The seeds of the woman Tobias Douglas would become – the things she would care about, the life and passions and success she would have – were planted with a photograph she received as a child: A picture of her grandmother standing in front of an enormous red cedar tree stump in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.
Ms. Douglas was seven or eight when she got that picture, her partner, Grant Parnell, says, and the image never left her. The Hollow Tree, as it is known, would take root in her mind, calling her west, away from an unhappy childhood and deep into the forests of British Columbia.
There, she would both rename and reinvent herself, as a forester, an activist, a political candidate and businesswoman, and, ultimately, co-founder of a line of luxury candles dedicated to the scent and experience of the wilderness. The company was called Hollow Tree.
Ms. Douglas died on Jan. 21, from complications after surgery. She was 48.
Mr. Parnell says Ms. Douglas had a difficult early life and left home as soon as possible after she turned 18, severing herself so completely he asked that details of her childhood, family and where she was from not be published.
She went first to Quebec, then arrived in B.C. in 1992 to spend the summer planting trees with friends. There, deep within the province’s forests and atop its mountains, she found her home.
By the time Ms. Douglas and Mr. Parnell met in 2008, she’d worked extensively in forestry, and had become passionate and knowledgeable about issues around B.C. natural resources. After serving as a communications strategist for NDP cabinet minister Corky Evans, she was running for the NDP against then-Liberal forestry minister Pat Bell.
It was a tough race – Mr. Parnell describes Ms. Douglas as a “left-leaning, socialist-type” in “one of the most blue ridings you could possible land in” – and says she faced criticism and harassment for both her politics and gender.
Though she did better than expected, Mr. Parnell says she finished the race exhausted, jobless and broke.
Ms. Douglas moved to Victoria for a while, but city life didn’t suit her, and the couple ultimately decided to go into business together elsewhere. They bought and resold an underwear shop in Nelson, then took on a skincare and candle company in Whistler. Hollow Tree Candles was born.
“I was mesmerized by the beauty of this province,” Ms. Douglas said, in an interview in 2017. “I would often ask myself, ‘How can I bottle this scent?’ Or capture this vista? And so began the process of creating Hollow Tree.”
Ms. Douglas spent two years developing the line, devoting herself to every aspect of the brand, including sourcing high-end fragrances from France and persuading the company to work with her. Mr. Parnell says Ms. Douglas would conceive the scent and work with the company to formulate it, painstakingly testing variations until it was right.
Hollow Tree launched in 2016 with 20 different candles, each hand-poured into thick ceramic vessels by Ms. Douglas and Mr. Parnell, who sometimes worked late into the night to get orders filled.
Paula Jeffers, who owns a boutique in Whistler, recalled her first meetings with Ms. Douglas, and says it seemed like creating the candles was something she “was almost compelled to do.”
“It was like an expression of herself,” she says. “She loved scent, she loved the forest. She was a woman who was full of these passions.”
By the time of Ms. Douglas’s death, Hollow Tree had grown to be one of the largest luxury candle lines in Canada, with sales doubling every year, and attracting a devoted following for her distinct and entrancing scents.
“I fell in love with it immediately,” said Anthony Carro, owner of L.A.-based Candle Delirium, the world’s largest candle boutique. “It’s what I burn at home, it’s what I recommend to people. The scents are just really beautiful and unique and brilliant.”
Mr. Parnell says one of Ms. Douglas’s skills was the ability to develop fragrances that connected deeply with people’s own memories and experiences.
One candle, Canoe, was based on a Tom Thomson painting of a boat at the water’s edge. Ms. Douglas wanted to capture the experience of a day spent canoeing, the scent of leather and cedar and pine needles as you landed the canoe to stop for lunch or overnight, Mr. Parnell says.
“People will pick up a candle, and you can see in their eyes they’re remembering something,” he says. “Sometimes they tell you, and sometimes they don’t.”
Mr. Parnell says when he thinks of Ms. Douglas, he recalls the scent she created for Brandywine Falls, a place they used to go together outside Whistler. He says the candle smelled of the falls on a summer day. Of wet rocks near the water, of bark and greenery and earth, and the hint of a flower somewhere nearby.