Amanda Lewis is the author of Tracking Giants: Big Trees, Tiny Triumphs, and Misadventures in the Forest.
A few years ago, I came across a colourful life map my parents had stored for me while I’d been living in Toronto. We’d made these large charts as part of a career and personal planning course in our high school in Surrey, B.C. Environmentalism and music were the guiding lights of my 15-year-old life, and prominent on the map were twin goals: plant native trees to replace those cut down centuries earlier in Ireland, where I was born; and visit Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris. I’d plotted out my life the way a pilgrim would set routes to cathedrals or temples.
In 2018, when I set out to visit all of B.C.’s Champion trees – the largest of their species – pilgrimage was once again on my mind. I’d moved back to the West Coast and, burned out from intellectual pursuits, I wanted a project that would frame my hikes and test my mettle in the woods. The Champions, catalogued in the B.C. BigTree Registry at the University of British Columbia, were the perfect focus.
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We needn’t burn carbon to hike the Camino de Santiago, I told myself, when we had world-calibre sites of pilgrimage right here in Canada. Self-styled tree pilgrims in fleece, gaiters and hiking boots could seek transcendence in these trees’ massive size, their graceful boughs, the dappled light cascading through the canopy as through stained glass in a cathedral. Brandishing lightweight hiking poles, we could form a network of pilgrimage routes. We would put the trees first, place our faith in the forest, find shared points of reference.
The condition of some of the Champions hadn’t been monitored since the 1990s, and it was anyone’s guess whether they were still upright. These Champions are standouts in a landscape of gargantuan trees, but even so, they are hard to find. Rule No. 1 of big-tree tracking: Trees are mortal. They grow, lose limbs, get hit by lightning, fall down in windstorms.
Armed with a spreadsheet of 43 trees and a one-year time frame, I soon learned that looking for Champion trees is like trying to count toddlers in a ball pit. I wasn’t equipped with the wilderness knowledge needed to safely traverse these deep woods, or the ecological know-how to identify the trees in front of me. In the end, I lost my spreadsheet and extended my one-year time frame to my lifetime. Instead of doing it on my own, I found friends in fellow big-tree trackers who could bring me deeper into the woods. We held the tree measuring tape for each other, marvelled over fungi, shared a box of doughnuts near the crashing surf. They knew the routes, and I was left to wander.
I eventually earned my place in the woods simply by being there, like these trees growing for themselves and their communities in soil, water and air. When I turned my attention to ecosystems rather than individual trees, the marvels began to reveal themselves.
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That’s the risk of focusing on a beautiful cathedral – along the way, you miss the graffiti on a crumbling wall. When we zero in on charismatic megaflora, like the Cheewhat Giant or Big Lonely Doug, we satisfy ourselves with less: fewer big trees, less biodiversity.
We’re at risk of losing our last old-growth trees to logging and catastrophic wildfire. The Castle Fire, which burned in Sequoia National Forest between August and December, 2020, burned approximately 7,500 to 10,600 sequoias with a diameter greater than or equal to 1.2 metres, some approaching 3,000 years old, according to the U.S. National Park Service. One of these, named King Arthur, was the ninth-largest sequoia by volume.
Remember rule No. 1? Trees are mortal. But when forests burn in runaway wildfires or fall in clearcuts, we all lose. We are poorer without the oxygen the trees would have created, the slope stability their roots provided, the soil they would have made as they decayed. The smoke from burning forests puts more carbon in the atmosphere, furthering the cycle. Charred trees are of no use to local mills, and there are fewer straight cedars for harvesting bark. When trees burn, there is no possibility of reverence, or even complicated ownership through the names big-tree trackers attach to the biggest and best. Sailors lose wayfinding beacons, the tallest trees jutting above the canopy. Black bears lose their dens, birds their roosts, cougars their wide limbs for perching. There is no decaying bark to provide insects for woodpeckers or cavities for nesting owls. We can preserve trees based on size, but they’re still at risk until we emphasize ecosystem protection and strong action against climate change.
Visiting the grave of a musician isn’t the way to honour their music. Artists are giants in my life, but I no longer seek out where famous writers drank or died – I choose to honour their work. Seeking communion with the interconnected world means visiting living trees of all sizes and appreciating those that have fallen. These days, I admire opportunistic alders growing in city lots before they’re cleared for condos and nod to grand firs as I walk to the post office. Instead of travelling to Ireland, I plant trees on the small island where I live in the Salish Sea. And I find tiny joys by wandering the forested paths, watching thatching ants build their nest mounds.