A patchwork of stars filled the night sky above us as waves slowly eased their way across the rocks on the shore of Masset Inlet. The fire crackled softly, our eyes all drawn to the flickering flames. I've always felt that when you look into a fire you're somehow connected to all those lives who've come before you — a human history through fire.
"If there's one thing I've learned from tree planting it's that it's incredibly easy to break something, but it's very difficult to fix it later on. It's kinda like a vase, you know. You can smash the thing into a million pieces pretty quickly and easily, but it will take you a real long time to super glue all those pieces back together."
Tdesi and Georgia were driving around BC after their seasonal work tree planting when we met on Haida Gwaii. Both veterans of a few seasons, they'd seen their fair share of "cutblocks" across Canada. In fact, I've met vast swathes of tree planters ever since I left Anchorage. It's a job that lures people from all walks of life, but there's a common trait among them that I can't quite put my finger on. From all I've heard tree planting can be damn hard work, but it pays well, you get to work outdoors and many people enjoy the flexibility of the seasonal employment.
They say you only get once chance at a first impression, and my first impression of Vancouver Island was tied up in an unflinching paradox; the sheer beauty of Pacific Northwestern forests was undeniable. But what was also undeniable was the utter decimation of huge areas of these old growth forests. From my vantage point on the Pearl Sea I was able to gaze upon the contours of the north-eastern end of the island with an intoxicating mix of horror and amazement. Horror at the destruction and amazement at the sheer scale of it all. River valleys without a single tree left standing. The sides of mountains stripped bare all the way to the top of the tree line. It was as if some giant was playing with a jigsaw puzzle, and there were still a whole lot of deep green pieces that hadn't been put into place.
I think a lot of us like to tell ourselves that the era of exploitation is over and that forestry practices are much more "sustainable" now. And I suppose there is a truth to that. Forestry will be sustainable if it continues the way it is, but the forests that we leave our children will be a shadow of their former selves. They will be devoid of life, of diversity and of any recognisable soul.
As I crossed the island from the more populated east coast to the less populated west, I passed through an area known as Cathedral Grove. Cars were lined along the highway as I approached the area, leapfrogging the traffic to park my bike close to the start of the trail. The air was notably cooler as goosebumps slowly appeared across my arms, the minute hairs mimicking the trees of the forest I was about to enter as they all stood on end. The sound of traffic was quickly absorbed by the thick layers of bark on tree trunks. With each step further away from the road, I was slowly stepping back in time.
Cathedral Grove, and other remnant stands of old growth forest across the world, are a window into the past. They show us the majesty and irrefutable beauty of our forest ecosystems as they once were. They allow us to feel humble by revealing our insignificance in the vast scheme of things. They have seen more than we will ever see in one lifetime. These trees have weathered fire, rain, storms, wind, and most crucially— for whatever reason — they have evaded the axes and chainsaws of our voracious hunger for timber. In the Grove there were some Douglas Fir that stood higher than eighty metres and have lived for over eight hundred years. The wisdom stored in those trunks is impossible to place value upon.
The next day Erin, Emily and I — having traversed the island to the western side — spent some time wandering through Avatar Grove, another tract of old forest that had survived the onslaught of logging. This time we got to marvel at giants of a different kind — majestic and towering Western Red Cedars. I've spent the last few months trying to become familiar with plants of the Pacific Northwest, and Red Cedar was one of the first I felt comfortable in being able to recognise. The bark is indented with lots of long vertical slits of bark, and the bark itself has an undeniable reddish tinge to it. The way the branches slope down before reaching back towards the sun at their extremities add a lot to their overall character. Tdesi even introduced me to a tea made from the leaves of the Western Red Cedar, a pungent brew that was apparently crucial for a healthy immune system in Indigenous communities. Unknowingly, Western Red Cedar had become the most important plant of my journey so far.
