Tag Archives: trees

For His Old Branches

We push deeper into the middle of the island, weaving our way along the ridge. In an organized line the three of us hike, me in the lead, followed by Brittney, Porter the cat right on her heels. When she disappears over a small hill to look at a patch of moss that shines a fantastic neon green he plops on a fallen Hemlock and softly meows until she reappears. There are no machines, no airplanes, no cars. The only sounds are of the forest’s creation. Squirrels quarrel from their respective trees, all talk and no action. The Varied Thrush in between acts as a mediator, his single melodious note drowned out by their stubborn chatter.

It’s all therapy. The springy moss gives the sensation of walking on clouds, the world a tapestry of browns, golds, reds, and more shades of green than I knew existed. Fir, Hemlock, Spruce, and of course Cedar shield the sun. I stop at one Cedar and see a deep six foot slash that begins near my knees and travels up past my eyes. Long ago, someone cut into her. Not out of spite, anger, or the egotistical need to announce ones presence. But to weave a basket. By strategically stripping the bark in this way, the natives brought not death, but growth, their cuts encouraging the trees to grow at a faster rate. They’re known as culturally modified trees (CMT) and they litter the island. At least the parts that have never been logged, which is sadly less than half.

We stumble onto the scene of such a crime after plunging through a valley and onto the next ridge. Spruce dominant the scene here looking massive and impressive until our eyes fall upon the skeletons. Cedar trees twelve feet in diameter stand decapitated ten feet from the ground. Deep one foot notches denote where the logger stood and cut until the massive tree succumbed to gravity. Like the CMT, it says, “man was here” but with much more finality and violence. The cuts are from generations previously, the sun long ago blocked by the growth around us, the stumps being swallowed back into the earth, crumbling to powder. I look up at the spruce and feel relief and gratitude knowing neither them or the successors to follow will meet the same fate here. It’s progress. Hope. That their deaths were not in vain, that perhaps we’re moving forward.

Back home, I sharpen a chainsaw, fill it with oil and a 50:1 fuel to oil mixture. I can feel the trees watching me and Walrus’ words float into my head.

“When I got here, I could feel the pain this place had experienced. How many chainsaws these trees had heard, and I vowed never to use one on Yukusam.”

It’s a gesture that means sacrifice and plenty of extra work, though many I suppose would call it foolish, irrational, pointless. After all, trees can’t hear. At least, I don’t think they can. But his words, his dedication, his conviction stick in my head as I set the choke and begin to pull the handle, feeling the machine sputter before dying again. A magnificent piece of Fir has washed up along the beach, probably 50 feet long it offers nights of cozy warmth. But nearby, his brethren still stand. Branches coated in needles reach out towards me, their ends curved upwards toward the sun, like a crowd with outstretched arms, their palms skyward in peaceful protest. I sit the saw down and move up the beach a few steps. If they can hear, I want to make sure they hear me.

“This saw is not meant for you,” I whisper, and even in my solitude I glance behind me for human ears. “This tree can no longer grow, photosynthesize, or give life to the forest. If it could I would never touch it, just as I promise to never touch you. Forgive the sounds of the saw, I’ll leave you in peace as quickly as I can.”

I kneel by the saw and crank the handle again, it roars to life and soon, sawdust is flying from the tiny metallic teeth, forming neat golden piles on the beach. I move down the line, making cuts every foot and a half, dodging knots and pausing once to tighten the chain. In half an hour it’s over and true to my word I shut it off as soon as I’m done. Once again the cove and forest is filled with nothing but the sounds of the thrush and the squirrels.

In the House of Tom Bombadil

The trail winds through new and second growth foliage, their branches stretching like eerie arms onto the skinny trail, refusing to be thwarted by mans’ fruitless trials to contain them. Rocks thrust out of the mud, their surfaces slick with moisture. The continual December rainfall creates a steady trickle downhill, creating mud poles that go halfway up our boots. The forest is quiet besides the steady drip of rain bouncing from one leaf to another as they plummet to the trail and moss. We push further and further into the middle of Hanson Island, a weak winter sun battling the clouds.

