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How the Hunt for Big Trees ‘Helped Me Ease Up on Myself’

In Amanda Lewis’s new book, ‘Tracking Giants,’ she visits BC’s biggest specimens. A Tyee Q&A.

andrea bennett 29 May 2023The Tyee

andrea bennett is a senior editor at The Tyee and the author of Hearty: Essays on Pleasure and Subsistence, forthcoming with ECW Press.

What is it with B.C.’s big trees?

Forestry has long been a cornerstone of the provincial economy, of course, and calls to protect old-growth forests have created political flashpoints for decades.

But there’s also something else, something a bit more like awe or wonder, that captures many of us when it comes to being in the presence of a big tree. They’re often older than us; they can be broad and tall, impossible to take in at a glance. And if they’re in a forest with other old growth, that forest just feels different than other forests. (Keep reading for Amanda Lewis’s take on why!)

The Tyee has written several articles referencing B.C.’s BigTree Registry over the years, including a Q&A with big tree hunter Colin Spratt, and a profile of several big tree hunters, including Amanda Lewis.

Now, Lewis’s book Tracking Giants: Big Trees, Tiny Triumphs and Misadventures in the Forest, has hit the shelves, chronicling her journey to visit all of B.C.’s “champion” trees — that is, the largest documented examples of their species in the province.

In the interview below, we talk about what she has in common with other big tree hunters in B.C. and where she differs, why the registry is important, her favourite big tree to track down, and why arbutus trees are so cool. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Tyee: People — myself included — love big trees. But as you note in Tracking Giants, there’s a sort of obsessiveness that’s usually found in folks who seek out and document the biggest of the big trees. To find them using GPS, to measure them, to add them to the BC BigTree Registry. But that’s not what motivated you. Could you talk a bit about what did?

Amanda Lewis: You're right. There is this obsessiveness with getting it right, and leaving a track or trail to a tree, in terms of measurements and co-ordinates. Those just aren't my strengths. I'm a word person, and so the numbers thing kind of intimidates me, and I was more interested in just being in the woods and seeing these trees and I thought that being around them would give me answers to questions in my life and inspire a feeling of transcendence.

Were there any important questions that they answered for you?

It helped me ease up on myself. I have this habit of going after big things and making huge goals, and then having to recalibrate them when I fail or fall really short of the target. While I was looking for these big trees, and making a beeline for them, I was missing all the joys around me — like the beautiful huckleberries and little critters that I would see along the way. Once I widened the lens to take more of an ecosystem approach, I found a lot more joy in the project. So that was the question that I didn't know would be associated with the project, even though it's kind of obvious now. It's fun being in the woods, and it's even more fun being there with friends.

The BC BigTree Registry is cool — but is it also important? What does it allow us to understand about our landscape, our history, our ecology? Does it translate into a desire for us to protect these trees?

One of the mandates of the registry is conservation. They put it bluntly: if you know it's there, you can save it. So some activist groups have used the registry to find trees and say, you know, let’s go protect them. Or you can look at the map on the registry and say, ah, there are roughly — I'm just pulling out numbers here — but let’s say, five per cent of the old growth is located in a particular place. Thus, we should focus our attention on this part of the province.

I think what's interesting about the registry is that the nominations come from all manners of people. So forestry companies — Western Forest Products has entered a ton of trees into the registry in recent years. But also community scientists, people who just have a huge tree in their backyard, First Nations, and forest ecologists. It feels very democratic in that way.

Often the people who find big trees are loggers. A lot of people who work in forestry just love trees. So there might be a tree that they find that is within the retention limits and they set it aside. And that’s something that I think a lot of the shriller discourse around saving trees kind of misses, is that people who work in the woods work in the woods because they love trees. It's not just about getting the last of the green gold.

You’ve been working on this project for a while — my colleague Michelle Gamage first interviewed you about your blog on tracking giants in 2019. How are you feeling about where B.C. is at in terms of protecting them?

This is not a new conversation. I grew up in B.C. And as a kid, when the Clayoquot protests were happening, I think I was 10. It's pretty disheartening to see us having the same conversations over and over about saving old growth, or Indigenous populations having more of a say in how their forests are managed. It's pretty shocking that we're still doing this. With Fairy Creek, I think people are really, really recognizing that old growth is beautiful, and it has these transcendent qualities, but also it's so limited. I think people don't realize how little of it is left.

Do you have a favourite tree, or one that felt most meaningful to track down?

A few come to mind. The tree that opens the book is Norvan’s Castle, which is a western hemlock that grows in the North Shore mountains. It's one of my favorites, because it's a beautiful tree. The other cool thing about Norvan’s Castle is that it took me so long to get there. It was my third try finding it because I tried the trail before but it was closed due to snow and ice, and then there was a bear in the area. And it takes all day to get there and back, and it’s just a pretty gruelling slope, or at least I found it pretty gruelling.

