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Seed Champions | Issue No. 3

In this interview, we explore Wraith's role as a nonbinary autistic and neurodivergent educator behind "The Winter Twig," an online platform emphasizing tree identification, plant knowledge, and sociopolitical relevance. Motivated by transformative arboriculture experiences, Wraith fosters an inclusive space for collaborative learning, challenging hierarchical norms and valuing diverse perspectives. Their educational philosophy transforms learning into an engaging game, sparking curiosity and exploration. The Winter Twig facilitates active learning and personal expression, envisaging a community where members contribute through blogs and more. Future plans include a community fund to ensure equitable access to educational resources, highlighting Wraith's commitment to collaborative, inclusive education within a shared space celebrating nature and marginalized voices.


Wraith (they/them) is a nonbinary autistic and neurodivergent, non-affiliated, non-hierarchical educator & student, particularly of tree identification, other plant knowledge, and the relevance of these in the context of pervasive sociopolitical issues. Their current mission is to build an off-social-media online hub for collaborative teaching, learning, and community-building around these topics, which centers the voices, experiences, and ways of being of other queer disabled neurodivergent folks, as well as folks with other marginalized identities. Wraith is currently two courses shy of a horticulture diploma from the University of Guelph, with which they hope to expand the type of work they do in this field. Wraith is also a multidisciplinary artist and artisan, and loves snuggling with their cat.


Wilder Climate Solutions (WCS): What inspired you to start The Winter Twig and teach people about all things tree-related?

Wraith (W): If we want to talk about the origins of The Winter Twig, we have to start with the @Queercus.Macrocarpa Instagram page. From December of 2021 until this past June, I had run an Instagram account dedicated to teaching people how to identify trees. Instagram was my platform of choice because at the time it was what I was used to, and because social media use is so commonplace, I knew I could reach people there. Historically, I’ve not been comfortable being seen and known—certainly not on a potentially large scale—but I felt really moved to start this project and to let it be seen and known. What inspired me was, well, a couple of things actually.

The first thing was the arboriculture course I took early in my horticulture program. It was taught by an incredible person who I won’t name because he knows me from a context where I use my given name instead of an alias, and I’m not ready for those worlds to mix. I felt spoiled having him as a course instructor because his philosophies on tree care and pedagogy were just what I needed and had rarely experienced prior. I probably wouldn’t do any attempt at explaining those philosophies any justice, but there’s one exchange I had with him in a graded group discussion with my other course mates that really stuck with me, and it might give you an idea.

You’ll need a little backstory first: For the graded discussion, we’d each had to find a tree somewhere around us that looked like it was suffering some sort of issue, and we were supposed to use what we had learned so far (and some additional personal study) to sleuth out the cause. This is the diagnostic work of my dreams! I’d found a Norway Maple (Acer platanoides) nearby with large bumps scattered up the trunk and larger branches. Each bump looked as though some projectile had shot out the bark from the inside, like a bullet’s exit hole; the holes did not go all the way through the trunk. At first, I had considered that they might be the damage from an arborist’s tree-climbing spikes, used during some routine pruning work (it’s not advisable to use spikes on living trees), but the distribution of the holes made no sense when considering a human’s potential footing during the climb, and it wouldn’t necessarily explain the bumps either.

After some feedback from the instructor—who was a seasoned arborist, among other things—and my course mates that it probably wasn’t a mechanical injury, I set off down the path of epicormic growth which, at the time, I knew very little about. Epicormic growth is a tree’s natural response to stress; the tree will push out new shoots from pre-existing dormant buds inside the trunk or branches (or buds that form somewhat spontaneously in response to injury) for the purpose of restoring, or even anticipating, lost leaf surface area. More leaf surface area means more photosynthetic capacity, and photosynthesis is how the tree creates and stores energy for itself to keep functioning, to keep living. For some tree species, epicormic growth occurs more readily and is not necessarily indicative of severe stress (e.g. Linden/Basswood/Lime - Tilia species). In any case, epicormic growth is usually deemed “unsightly”, and in street-side trees in particular, it can create path obstructions, so it is often pruned away. I thought perhaps the bumps on my Norway Maple were the end product of all this. My sleuthing was ultimately inconclusive, but that’s not really the point.