After fifteen minutes of steady uphill hiking we round a bend and are met with a fence composed of a brilliant maze of branches. A gate sits partway open and we slide through and step onto the well trodden ground of what the weather beaten sign nailed to a tree announces is the earth embassy, a small crown of willow branches hanging above it. A few small buildings and a woodshed dot the clearing as we approach slowly. It’s a peculiar thing, to march into someone elses isolation. With no way to warn them that you’re coming. After months of solitude, the echo of our feet pounding up the trail had to sound like thunder.

Passing the door to the first building we hear a call from inside, a growl, a bark, and the door creaks open, giving way to a massive mountain of orange and white fur. The fur ball is recognizable as Kessler, the Hanson Island dog that had been exiled from Alert Bay, and now lived with the man we’d come to see. A man known to me only as Walrus.

We step out of the rain and around Kessler and into a library. Books cover a massive shelf in the entrance and litter the walls, meticulously categorized by subject. Conservation, religion, and history with subcategories such as: Greenpeace, Animism, and Mayan culture. There’s just enough room for a desk nestled right next to the door where Walrus sits, a journal out. He’s everything an old man living in the woods should look like. A massive grey beard coats his face. Even his eyebrows are preternaturally long, sticking almost straight out as long as my pinkie before finally succumbing to gravity and curling at the tips.

A sweet, musty, woody, smell permeates the tiny shelter and stepping behind the massive bookcase reveals an open space with a wood stove and table covered in fruit, crackers, and a bottle of rum. While I’m sure somewhere out there lives a reclusive old hermit who cringes at the very thought of social interaction, Walrus is not that man. His life in the forest seemed to give him remarkable preservation, and despite having reached an age where many would be comfortably retired, he’s bouncy and quick witted with an easy laugh that seems to go on forever. He is a marvelous cross between Obi-Wan Kenobi and any assortment of bearded, woodsmen, Tolkien characters.

His house was a jigsaw puzzle of scrap wood that he had scrounged from the surrounding woods. Small and efficient it was easy to keep warm when the temperature dropped below freezing. The site had been picked for him he explained, when he’d pitched his tent directly on the path we had just walked up. Decades ago it had been a logging trail and Walrus had stood resolute, refusing to allow them to have the island.

Wielding an education in anthropology Walrus had scuttled over every nook and cranny of Hanson Island, learning the island’s history and secrets, searching for a way to save it. Culturally modified cedar trees (CMTs) cover the island, evidence of the first nations presence here long ago. They would cut long horizontal strips of bark from the tree, using the wood to form baskets and string. Their cutting encouraged the trees to grow even faster, creating a resource that renewed faster with use, a concept unheard of in our modern day “advanced” world.

Citing the CMTs for their cultural and historical significance, Walrus helped save the island from the carpet bombing that had befallen the nearby islands of Swanson and Cracroft. His camp quickly became something of a heritage site in addition to his year round home starting in the early 90s. A place where he welcomed grade school kids in the summer to learn about the history of the forest, and showed them around a massive garden where he grew everything from kale, to potatoes (if he can keep the jays out), to garlic. Garlic, he said, he’d give away as gifts. What a stocking stuffer.

There seemed to be little that he hadn’t done on the conservation battlefield. He’d fought wolf hunters in northern Canada, been a cook aboard the early Greenpeace boats that put themselves between whalers and their cetacean targets, and become something of a legend. His quiet manner and humbleness hid all of this though as he enthusiastically showed off his garden, Kessler constantly bumping against our shins waiting for his ears to be scratched.