And then another favourite is the champion arbutus, which grows in Nanoose Bay on Vancouver Island. And what’s nice about that one is it’s really easy to get to. It’s right on the edge of a little mountain bike trail. So you could bring your kids and park your car in a very obvious location and then walk and find this huge arbutus. Arbutus has long been my favourite tree because it already kind of stands out in these forests.

I love the way arbutus grows in very specific areas. They have to be within a certain distance of the ocean air, which is cool.

It is super cool. A lot of people have tried to plant and grow an arbutus tree in their yard. But they don’t want to be planted. They just plant themselves.

How do you feel when you realize a tree you’re looking for is no longer there?

It feels initially disappointing. It's great if you can figure that out at the beginning and not just traipse around.

We’re always clearing beautiful, standout trees. But, yeah, if I know that it's not there, it actually makes my job a little bit easier. Because I'm like, OK, I can move on and maybe find the runner-up tree, like I did with an interior Douglas fir that had been hit by lightning. And then I was like, oh, I’ll go to this runner-up. Oh, it fell down. Oh, I’ll go to this one. It’s like Whack-a-Mole at the PNE, you know.

It’s kind of sad, but it’s just the way it goes. The trees aren’t protected.

When you realize that one of the trees has disappeared or or probably isn't there, do you let the registry know?

Yes. In the case of a bitter cherry in North Van, I went back to check out the area and it's been cleared for — if not condos, a seniors’ residence. And I couldn't find the tree. So I sent a note after that, something like, "based on our best guesses, I couldn’t find it anymore." It's kind of a strange position to be in, because it’s like, who should care about this tree? It was just a weed tree growing in an overgrown lot, but when you assign any significance to a specific tree, it does take on these overtones.

You’ve spent a lot of time in forests over the past several years. What have you noticed about intact old-growth forests? How do they feel different than other forests? What do we lose when we lose them?

I love this question. Because I can feel it. And there have been times when I've been standing on a forest service road or a logging road and looked at one side of the road and it’s all replanted monoculture, and on the other side, it’s old growth. And the difference is so blatant. The one side that’s been replanted, the trees are really close together, and it’s dry, it’s dusty, it’s dark. And there aren’t many ferns and just not much diversity. And then over on the other side of the road, the light’s kind of dappling through the canopy in this perfect way. It’s green. There are lots of ferns, it’s moist, it just feels better. And it feels like home to me, because I grew up playing in these old-growth ravines near my house in Surrey. It just feels right.

If someone wants to get into big tree hunting, or even visiting popular, more easily accessible big trees, what’s the best way to get into it respectfully and in a conscientious way? What should people take into consideration?

The BC BigTree Registry is a great place to start because if a tree is on private land, if it grows on First Nations land — where the nation has asked that no one visit the tree — then that will be marked as private or restricted access. So first look to that. And really appreciate the tree and treat it with care. Some of the biggest trees — not necessarily in B.C. — have been damaged by people trampling the roots and eroding the area. To quote my friend Greg Herringer, who works for BC Timber Sales, it’s like people loving a tree to death.

A great way to find trees in your area would be to check the registry or reach out to your local trails group, because there might already be a trail, to, say, the big spruce. Or start looking around and you’ll see a trail named “the big cedar trail.” You don’t necessarily need to see the biggest trees in B.C. to see big trees. We have such superlative resources.

If you’re in Vancouver, you can do worse than just going to Stanley Park. It’s full of huge trees. It’s got two champion trees that we know about, the bigleaf maple and the red alder. Some of the tallest trees in the city are in Stanley Park. One of my friends, Colin Spratt, just launched an Ancient Trees of Vancouver walking tour in Stanley Park. To have someone guide you is a great way to learn about these trees.

People were really shocked to see a giant tree rolling down a Vancouver Island highway on a logging truck a couple years ago, two years after the passing of the government’s big tree regulation. Do you think we’ll see an end to the logging of big trees, and old growth, in B.C. anytime soon?

I think that we are moving in the right direction. Groups like Endangered Ecosystems Alliance and Ancient Forest Alliance, among others, are really working well with industry and with First Nations to move that ahead. There have been retention limits set for trees, but the trees that are being cut down are still big. And as Sally Aitken, a UBC forestry professor, says in the book, the trees that are tallest have potential to be the biggest, but you have to leave them time to girth out basically, and get big. If we want this fine grain that old growth presents, we have to cultivate it and not just keep going after it, because it takes centuries to achieve these trees.

Keep an eye out tomorrow for an excerpt of 'Tracking Giants: Big Trees, Tiny Triumphs and Misadventures in the Forest.'  [Tyee]

Read more: Books, Environment

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