forest lost means centuries turned to ash; I didn’t know an oak tree can take up to 1,000 years to grow. There’s this song by Jonathan Byrd I first heard last fall at a concert in a barn in Abbotsford. Trent Freeman performed it hauntingly; I knew I’d be looking up the words later to mull:

I was an oak tree. It took a thousand years to grow.
I’ve seen kingdoms come and go.
I’ve seen the losers turned to lords and back again.
I held the rebels when they hung them from my limbs.
When men of fortune cast their futures on the sea,
that’s when they came for me.

I was a slave ship under the standard of the cross
a hallelujah holocaust…

When cross rhymes with holocaust you know you’re in for a good song; line after line of “I Was An Oak Tree” surprised and moved me forward; in four short stanzas are worlds and the gaps between, death and transformation and “talk of freedom”… “out along the wild Cape Fear” and I want everyone I know to hear it:

In the mind of trees…Heinz Klassen’s River Walk: Winter is an astonishing 11 by 5.5 foot charcoal drawing of trees by the Vedder River.

He drew it last summer and fall in twelve smaller sections (which were later assembled with linen tape) out by the river in all kinds of weather. At first glance, you might think the bottom trees are reflections of those above but look again; Heinz actually drew two views, from the north side of the river and from the south. Rotate the drawing vertically and you’ve got a book of left and right facing trees with a river for a spine.

Last week, it took two men and a scissor lift to hang the piece in the lobby of the Chilliwack Cultural Centre where it’s part of a six-month exhibition.

Just a short walk from the Vedder, I’m writing this post in a studio designed by Heinz with meticulous hand-drawn plans.

In making the plans, Heinz considered the seasons and how they’d affect light in the studio at different times of day; amount of shade, and placement and size of windows for coolness in the summer. The studio with its extended eaves under the shade of a huge beech is a gift; he took my payment for his plans and passed it along to a family newly arrived in Canada from refugee camps. That’s typical of Heinz who died in his home in Yarrow nine months ago today, who I remember each time I escape from this heat wave and open the door; cross the threshold; deep quiet and cool and in certain kinds of light, the shadows of beech leaves moving across my desk.

Photo by Finn Longhurst



Dear Peter, Dear Ulla has been selected as a finalist for the 2023/2024 Chocolate Lily Book Award. 

Barbara’s poem “Three-in-One,” originally published in Grain Magazine, has recently appeared in Best Canadian Poetry 2024  (Biblioasis) edited by Bardia Sinaee.

Check out Barbara’s 45-minute teaching video on Creating Believable Characters for the BC and Yukon Book Prizes’ In Class video library.

Dear Peter, Dear Ulla was a finalist for the 2022 Geoffrey Bilson Award for Historical Fiction for Young People.

Dear Peter, Dear Ulla has been nominated for the 2023 Rocky Mountain Book Award (Alberta Young Readers Choice Award).

The Manitoba Young Readers Choice Awards (MYRCA) has nominated Dear Peter, Dear Ulla as a 2023 Northern Lights (Grades 7-9) finalist!

Essential Tremor reviewed in The Vancouver Sun. Read full review here.

Dear Peter, Dear Ulla is reviewed and “Highly Recommended” in CM (Canadian Review of Materials)! Read the full review here.

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