The boreal region is home to the threatened species of Woodland Caribou. (Photo: National Film Board of Canada)

The historical notion that trees are solitary, passive, structural components of forests is now outdated. As many of us have read in books like Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees and David Suzuki and Wayne Grady’s Tree: A Life Story, science has revealed them to have far more agency than we ever imagined. They shape their surroundings, communicate with each other through chemical signals sent through fungal networks, and forge community resistance against insects, weather and disease.

Director Kevin McMahon’s film Borealis not only captures this current understanding of trees in beautiful images, from leaf tip to below-the-surface root tip; it welcomes us into the community of the boreal forest. It’s a place that, in the words of one of the interviewed Indigenous knowledge-holders, makes us feel “happy and secure” and provides “supporting guidance, encouragement and faith.”

The film’s first half is a sweeping, calming exploration of the natural cycles of the boreal, illustrating the way water cycles through the forest, how fires both deplete and regenerate and how trees, through irregular mast (abundant) years of pine cone production, overwhelm the squirrels that feast on their seeds to advance propagation.

Borealis is both a wonderful introduction to this iconic wilderness and a call to action.

If the first half is a gentle love letter, the second half, which explores the devastating ecological impacts of industrial logging, oil and gas exploration and climate change on the boreal, is an elegy — a deeply felt mourning for the often-irrevocable havoc we are wreaking upon the boreal community of forest, bog and wildlife.

The boreal forest stretches from coast to coast across Canada and covers almost a third of our land mass. Borealis is both a wonderful introduction to this iconic wilderness and a call to action.

Borealis is available for streaming at and on TVO.