Here’s the point: I’d scoured the school’s online database for journal articles about epicormic growth; I’d looked at YouTube videos and blog posts about it too. I’d spent many more hours than were required of me, as usual, out of sheer interest and enjoyment, wanting to crack the case. Then I shared this knowledge and my reasoning in the group discussion, prefacing my findings with, “I don’t know if I’m on the right track with this, but….” I can’t remember all that my instructor said in response, but the one thing he said that has stuck with me all this time is, “you’re the expert right now.” Meaning that, by virtue of being the only one in the group who’d done as much work learning about that one topic—the topic of epicormic growth—I was the expert on that topic in that group. I had gained knowledge about it that no one else in that space had, and I could share that knowledge. I’d learned and then I’d taught.

Had I learned everything about epicormic growth? No, absolutely not. But I knew something and that’s enough to be shared. Likewise, my course mates had gained knowledge to share on their own topics. Everyone in that space had something to offer, without needing any special title or academic/career recognition. Long before I knew what to call it, I had gotten a taste of collaborative, non-hierarchical education where, very simply, everyone is both student and teacher. This gave me the boost I needed to start sharing what I knew with others in a more public way, even though I wasn’t an arborist or dendrologist (still not), and had no relevant degrees or accolades (still don’t)— even though I was effectively nobody, at least when measured against the exclusionary standards of the dominant social paradigm.

The second thing that inspired me to start this project was my Bur Oaks (Quercus macrocarpa). Before entering my arboriculture course, I’d been visiting my elementary school again. Frequently. There are many old trees there—ones who had been old even when I was a student decades earlier. Those trees were my best friends and my protectors during a socially difficult childhood. I feltlike I owed the trees some of my time and presence, especially since I had started to try to learn more about trees in general. But I struggled to identify them. For anyone who knows me and my love for tree identification, it might make you laugh to hear that tree identification was nearly the bane of my existence just three years ago. I wanted to learn it so badly but it seemed like no matter what I did, I could never be sure of my IDs. I’d get caught in a loop of learning and re-learning the same details over and over in field guides and online sources, and just end up frustrated because it seemed to amount to nothing.

I felt much the same way during our tree identification exercises in my arboriculture course, but it was then that I started to gain a bit more confidence. Not because I was finally being taught in an academic setting and getting so-called “real knowledge”, but because the instructor fostered such an encouraging, non-judgmental space. And it was then that I was finally able to identify my favourite trees at my elementary school as Bur Oaks, with the help of some excellent course mates. More collaboration. Once I’d learned this, I was able to work out some of the other mysteries (to me) that hung about them—the Spongy Moth (Lymantria dispar) egg masses under the large branches being one example. With this newfound confidence, and the knowledge that collaborative learning was actually being done and wasn’t just an amorphous blob of a pipedream all in my head, I opened my @Queercus.Macrocarpa Instagram account and started sharing what I knew, and looking for similar accounts to learn from in turn.

The Winter Twig, launched in April of this year, is just a continuation and expansion of everything I wanted to do on Instagram but never really could because of the way social media is designed to be individualistic, and to throttle collaboration, meaningful education, and community-building. I had to believe that things could be better than that, and I guess I had to initiate it because no one else seemed to be. The Winter Twig is about intentionally creating a space where everyone who shows up is recognized as a wealth of knowledge, insight, and experience, and where everyone feels encouraged to share that knowledge, insight, and experience because we know we’re not going to be told that we need academic credentials or whatever—that we need to be in some way above others—in order to be trusted, and to be worth listening to and learning from.

WCS: The Winter Twig is an inclusive and supportive space for learning about trees, sharing knowledge, and building a niche queer disabled neurodivergent community. Can you tell us more about the importance of creating such space?

W: I’m going to give a very honest answer, but before I do, I want to explain my use of “queer disabled neurodivergent” in the context of The Winter Twig and who the space prioritizes. My hyper-specific language isn’t intended to exclude people who really want or need a space like The Winter Twig, even if it doesn’t explicitly refer to them. The reason I landed on “queer disabled neurodivergent” is, firstly, because I wanted it to be clear that on my own (and for now I am on my own running the site), I think I have the best chance of reaching and connecting with people who identify specifically as “queer disabled neurodivergent”. That’s how I identify and it’s where I feel most culturally connected, so I feel that it’s within my range. Second, though, is my answer to the question:

There are countless reasons why a space like this is important but, for me, the biggest reason is that spaces, online or off, that cover the same topics The Winter Twig does, don’t really acknowledge us. That’s because the world doesn’t really acknowledge us (unless it’s to co-opt our work& wisdom, or to tell us how much of a burden we are). Space cannot and will not be created for something that isn’t acknowledged. It may go without saying that predominantly white spaces don’t really acknowledge racialized experiences, or that cis-het spaces don’t really acknowledge queer and trans experiences (and more often than not, those spaces actively do us harm), but it’s also very true that many BIPOC spaces don’t acknowledge queer, trans, and/or disabled experiences, or that predominantly white queer spaces don’t acknowledge BIPOC and disabled experiences. The list goes on.

