Talking to Trees with Jordan Manley

Share this story

Exploring human existence and our relationship with nature through “athleticism, science, and spirituality,” is what Canadian outdoor filmmaker Jordan Manley does best.

Words by Ella Liascos

Photography by Jordan Manley and Garrett Grove

Growing up skiing and hiking, his early life was shaped by a strong connection to nature developed through outdoor sports. For Jordan, movement became another way to experience the natural world. “Different sports or activities produce their own unique experiences,” he says. “Floating through an old growth forest on a deep powder day in the dead of winter on skis or a snowboard, is quite distinct from a slow walk through that same forest in early summer.”

Following a career in photography and film meant he didn’t have to stray far from the natural world. Starting out with small video budgets, he took photos on the film shoots to sell to magazines so he could make some extra cash. “It was a bit of a circus, but I learned a lot and it allowed me the opportunity to make films in some very special places.”

“I wanted to collect scenes and conversations that could show people how dynamic and alive forests really are.”

Nowadays, Jordan directs and makes films for adventure brands like Oakley and Patagonia. His most recent film Treeline, begins with a flash of the mysterious bristlecone tree and a howling blizzard, while words like “they don’t go anyplace very fast, but they endure” resounds through the speaker. The scenes sway between mesmerising shots of tree skiing, natural landscapes and contemplative narrations.

The film is meditative in its pace and while that mightn’t have been the intention, “feeling” Jordan says, is definitely something he intended to convey in Treeline. Knowing he’ll never fully be able to translate the feeling of skiing down a snowy mountain in film, he recruits powerful visuals, sound and emotive content to carry at least some of the feeling across. “I think the way I approach the documentary is to try to give people an idea about a place and a story or a moment, but also hoping to give them a visual, sonic and emotional experience, even though it will never recreate the act of ‘being there’.”

“The blizzardy conditions in which we saw and filmed those trees were kind of rare and maybe in some small way felt a bit sacred because they felt almost untouchable.”

One of the key themes Jordan explores in all his films, is the connection between humans and nature. In Treeline, he introduces us to people from vastly different educational and cultural backgrounds, whose lives are intertwined with trees. Two of these people are Tree Doctor Konami Tsukamoto and Forest Ecologist Suzanne Simard. Despite the differences in their fields, Jordan says there’s an underlying commonality. “There is a communication going on between people and the trees, and this seems to happen with people who are very connected and knowledgeable about them. They study, work, and interact with different ecosystems and tree species, but each demonstrate their relationship with trees is a two-way street. Their knowledge of trees, and their relationships with them, defy a simple categorisation.”

Illustrating the profound connection between people and trees, Dr. Suzanne Simard shares her research about how trees talk to each other through underground fungal networks, some of which are identical to the neurotransmitters in our brains. On the other end of the spectrum, Konami describes her silent dialogue with trees in the film, promising to save them before she treats them. “My conversations with them revealed a big overlap between science and spirituality — there is a pretty hazy line separating those two paradigms.” Says Jordan. “Some of Dr. Suzanne Simard’s upcoming research will attempt to quantify how much the trees are receptive of our communication with them. I’m looking forward to hearing about their results.”

“Those trees have survived 3,000 winters.”

Along with the many examples of humans communing with trees, is the intriguing sub story of the weather-mangled, prehistoric bristlecone trees. Joining Jordan on the expedition to capture the ancient trees was photographer Garrett Grove, who says being among the bristlecones was anything but a welcoming experience. Halfway through the expedition, he recalls a dream that the bristlecones were telling their camp to leave. “I’m not surprised that Garrett had that dream”, Jordan says. “I think we tried to be as respectful as we could. But those trees have survived 3,000 winters, so I’m not sure how much they decried our short visit or not.”

To capture the bristlecones, Jordan Manley and his team found themselves navigating Nevadas Great Basin in blizzard conditions, during a season even the keenest skier wouldn’t bother with. “People don’t visit that grove of trees in the wintertime. It’s a long way in through mountainous terrain, so skis are the only reasonable means of access at that time of year, and yet the skiing isn’t too great, so skiers don’t go. You wouldn’t fly a helicopter in there in the middle of a winter storm, plus it’s a park so you couldn’t do that anyhow. So the blizzardy conditions in which we saw and filmed those trees were kind of rare and maybe in some small way felt a bit sacred because they felt almost untouchable.” Carrying eight days’ worth of gear and possible altitude sickness, Jordan says the sense of responsibility when producing something for a company like Patagonia, is what pushed everyone through the harsh conditions to make it the best it could be.

“Culture is complex. Where, how, and why we have (or haven’t) collectively chosen to maintain connection and respect with nature is anything but straightforward.”

While there are some places that humans don’t belong in harmony with nature, namely the bristlecone forest, Jordan shares what he’s learned about people and natural world through making films. “It’s so clear that we’re inextricably tied to and dependent on the natural world. But culture is complex. Where, how, and why we have (or haven’t) collectively chosen to maintain connection and respect with nature is anything but straightforward. So I think I’m interested in exploring that tension between a modern life and the ways and means of being connected with nature. Sometimes when I’m out walking to the grocery store, I stare up at the residential towers near where I live and notice how the majority of people’s blinds are drawn shut in the middle of the day. I’m perplexed about how we’re so drawn to nature in some parts of our lives but in many others we push it away, often concurrently.”

In a time when many of us have become largely disconnected from nature, the need to be reunited with it is more important than ever. Many environmental spokespeople including David Attenborough, Bob Brown and Rachel Carson will tell you that in order to feel driven to protect nature we must rebuild a connection with it, by spending time among trees and reacquainting with natural rhythms of the sun, moon and seasons, instead of clocks and computer screens. Jordan’s sentiment is much the same. “My hope was that people might watch the film and then think about the forest a bit differently the next time they enter one. Or for it to simply be a little nudge to go visit a forest if it’s been a while. Ultimately, I want people to care about the forest – to foster and protect forests where they live, because they sustain us on so many levels, even though they are often in the background in our lives. If we don’t have a relationship with forests, then we’re in trouble.”

“I’m perplexed about how we’re so drawn to nature in some parts of our lives but in many others we push it away, often concurrently.”

One of the intentions behind making Treeline was to shift the way we see forests and our relationship to them. “Even for people that might’ve spent some time in forests, they might be viewed as something relatively static. I wanted to collect scenes and conversations that could show people how dynamic and alive forests really are. Through athleticism, science, and spirituality I wanted people to feel a bit of that energy, or at least become aware of it.” By exploring our connection to nature through these three elements, Jordan shows each one in a new light. Suddenly, skiing becomes a way to spend more time among trees, while science becomes a gateway for spirituality.

So far, the feedback Jordan received since the film’s release has lived up to his intentions. His colleague and friend expressed to him that “she’d never really paid any attention to the trees at the end of her long, rural driveway until she watched the movie. Suddenly she began noticing them, deciphering what species they were, and then having a kind of dialogue, giving appreciation to the things that they were providing.”

Share this story

Jordan Manley

Jordan Manley is a filmmaker and photographer exploring the human relationship with nature through movement, image and sound.