We drift in a liminal space these days, caught between a past that’s just out of reach and a future that never comes into focus. Floating in a murky emotional soup of fear, longing, resignation and hope, we grope blindly for some shred of reassurance. At a time like this the thoroughly solid presence of old trees can be a welcome comfort. Maybe you’ve been lingering under big trees, consciously or unconsciously seeking solace. In the Pacific Northwest, the Western Red-cedar is one tree whose benign, gentle presence can soothe and center frayed nerves.
My wish is that you could stand beneath this
stately tree-being, stand there quietly,
breathe along with bark, leaves,
Bend your head way back and gaze far
up into the branches until your eyes tire. Peer closely
at the russet-colored bark and discover life
hidden in the darkest fissures. Trace the wide arc
of a single branch as it dips down, then
climbs back up towards the light.
follow the sensuous twists and curves of roots until
they disappear into the thick, spongy duff.
Inhale the sharp, fresh fragrance and listen to the
soft shushing of swaying branches.
Commune. Lose yourself
in the presence of this graceful tree,
forget the news,
shake off your worries.
There are times when we suffer; there are times when the Red-cedars suffer. They fall, they burn in fires, they’re attacked by fungi and beetles, felled by loggers and stressed by climatic changes. Those that are taken from the forest may become shingles, siding, outdoor furniture, even caskets. Those that fall become new homes for fungi, plants and animals. Those that rot at the base may still stand, their hollows sheltering bears and other animals. Those that are burned nourish the soil.
The Red-cedar tree (and its relative the Alaska or Yellow-cedar) has played an outsized role in the lives of people living in the Pacific Northwest coastal areas. Regarded as the ‘tree of life’ by the Kakawaka’wakw, the species was, and still is, highly respected by all Northwest coast indigenous cultures. Ceremonial uses for the tree were not separate from other uses but were an integral part of everyday life. Nearly every part of the tree could be put to medicinal use. The bark, which was stripped off the tree in manageable quantities so the tree wasn’t harmed, was used for a wide variety of everyday objects like clothing, mats, dishes, ropes – the list goes on. Exceptionally large trees were once abundant in the forests so houses were built from Red-cedar poles, beams and planks. The straight-grained, rot-resistant, buoyant wood is not too hard to be worked with stone tools. Canoes are still made by Pacific Northwest tribes from carefully selected Red-cedar trees. Annual inter-tribal canoe journeys that keep these traditions alive, have taken place every summer since the 1980’s. In coastal forests, particularly in British Columbia, there are numerous culturally modified trees (CMT’s). These trees show evidence of being stripped of pieces bark or wood or otherwise modified for indigenous use, long ago or more recently. They are a living historical record and are respected as such.
They’re not cedars, by the way. In fact, Thuja plicata is a member of the Cypress family, along with our native junipers; true cedars are native to the Old World. American cedar chests, with their familiar, moth-repellent, aromatic fragrance, were made from Eastern red-cedar, which is a juniper tree that grows in the eastern half of the U.S. But enough confusion! There is no mistaking Western red-cedar once you’ve seen it a few times. With its distinctive, vertically patterned bark, curved branches and gracefully drooping sprays of evergreen foliage, it is a dominant tree of the moist, lowland forests within its range.
Though its cones are small and often overlooked, they tell the story of Red-cedar’s reproduction. Both male and female cones are found on each tree. After developing in the previous summer, pollen cones shed their pollen into the wind in March. Around here that means several weeks of sneezing and dusty-looking cars. Seed cones trap and funnel the drifting pollen into ovules, where fertilization takes place in May. By September, the seed cones have matured and turned brown and can begin releasing seeds, to be carried by the wind. They’ll land some distance from the parent tree. Some will sprout into seedlings but the seedlings often have a tough time surviving. Perhaps as insurance, Red-cedar trees can also reproduce vegetatively. Low-hanging and fallen branches can root and even fallen trees may develop new, viable branches.
The oldest known Western red-cedar trees are well over a thousand years old; the biggest trees include one on Vancouver Island that is about 20′ (6m) in diameter and 182′ (56m) tall, and one on the Oregon coast that measured about 17′ in diameter and 153′ tall in 2010. In the face of this kind of longevity it might be worthwhile to ponder the fate of the scores of human generations that have lived and passed away while these old giants have persisted.
My wish for you is that you can relax under an old Red-cedar tree – but any big tree near you will do. My wish for the trees themselves is that no more Red-cedars suffer damaging harm from human causes – or at the very least, that no more giants are logged.
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