It is true that modern science is giving us a deeper understanding of the nature of forest ecosystems; of their interconnectivity and interdependence. We are now learning that trees communicate through vast underground networks of mycelium and that "mother" trees will support fledging trees by providing a transmission of nutrients to support them in their infancy. But I think we as humans already knew these things. Maybe we couldn't explain it in scientific terms, but walking through those majestic trees in Cathedral Grove, you can feel it. You can feel that unyielding strength of the forest community just as you can in strong human communities. You can't articulate it or explain it, but if you give yourself the chance you can most certainly feel it. Most Indigenous story and song is based on this understanding of the interconnectedness of all life, and what better place to see it in action than in an ancient forest?
But the forests keep disappearing.
Beth was kind enough to let me use her office to do some writing. As I write the sun is jutting in on an angle and illuminating a big chunk of bench to my left. The room smells sickly sweet, almost honey-like. The computer rests on a huge slab of red cedar that's probably at least five metres long and two metres wide. That's where the smell comes from. I tried counting the age rings from the outside in and lost count at fifty-something. My guess is the tree has to be at least five to six hundred years old. Aesthetically the bench is stunning. Brown and red hues intermingle with yellow and golden shades to create a inanimate object that is, in fact, full of life.
Western Red Cedar (Thuja Plicata) is a prized timber for many reasons. It is frequently used because of it's high natural resistance to decay which make it particularly prized for boat building, even more so considering the fact it is lighter than many of its counterparts like mahogany. It was also known to be crucially important for Indigenous groups that inhabited the Pacific Northwest as it was used for practical purposes like houses and canoes and similarly for cultural use in the creation of totem poles and ceremonial objects. Not only was the timber highly valued, but the roots and bark were also utilised. The tree was felled in ceremony and respect was given to the life of the tree and what it would provide to the community. Most importantly of all, little or nothing was wasted.
"It's salvaged timber."
"Yep, it's salvaged."
I looked up in disbelief, my fingers dragging slowly across the smooth surface of the bench. An ancient tree, carelessly felled by modern machinery, was left to rot in a 'slash pile'. Until someone came along and rescued it. The bench has a newfound beauty and purpose. It may not be as breathtaking as when it stood proudly as a wise old tree, but I take solace in the fact that it did not die in vain. Because many others have, and I'm sure as I sit here there are thousands of other old trees being left to rot on this very island, and millions more the world over. Cutting down old growth forest is irreversible. But then to brazenly waste this most precious resource, and to waste it on such a large scale, is an insult and an utter tragedy. We are stripping Mother Earth bare. And when she's most vulnerable, we're rubbing salt in her wounds.
There is no question — timber is one of our most important resources. As many woodworkers and loggers will tell you, each timber has its own characteristics. I've even chatted to people who seem to attribute human qualities to trees, as if different trees have their own personality. Our connection to timber is one of the oldest relationships in human history. We have used it for basic survival, burning it in fires to heat ourselves for millennia. We have made our homes from trees, or even in the trees. We have built wooden boats and dugout canoes. Timber is an inherent part of who we are.
Our relationship was based on balance. But it seems balance has taken a back-seat as the pervasiveness of greed extends out like the roots of an ancient tree, reaching ever further in search of more sustenance. Greed is why the Amazon rainforest is disappearing. Greed has meant that the tropical rainforests of Indonesia have been wiped from the face of the earth to satiate our desire for palm oil. Greed almost took what's left of Tasmania's tallest trees and turned them into paper.
Greed disrupted the balance and balance needs to be restored. If we are to preserve any old growth forests for our grandchildren to marvel at, we know things must change. And they must change now. Forestry is necessary. More importantly, forestry is an inherently human activity. But it must be carried out in moderation and with the utmost respect and care. To clearfell a forest seems akin to ripping out someone's heart. The body might still be there, but it lies motionless and devoid of life. We know that the status quo is not working and yet we keep doing it?
I keep looking at these ancient trees, these windows into the past, only to discover the whole framework of the house has collapsed around them. The stark cut blocks stare down from the surrounding hills, an ominous warning to the last remaining giants of Avatar Grove. Mountains upon mountains of timber lies lifeless in a biological wasteland. Those trees all died in vain, and it's on our conscience whether we like it or not.
We smashed the vase a long time ago, but now it feels like we're just treading all over the pieces on the ground, grinding them into ever smaller pieces. The time has come to pick them up, we've just gotta find that damned super glue.