Connecting People to Planet, With Trees
Through Canopeum, Alex Schmitz is fashioning a way to motivate people to germinate and plant the seeds for a stronger collective future.
I caught up with Alex Schmitz while she was on the road to New Brunswick. Her minivan, with its distinctive decal of mountains and trees, was loaded with supplies for a two-week building project. She was on her way to Mactaquac Provincial Park to install her first micro tree nursery or, canopeum. “It’s a new concept based on established knowledge,” Alex explained. A canopeum is where indigenous trees and shrubs are propagated from seed to sapling, ready to be planted after one growing season.” Alex came up with the design in 2021 when she built a “beta canopeum” in her home garden in the heart of Sutton. With a capacity of 20,000 seedlings and saplings, Alex realized that sites like hers could localize environmental action by teaching people how to propagate, plant and tend indigenous trees.
Invested with a mission
In 2022, Alex established Canopeum, a non-profit organization whose mission is to “connect people to the planet”. It does so by propagating, planting, monitoring and teaching about indigenous trees and about their importance in sequestering carbon and thus fighting climate catastrophe. The twenty-meter by twenty-meter site that Alex was en route to build in Mactaquac Provincial Park would be Canopeum (the organization’s) first major public canopeum (the installation). It would include soil beds for germinating seeds harvested from local trees and shrubs for staging saplings ready for the year’s planting. The canopeum would also have an equipment shed, a rainwater collection tank for irrigation, and a learning area for public programming offered by staff park rangers, who Alex will train as “forest stewards.”
Experience at play
“I love trees and I want to share the love.” Alex’s enthusiasm comes from years of experience. “I always worked [and] lived in and under the forest canopy. I have seen the canopy from all angles.” As a forest firefighter in Alberta, she observed forests from up in helicopters and from down in the understory. As an environmental tech and consultant for the Albertan oil industry, she became familiar with the riparian zones of those same forests; and as an apprentice tree seed picker to an expert on trees of the Canadian West, she learned how important propagating and tending to native trees is to fostering healthy ecosystems.
Rooting in Sutton
When Alex and her partner Max started their family, she intended to establish a tree farm in Ontario. She knew that propagating indigenous trees and shrubs from seeds she picked herself would be a low-impact way to make a living. But her plans changed when life took a turn and Alex and Max moved their family to Sutton.
Juggling children and a new home was a challenge. Especially as they settled into a house on a small lot in the village. Quite a change from the forested land where they had been living in Ontario. Alex headed for the woods whenever she needed respite from the swirl of parenting and renovations. She felt safe there. It was where she could muster the energy to move forward. It was where inspiration struck. By building a vertical tree nursery in her garden she could both be in the village and among trees. As Alex’s home canopeum has taken shape, so have her ideas for how other canopeums can have a broader impact. By building them in civic spaces like parks, schools, local businesses and town lands, citizens, businesses, and government can work together to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Alex’s charisma and determination coupled with urgent calls for environmental action have brought traction to her vision for Canopeum. “I have just been doing my thing,” Alex explained, “and interested people have been pushing me along.” Fall 2023 is a busy season for Canopeum and for Alex. In addition to building the compact micro-nursery in New Brunswick, Alex will be collaborating with Yan Gordon at Les potagers des nues mains in Sutton. She will plant 3000 of her trees on his farm, providing nesting and breeding grounds for endangered wood turtles. Alex has also received a two-year research grant from UQAM and Les fonds de recherche du Québec to study low-cost mulch using discarded cardboard so that saplings are protected from competition from underbrush.
For Alex, Canopeum forms a “positive feedback loop,” giving back to the earth in tangible localized ways. Her vision for Canopeum resembles the branch and root systems of the trees she propagates. Entwined, mutually supportive and ready to grow towards nourishment. Alex is interested in local collaborations and believes that a town canopeum where folks can gather, play and learn about indigenous flora would respond to Sutton residents’ requests for outdoor gathering spaces. Indeed, through Canopeum, Alex is fashioning a way to motivate people to germinate and plant the seeds for a stronger collective future, among the trees.