We walked back down the trail toward Orca Lab a couple hours later, inspired and motivated. Someday I hoped that I could look back on the decades of my life and see the world a better place from my actions. I imagined the feeling of gratitude and joy Walrus had to feel when he woke up and looked about his forest home. Hearing the birds call, the deer trampling through the undergrowth, the leaves whispering in the wind, and knowing that it still stands because he had. His feet planted firmly on the trail, loggers and equipment barreling up the hill, unaware of the man they were about to face.

An Unexpected Hiking Partner

The wind howls and the waves charge, crashing against the shoreline, shooting up the steep edges of the cove before slowly draining back into the ocean, preparing for another attempt. But a quarter mile away in the woods, the sounds are muffled, the wind denied entrance by the protective arms of the trees. The only evidence of the winds raging up and down Blackney Pass is the rustle and swaying of the treetops towering high above. And the three of us yes, three, myself, Brittney, and Porter the cat tromp deeper into the forest. Away from the wind and waves and into the serenity that only the forest can give.

It had been Brittney’s idea originally. After all, the massive windows of our cabin overlooked the ocean and the forest, and poor Porter had been desperate to step outside and meet the squirrels and birds for himself. We’d tried the same thing two summers ago when Brittney was a kayak guide in Gustavus, and Porter had, after earning her trust, vanished without a trace for five stressful days. He was found just two streets over, hunkered down in somebodies wood shed. We decided he had a crummy sense of direction. But it now seemed unfair to be surrounded by this untouched land and confine him to the cabin every day, so she started to take him outside. And something funny happened, he started to follow her, like a dog would follow you when you go hiking. And just like that we had the most peculiar and unlikely hiking buddy imaginable. A nine pound cat willing to hop over logs, scale massive glacial erratics, and bound through the velvety club moss like he’d been doing it his whole life.

Just a mile beyond the ocean, the sounds of the storm vanish completely. The temperature rises, and it’s tempting to just collapse into the downy soft moss and stare up into the trees forever. The forest has been allowed to grow for so long, unhindered by logging that the undergrowth completely disappears, the shrubs unable to gain a foothold thanks to the selfish fir and cedar above, devouring the sunlight.

The whole land used to be like this. The forests of Cracroft, Vancouver Island, and the Broughton Archipelago sported massive trees and a maze of trails beneath leaving passage for man and cougar, deer and bear. Hanson Island was spared, thanks to the collective effort of many, and I whispered a word of thanks as I climb over a fallen log, tiny hemlocks growing stubbornly on it’s trunk, yearning to be like their idols above. There is something refreshing and healing about these old forests.

While the ocean is constantly ebbing, flooding, and crashing against the land, the forest is nearly always still. The ocean changes suddenly, sometimes without warning. The forest is gradual, methodical, in no hurry at all. Secrets fall to the bottom of the sea, vanishing from sight as they plummet downward. The forest is an open book, its stories and tales remaining visible for centuries. They are the ying and yang of ecosystems, and yet they compliment each other perfectly with forests protecting salmon streams. The trees are rewarded by the precious nutrients the salmon return with and give back to the forest as their bodies decay. A perfect thank you gift for guarding their stream.

A massive cedar tree lays on its side, stretching for dozens of feet in each direction. Even in death you can still picture how proud it must have been in life, towering over the island, looking out over Blackfish Sound like a sentinel. You can almost hear the final crack and crash it made as it finally surrendered to gravity and plummeted to the moss below, the impact echoing in your ears. Decay has set in, and the bark peals away in my hands, falling through my fingers like sand. But on the trunk sit more tiny hemlocks, taking advantage of the light now penetrating the canopy. As the cedar falls, it ensures more life will follow, clearing a hole for the sun, allowing the saplings to grow. The next generation of the old growth forest.

Porter sees none of this, he just weaves through the hemlocks, meandering to the end of the cedar and with a nimble leap, lands on the moss below, his big blue eyes darting everywhere, ears orientating to every crack and whisper of the wind. The wind howls above us again, this time with more force, and the trees sway ominously, the forest suddenly full of creaking as trunks rub against each other. I feel the first rain drop fall down the back of my neck. The wind gusts again as we head for home. Even the forest isn’t impervious to forty knot winds.

