Telling nature stories with 'Planted' author Kaitlin Vitt

In her book Planted, Manitoba-grown Kaitlin Vitt shares the stories of eight individuals inspired and touched by various elements of the Manitoba landscape. But this work of creative non-fiction carries a message greater than a surface level depiction of the flora (and fauna, counting the book's eight characters) that act as pillars for the anthology. Planted demonstrates how lessons of the land unfold in real time, and invites readers along for the journey.

These are the kind of stories that need telling.

We caught up with Vitt and asked her to share her inspiration behind the project. 

What inspired you to seek out and tell the stories that appear in Planted?

I studied science in university, graduating with a Bachelor of Science in 2015. At least in my experience, I saw a disconnect between people and science. Scientists sometimes get too caught up in their work and forget to, or don’t have the means to, share why it all matters. And then some people go about their everyday lives and don’t realize how science affects us all — in the technology we use, the food we eat, and the products we enjoy. I am in my final year of journalism at Red River College, and as part of the program, I had to complete a major project. I wanted to find a way to combine science and writing, and I came up with Planted.

The story that inspired it all is Nadia Monaco’s. In 2010, she went searching for king bolete mushrooms in Stead, Manitoba, but she got separated from the others she was with. She survived on her own for two nights, finding edible mushrooms and sipping swamp water, before meeting up with the search party that was looking for her. Nadia is the aunt of a family friend, so I followed the story when it was happening, but it always stuck with me, I think because I found her love for mushrooms, her love for the outdoors, inspiring. She still goes picking to this day, even though it almost cost her her life. It was a bit of a reminder that when you’re trying to achieve something, you may encounter obstacles, but that doesn’t mean you have to quit doing what you enjoy — like Nadia and harvesting mushrooms.

In Planted, I share eight stories from eight people. Some are about individual species, like Nadia’s story, and others are about Manitoba’s nature in general. Sharing these stories is one way to show the importance of nature, the importance of science. Because if we don’t do science research, if we don’t understand the natural world, we may harm what’s around us, destroying our environment. And without a healthy environment, we won’t continue to have stories to tell like the ones featured in Planted.  

How is it that you decided to use plant species as a lens for storytelling?

When I first got in touch with people who I would possibly interview, asking them about one story revolved around a particular plant or fungus was a way to keep focus. In some stories, it’s as if you’re there with the character, walking through the forest or trudging through a swamp. In other stories, it is more about the plant, and the person I interviewed helps show its importance.

These aren’t just “nature stories” though. They are so much more than that. Nature is just the theme. You’ll hear stories of self-discovery, growth, and survival. Planted is just one way to bridge that gap between people and science, by showing its importance through these meaningful stories.

Tell us about the characters that appear in the book.

Nadia Monaco, who moved from Poland to Winnipeg in the 1970s, went searching for mushrooms in a forest in Stead, Manitoba and separated from the others she was with. She shares the story of how she survived on her own for two days, having walked through a swamp and slept in an old garage in the forest.

Laura Reeves is a botanist and lives near Gardenton, Manitoba. She finds a use for every plant — cattails to make flour, dogbane to make rope, dandelions to make coffee substitute. In Planted, she shares a story about making natural shelters using sedges, a plant she used to overlook.

Richard Staniforth is a retired biology professor. He grew up in England, but moved to Canada to continue his studies. In the 1980s, he moved to Winnipeg and had to familiarize himself with the flora here. He shares the story about one plant that gave him quite the surprise.

Lindsey Emberley, a paramedic, lives near Falcon Lake. She tries to “live off the land” as much as she can, harvesting mushrooms and collecting plants for food and medicine. In 2015, her young daughter passed away. Lindsey found healing in nature, looking for signs for her daughter among the trees and stars. She shares a couple of these experiences in Planted.

Kelly Leask works at a native plant nursery in Selkirk. She does public outreach, too — sharing the importance of restoring and protecting prairie land. She told me about one particular plant that she thinks may be the “poster child” to show the importance of conserving the environment.

Dave Daniels, from Long Plain First Nation, harvests plants for medicine. He took me on a medicine walk, sharing with me the meaning behind the four sacred Indigenous plants and stories of people he’s healed with plants.

Les Pelletier has been interested in nature and the outdoors since he was a kid, but after stumbling upon a dragon’s mouth orchid — a rare plant in Manitoba — he became more involved in the preservation of orchids and the environment.

John Morgan opened the first prairie restoration company in Canada in the 1980s. In Planted, he discusses why we need to conserve plants native to Manitoba. He doesn’t focus on one plant, but rather on the prairies as a whole.

Can you name one lesson, or one common thread, that binds together this diverse collection of people and stories?

Besides having a nature theme, these stories are also connected in that they aren't just about the outdoors — the stories relate to other areas in our life. Someone gave Nadia a bright orange coat to wear while picking mushrooms so she’s easier to spot, but she leaves it in the car. She still goes picking in the same forest. She’s not going to change who she is because of this one experience. Harvesting mushrooms is part of her lifestyle — it’s tradition, and one that could be lost if other people don’t share her interest. Same goes for Dave. He says he wants Indigenous youth to be interested in harvesting medicines from plants, because once this knowledge is gone, it’s gone.

People who read this book, whether they are interested in nature or not, can relate to the stories and the people in it. Many people have had difficult times that they never thought they’d get through. But like Lindsey, it may be a matter of finding that place you find answers and healing, like what nature did for her. So a common thread is that these stories aren’t just about plants or fungi or nature, or whatever other topic — they are about the lessons we learn and the people we become. Planted is about having stories shape us but not define us.  

What do you want readers to take away from this work?

If we recognize what nature can offer us — healing, food, adventure, shelter, memories — we are more likely to see its importance, and therefore more likely to preserve it. I want people to bicycle through a forest or walk down a beach — among the plants, moss, fungi, lichen, algae, animals, and sky — and like Laura said to me, feel like they are “walking with friends.” Manitoba has a lot to offer in terms of nature, but it can be easy to forget that as you go through your everyday life. By connecting nature to these real life stories, I hope people can recognize, or remember, its importance and necessity.

Join Vitt and the featured characters from Planted at McNally Robinson Grant Park tonight March 2 at 7 pm for the book's launch. The evening will seed swap a reading from Planted, and panel discussion featuring Laura Reeves, John Morgan, and Lindsey Emberley. To learn more about the book and author, you can visit her website