And by “acknowledgement” I mean much more than performative gestures and using politically correct terminology. I mean equity. No matter how much progress society appears to make, no matter how much inclusivity we think we’re seeing, I’ve noticed—no, experienced—that the inclusion tends to stop, or worsen in quality, where queerness (particularly transness), disability, and neurodivergence intersect. This intersection necessarily includes racialized people (which I also am, as you may have noticed), so much so that, for me, it almost doesn’t need to be said.

The best case scenario in the current state of affairs is that some of us are able to access existing spaces (e.g. school, community workshops, webinars, Facebook groups, Instagram pages, and more, focused on environmental education) and make do with the erasure of our identities, personal experiences, and histories, built into the values and curricula of those spaces; make do with measly accommodations, if any; make do with microaggressions and what about-isms that we can’t address lest we want to be called “difficult” or “divisive”, or get booted from the space (this one happened to me last year in a Facebook group for plant identification and foraging adminned by two cis-het white men because I dared to “make things political”); make do with a competitive atmosphere that leaves us all isolated because collaboration would jeopardize our personal successes. The list goes on.

We have to survive these spaces, often making ourselves smaller to try to fit in without being exposed as something “other”, in order to achieve our ends without acquiring more adverse experiences. In reality we are only choosing more personally tolerable adverse experiences over less tolerable ones, and not avoiding them altogether. If and when we do achieve our ends (i.e. gaining knowledge or landing a specialized job or building relationships, albeit usually surface-level, illusory ones), we’re left exhausted, and we still have to do the work of translating what we gained from those spaces into a language that acknowledges us.

To contextualize this, I’ll give two examples. The first is some of the course material I’ve encountered in my horticulture program which attempted to cover accessibility in horticulture for disabled folks, but spoke about us so casually as if we are alien, incompetent, and in need of pity and coddling; as if we could only be the recipients of horticulture services, but not the ones who provide them. It was infantilizing, reduced a vast and diverse array of disabled realities into a singular, stereotypical idea of disability, and although it was entirely unsurprising, having to interact with this course material was exhausting and it impacted my ability(and desire) to focus, to keep “achieving my end”—namely, getting my diploma. My diploma program is impressively progressive, in my opinion, and still comes up short where disabled identities are involved.

The second is what I observe to be a pervasive implicit bias that learning about the outdoors must ultimately always occur outdoors—that a complete education cannot be achieved without going outside. I understand why this happens, and I’m certainly not suggesting that encouraging people to learn outdoors is problematic. I think that, whenever possible, we should be working toward making the outdoors safe and accessible for all who want to be there, but that’s a long-term, multidisciplinary goal. Here, I’m thinking about what we as educators can implement more immediately. What I am suggesting—and maybe this will sound absolutely wild—is that it shouldn’t be our default to send folks outside. It shouldn’t be our cop-out when instead we should be working on developing educational methods that incorporate the realities of folks who can’t get outside. Because those people exist. For my own reasons, I am sometimes one of them. I am by no means a perfect model off his approach, but it remains true that the notion that learning about trees, plants, and other aspects of the environment cannot properly be done indoors disregards the lived realities of many disabled, neurodivergent, chronically ill, immunocompromised, racialized, and/or queer and trans people for whom the outdoors is not always particularly accessible or safe. (And there are many folks who simply don’t enjoy being outdoors, but they shouldn’t be written off either.)

Online spaces are important for this. I learned to identify almost every single tree I know from the comfort of my home, from books and online sources, so I know first-hand that it’s possible. It’s only a bonus I can get outside when I do, and I try to bring people into that experience with me as much as possible through my work on The Winter Twig. I’m always brainstorming how to deliver information so that someone who can’t get outside can learn just as much. It’s an ongoing process. I digress….

