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The once mighty forests of the Pacific Northwest have now been reduced to small groves across island archipelagos. Tom Wolff explores the forests of Haida Gwaii and Vancouver Island – both ancient and fledgling – with one question in mind. Why did the story of our forests change from identity to industry?

Words by Tom Wolff

Photography by Oriana Smy

A patchwork of stars filled the sky above us as waves eased their way across the rocks on the shore of Masset Inlet on Canada’s island archipelago of Haida Gwaii. The fire crackled softly – our eyes drawn to the flickering flames. I’ve always felt when you look into a fire you’re somehow connected to all those who’ve come before you – a human history through fire. There was a certain rhythm to Tdesi’s voice as he spoke; calm and measured, yet I couldn’t help but notice the tinge of pain or disappointment that lingered once his words had gone:

“If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from tree planting, it’s that it’s incredibly easy to break something, and very difficult to fix it later. 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 tree planting work when we met on Haida Gwaii. Both veterans of a few seasons, they’d seen their fair share of “cutblocks” across Canada. The cutblocks they spoke of were vast areas of forest that had been clearfelled to feed our voracious appetite for timber. The job of a tree planter was to bring these areas back to life by replanting what we all know to be a renewable resource: trees. I’d 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 what I’ve heard, tree planting can be damn hard work, but it pays well, you get to work outdoors and a lot of people enjoy the flexibility of the seasonal employment.

Tom Wolff

“Forestry may be sustainable, but the forests that we leave future generations will be a shadow of their former glory.”

I left the islands of Haida Gwaii the next day and spent a week on the Pearl Sea – an old wooden fishing boat. I cruised south with an old fisherman through the narrow tidal channels of the inside passage from Haida Gwaii to Vancouver Island.

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. Further north I’d pass countless hours wandering amongst the majesty of ancient giants; fir, hemlock, cedar and spruce. Wise old beings swayed gently in the breeze as columns of golden sunlight fought their way through the dense canopy to light up patches of the damp, leaf-littered ground. In some way I felt as though I’d come to know these forests, to understand them. As our boat made its way down the Johnstone Strait, the giants I expected to find were long gone. All that remained were thousands upon thousands of greying, lifeless stumps.

British Colombia has a devastating history of huge-scale deforestation and denuding of these old growth forests. From my vantage point on the Pearl Sea fishing boat, 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 pile of deep green forest 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. Forestry may be sustainable, but the forests that we leave future generations will be a shadow of their former glory. They will be devoid of diversity and any recognisable soul.

Tom Wolff

“Cathedral Grove has Douglas Fir trees that stand over eighty metres tall – the result of 800 years of growth and prosperity. The wisdom in those trunks is priceless.”

As I crossed Vancouver 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 and goosebumps quickly sprung up across my arms. The sound of traffic was quickly absorbed by the thick layers of trees as I walked deeper into the wild. With each step further away from the road, I slowly travelled back in time.

Cathedral Grove opens a window to the past. It shows the complex beauty of our forest ecosystems as they once were before we commodified them. They reveal our insignificance in the vast history of the Earth. These forests have seen more than we will ever see in one lifetime. Ancient trees that have weathered fire, storms, floods, droughts, and most crucially the axes and chainsaws of the forestry industry. Cathedral Grove has Douglas Fir trees that stand over eighty metres tall – the result of 800 years of growth and prosperity. The wisdom in those trunks is priceless.

A couple of weeks earlier, while waiting for the ferry from Prince Rupert, I’d explored the Museum of Northern British Columbia. The beautiful wooden building – traditional Haida design – was perched overlooking Prince Rupert Harbour and the hours I spent reading about the Haida people and other First Nations groups from British Columbia helped me to see the place in a different light. It was there that I met Erin and her mum Beth.

As chance would have it I bumped into Erin in the middle of nowhere on Vancouver Island. About an hour after leaving Cathedral Grove I had what would turn out to be my closest run in with traffic. A semi-trailer effectively sandwiched me against a rock wall as I bombed down an enormous hill. Adrenaline was pumping through my system and I was a little shaken as I pulled up at the bottom of the hill, only to turn and see Erin sitting in her car looking back at me with a sort of bewilderment. Our chance meeting only enhanced my state of stupor.