God’s Cathedral

There is a place on the island where you can see history. Feel it travel through your feet, up your spine, sending tingles down your arms. You travel back a thousand years in the blink of an eye and remained rooted hundreds of years before Columbus even considered leaving. And yet all is quiet and still, the words whispered. The story and message imagined and interpreted within. The walk to the time machine is a short one. Winding through stands of rebellious young Hemlocks, shrouded in the shade of their brothers above, crawling year by year upward. I’ll be long gone by the time they see the sun. Here and there a strand of blue is wrapped around a tree, the words, “culturally modified” scrawled across it. They are not the largest, but they are the most important. The historical importance of these trees to the Namgis first nations people has saved the island from logging, a tiny shrine to the old growth stripped by the mountainside on Vancouver Island just a few miles away.

For all her size you don’t see her until you hop the stream, round the final corner, and the shadow towers above you. 12 feet in diameter, hundreds of feet high, she is more impressive than any building any architect could create. The land around her base is bare, her children, teenage trees, shurbs, and huckleberry rise up nearby in the protective shadow of her arms. All is still, the silence so complete you can hear mosquitoes on the other side of the clearing. It’s like walking into a church, you speak in whispers, move quietly, sit down silently. Holier than any church man could conceive. Gods first and true temple, standing, waiting to be worshiped in for a mellinium. Grandma cedar is the pulpit the trees her congregation, it would be arrogant to call us angels.

Everyone I take to see her has the same reaction. Visitors, cameraman, authors, journalists, stare upwards, mouth open, their necks craning farther and farther back, searching for the peak of her branches. Again and again the photographer falls to the floor turning his camera this way and that, trying every conceivable angle in a vain attempt to capture the beauty and tranquility of the scene. Every glance at the LCD screen leaves him shaking his head, hands running through his hair, than back to the forest floor for another attempt.

While the light reflects bright and harsh off the water a quarter mile away, here it is soft and green, the eyes and mind relax, and you drift to a time before anyone knew this existed. The clearing transforms and a sheet of ice replaces the trees. Creaking and groaning it moves, imperceptibly, year after year, resignedly giving way to bedrock, slate, and erratics. It drops a massive rock near the cove, an erratic that will someday be the wall of my home. Water fills the passes and straits that will become the homes of salmon and seal, humpback and herring. Grandma cedar begins to grow. When exactly is not important, what’s 100 years when we’re speaking of thousands? As she rises she sees and hears all. She sees the Namgis settle and camp. Catching salmon and seals, revering the orca and raven. There songs and fires echo and reflect off her face, the jumping light and songs drifting across what would someday be Blackney Pass. They may war with each other but they are at peace with nature. She sees the otter, the humpback, the people, obliterated, her landscape changed forever. Her kinfolk felled to make wooden tables like the one I write on now. The hypocrisy burns as I sit in a house made entirely of wood.

She sees a man in a kayak, a flute at his side, paddle into the cove at her feet. He walks to the erratic on the beach, running his hands down the cool stone, an image born in his head. A house appears, than another, yet the structures seem to melt into the forest. Wrapped in the cloak of grandma’s congregation. People come and go in the following years, nothing more than a fleeting second in her eyes. But whoever touches the shore is brought before her, to pay their respects, honor the matriarch of the forest and remember where we have come from. She changes lives without an audible word. She speaks in riddles, symbolism, and nothing more. The message you take away is the one you are looking for.

And now I stand before her, staring up at the tips of her branches that seem to reach to the heavens. Touch her trunk, feel her age, her power, a talisman of the past. Of how things were, how things can be if we allow them to. I fall to my knees, in silent worship and thanks for this place. For Muir had his glacier, Heacox has his kayak, and I have this island.