The Winter Twig isn’t in its final form yet, by far, but the premise of it is that it’ll be a space for us, by us. We’re always having to expend energy finding ways to access what is gatekept, and then having to summon more energy to make space for ourselves that others won’t. We need to be able to have a space to learn and teach about trees, other plants, and the environment at large, not only because it’s incredibly useful knowledge to have—especially in planning our survival and thrive-al as we careen through a changing climate toward an uncertain future—but because people with queered realities love plants! That’s why creating a space like The Winter Twig is important.

WCS: The theme of conservation and environmental awareness is prominent in your work. How do you believe tree identification and learning about plants contribute to broader conservation efforts?

W: This may be one of my simpler answers. I think people really like games. We can frame tree identification and learning about plants as a game. A detective game, definitely. Maybe a trivia game, too, even though none of this learning, in my opinion, is trivial. Games can be a great entry point for further education and personal interest on a particular topic. When people have an interest in learning more, they usually also develop an interest in doing more, and in terms of broader conservation efforts, we need more people interested in doing more.

I’ve always noticed that people—and I’m speaking very generally here—are quick to point out manicured garden beds full of purely ornamental bedding flowers, or they’re quick to point out a car or an interesting building, but completely bypass the magnificent trees standing around them. For some reason, trees seem to get the short end of the stick (twig, rather). These people don’t all hate trees, surely; I think mostly they’re indifferent or distracted. Trees are relegated to the background, rather than being viewed as stars of the show. This all applies to other plants and wildlife, of course. There are so many things in our lives vying for our attention and we’re spread thin and often dissociated. Trees and other plants don’t register (unless they’ve got really showy flowers or something).

I want to encourage folks to observe trees actively. It’s not trickery, per se, but “tricking” people into paying attention to trees(and on a broader scale, becoming environmentally aware) through personally satisfying games is certainly one way to go about things [Wraith cackles]. I see people light up whenever they correctly identify a tree species they just learned about, and this excitement can be really motivating in terms of diving deeper into questions like, “what kind of ecosystem does that species thrive in and what roles does it play there?” “What’s its native range?” “Is it under duress from any illness or other pressures?” “What are some ways everyday folk can care for or advocate for this species?” I aim to acquaint folks with trees—their traits, their struggles, their likes, their dislikes—in the hopes that they’ll find emotional connections with them, because there’s a decent chunk of the human population who’ll do whatever they can to protect those they love.

WCS: Your passion for teaching about plants and trees is evident. Can you share a specific example of how your educational work has  made a positive impact on someone's understanding of nature and the environment?

W: Learning and sharing knowledge have been my longest-lived passions, and I love to be able to learn and share knowledge about some of the most prominent living beings on our planet. I think it’s fairly common for educators to go without learning of the impact they’re having, and I’m no exception to this experience. That said, I have had several interactions that have shown me that my educational work must be reaching people.


When I’d first announced that I’d be leaving Instagram and continuing my work on the website, a few people who had previously been silent followers messaged me to thank me for all my work. I had some folks encourage me by saying that I was doing a really great job. I recall that a handful of arborists followed me, and while I didn’t hear from all of them, I figured the tree identification information was useful in their day-to-daywork. I also had a few well-established educators follow me, counting me as a peer among them. That was really cool. A handful of people signed up as members on the website as soon as it launched. I’ve made some stellar connections!

Then Blaine (Pearson) reached out with a really lovely message and expressed a desire to connect. We had a great conversation together, and she told me how my tree identification material in particular has been helpful in her important work around saving native tree seed. This is one instance where I learned exactly what impact my work has had. (Thanks, Blaine!)

I also think of the way city folk respond when they learn just how stressed out urban forest trees are. They note that they would not have noticed how many trees were doing poorly in urban spaces, or that the trees were doing poorly at all. When I explain just how hostile an environmental city or suburb can be for a tree because of human activity and the by products of it—things like pollution, dark surfaces, soil compaction, monoculture planting (at risk of eradication from pests, lack of biodiversity), utility pruning that doesn’t favour tree health, uninformed DIY pruning by homeowners, damage from car collisions, aerosolized road salt, corporate interests overriding tree-health interests, and the fact that trees don’t heal like we do—their focus instantly shifts. There’s no going back from that. You start to see it everywhere.

So, people haven’t always told me how my work has impacted them, but some tell me that it has, and other times I can just tell by their reactions to new information. That’s plenty for me. It’s really surreal to know that anything I’ve done has changed the way someone thinks about a particular topic, or has affirmed someone’s own feelings and experiences.

WCS: You are a proponent of building a community around tree identification and plant knowledge. How do you see this community coming together to support each other and share their experiences and insights?