Eventually I decided I’d chuck my bicycle in the back of her ute as Erin, her friend Emily and I traversed to the western side of the island. Our first stop was Avatar Grove, where we spent time wandering through another tract of old forest that had survived the onslaught of logging. This time we got to marvel at giants of a different kind – towering Western Red Cedars. I spent a few months trying to familiarise myself with plants of the Pacific Northwest, and Red Cedars were one of the first I felt confident identifying. The bark is indented with lots of long vertical slits, and the bark itself has a deep reddish tinge. The way the branches slope down before reaching back towards the sun at their extremities add a lot to their overall character. Western Red Cedar became the most important plant of my journey so far.

It’s true that modern science is giving us a deeper understanding of the nature of forest ecosystems – of their connectivity 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 as humans, I think we already suspected these things. Maybe we couldn’t explain it in scientific terms, but walking through Cathedral Grove, I could feel it – the unified strength of the forest as strong as any closeknit human community. So many of the Indigenous stories and songs I heard from the Pacific Northwest are based on this understanding of the interconnectedness of life, and it was never more evident and visceral than in the dark depths of old growth forests, surrounded by 800 year old trees.

But the forests keep disappearing.

Tom Wolff

“In the Haida traditions, trees are felled in ceremony and respect is given to the life of the tree and what it will provide to the community.”

After a couple of days camping on the west coast with Erin and Emily, we cruised down to her parent’s place just outside of the city of Victoria. Beth – who had encouraged me to come and stay when we met in Prince Rupert – was kind enough to let me use her office to do some writing. The room smelled sweet – almost like honey. The bench my computer rested on was a huge slab of red cedar at least five metres long and two metres wide – it’s where the smell comes from. I tried counting the age rings from the outside in and lost count  – my guess was the tree had to be at least five hundred years old. It was a stunning piece of timber. Brown and red hues intermingled with yellow and golden shades and made the table feel full of life.

Western Red Cedar is a prized timber for many reasons. It is frequently used because of its naturally high resistance to decay, which makes it ideal for boat building – even more so considering it is lighter than many of its counterparts like mahogany. It is also important for Indigenous groups from the Pacific Northwest as they traditionally used it for building houses and canoes, totem poles and ceremonial objects. In the Haida traditions, trees are felled in ceremony and respect is given to the life of the tree and what it will provide to the community. Most importantly of all, little or nothing of the tree is wasted.

“It’s salvaged timber, you know,” Beth said about the bench. I looked up in disbelief, and dragged my fingers across its smooth surface. This ancient tree, thoughtlessly felled by modern machinery, was left to rot in a slash pile until someone came along and rescued it. It may not be as breathtaking as when it stood proudly as a wise old grandmother of the forest, but I’m comforted by the fact that it has a new purpose. As I sat on that bench I wondered about the thousands of other ancient trees being left to rot for the sake of the forestry industry. Cutting down old growth forest causes irreversible damage. To then waste this precious resource, and to waste it on such a large scale, is an insult and a tragedy.

Tom Wolff

“Our connection to timber is one of the oldest relationships in human history.”

Timber is a crucial resource for humanity. I’ve chatted to woodworkers and loggers who attribute human qualities to different timbers, as if the 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 by burning it in fires to heat ourselves for millennia. We have made our homes of and in trees, built boats and canoes, and tools from trees. Timber isn’t a commodity, it’s a part of who we are.

For so long, our relationship with trees was based on balance. But balance has taken a back-seat as timber became a commodity. And commodities are susceptible to one of humankind’s quickest and ugliest traits – greed. Greed is clearfelling the Amazon rainforest. Greed harvested Indonesia’s tropical rainforests to satiate our misplaced desire for palm oil. Greed tried and fortunately failed to take what’s left of Tasmania’s oldest forests to pulp them into paper. Greed killed a 600-year-old Red Cedar and left it to rot before good people rescued it.

Greed disrupted the balance and a sustainable 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. Forestry is a huge industry. We see trees as a commodity but if we view them as the ancient part of our identity they truly are, perhaps we’ll be more passionate about re-establishing a balanced relationship with our forests. 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 ever smaller. The time has come to pick them up, and do our best to reassemble them.

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Tom Wolff

Tom is a writer and photographer currently based in Lennox Head, Australia.