W: In my dreams, the atmosphere of The Winter Twig is such that friends come to spend time with friends—to learn with and to teach, to connect, to laugh, to hold space for each other, to see each other. Learning and collaboration are both inherently social, so The Winter Twig is necessarily a social space. I see a space where I am simply one leader among many. I will remain someone people turn to for all the knowledge, skills, and other qualities I possess, but equally, every other member would be someone to turn to for the specific knowledge, skills, and other qualities they possess. I want to ensure that everyone only offers what they are willing and able to, and that they are only called upon to do what they’ve offered. People can hang back if they prefer, if they’re not into socializing so much, or don’t feel up to the task of contributing in a more prominent way, like by writing blog posts, for example. The option to write would always be open to them.

Speaking of blog writing, I intend to invite other people to write for the blog. Recently a writer and fantastic human who isn’t me published their first blog posts. I am very excited about this! I want writers to have as much free rein as possible. I’m hoping that, in addition to the usual educational fare that can be found at The Winter Twig, people will share poetry, personal essays, short stories, and more. This writing, especially coming from queer disabled neurodivergent and otherwise marginalized tree- and environment-lovers, is a way we will support each other—current and future members & site visitors—even if it’s not in real-time. We need to see ourselves in each other’s experiences, expressed through writing.


WCS: Looking ahead, what are your aspirations for The Winter Twig? Are there any breakthroughs or innovative approaches you hope to implement in advancing your educational work and community-building mission? What opportunities are there for individuals interested in contributing to your mission?

I think I’ve covered most of my aspirations for The Winter Twig in my previous answers. I don’t know that I’d call them breakthroughs or innovative approaches, but for now I plan to search out resources from folks who are already practicing the values I have for the space. I plan to read more about non-hierarchical education and non-hierarchical collectives, to potentially seek out someone to mentor me on organizing this way, and I also plan to continue learning about disability justice. I recently read Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s ‘The Future is Disabled: Prophecies, Love Notes, and Mourning Songs’, which gave me loads of ideas, lots to think about, and affirmed some of the stuff I’d already been imagining for The Winter Twig, in terms of how to make it a space that really serves the people it’s intended to serve.

Currently, contributing to The Winter Twig—whether that’s by joining as a member, participating in the forum, reading blog posts, writing blog posts, pitching in to answer questions from visitors and other members, or sharing administrative tasks—gives folks the opportunity to meaningfully connect with other people around a shared interest. Many queer disabled neurodivergent and otherwise marginalized folks tend to have an especially hard time with making meaningful connections, both online and off, because we’re so isolated from one another for reasons largely out of our control. The opportunity to be in a space that caters to us, celebrates us, and is, thus, safe for us is a big one, and it’s a solid foundation upon which to build meaningful connections.

I mentioned in my previous answer that I’d like other folks to write for the blog alongside me. I see this as an opportunity for folks who, like me, don’t have the academic credentials or career history usually required to be taken seriously as a writer and educator. The Winter Twig can be a sandbox of sorts for folks wanting to practice and gain confidence delivering information to a public audience, or to build up a portfolio of written work that they can then show someone and say, “hey, my writing is published here.” I can’t guarantee career opportunities—I am not even remotely qualified for that and I’m not affiliated with any businesses or organizations—but I’ve come to understand that people respect the work that I do (surreal!), and including “The Winter Twig Writer” on your resume, for example, might actually mean something.

Lastly is my goal of creating a community fund for The Winter Twig. I have no clue how to implement this yet, so it’s a longer-term goal, but ideally it’ll be an ongoing fundraiser where community members pitch in whatever they can (if they can), whenever they can. I’d consider reaching out to businesses or other organizations for donations as well, but I do want to be careful about who I allow to become stakeholders. I don’t want The Winter Twig to become gentrified. The funds would be fed directly back into The Winter Twig to cover the costs to run the site, and to help the community access educational resources like expensive textbooks, to participate in paid workshops or courses or post-secondary schooling, to buy work supplies and tools, and even to help community members meet other basic needs which would then assist them in the pursuit of education, work, and other opportunities in horticulture, arboriculture, landscape design, plant pathology, dendrology, ecology, and much more.

I’ll close out by saying thank you to Blaine Pearson and co. for extending the offer to do an interview for The Scurry newsletter. It’s an honour to be able to speak about The Winter Twig to the Wilder audience.