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The Living Museum

By Joanna Streetly

Excerpted from Paddling Through Time, Raincoast Books 2000.

Everything about the rainforest suggests abundance, from the massive girths of the hanging garden tree and other western red cedars to the plump clusters of huckleberries and salal berries, just waiting to ripen. It's hard to believe that this forest is old, even though evidence of decay is everywhere. Vibrant colours and textures conceal the infinite processes at work, but looking carefully, it's possible to see beyond the facade of colour.

A Giant Sitka Spruce Tree

A young hiker is awe-struck by a giant Sitka spruce tree. Photo credit: John Platenius

The first challenge is to feel the centuries of life these big cedars have experienced. Some of them may be a thousand years old or more, which brings us back to the tenth century. The forest may have looked remarkably similar then; it is said to have been evolving continuously since the glaciers started retreating 10,000 years ago. Coastal forests are too moist to be significantly affected by fire. This environment, then, has experienced a long and continuous evolution, and may contain many invisible links to its ancient beginnings.

Given the intact appearance of the forest on Meares Island, it's easy to presume that it's never been altered by humans. It hasn't been clearcut – the method that leaves the most obvious evidence of human presence – so it's difficult to grasp how much it may have been used by First Nations people. They seem to have left no trace of their labours. There are clues, though. It's just that they are so subtle. Many trees have been used but left standing, having only had a section of bark, or wood, removed. But the work was done so discreetly the result is almost invisible. Wood taken from a living tree never exceeded a certain amount, so the ability of the tree to heal itself wasn't compromised. The scars blend into the naturally convoluted shapes of the trees. In other places, there is a mossy stump, cleanly cut, but no evidence of the accompanying tree trunk, which may have been removed to begin life anew as a dugout canoe.

An indigenous dug-out canoe

A Nuu-Chah-Nulth Cedar Canoe with traditional paddles. Photo credit Jeremy Koreski

Information gleaned by Europeans who passed this area in 1835 suggest that Clayoquot Sound may have been home to 2,000 people at that time. These people were dependent on the cedar for nearly every aspect of their lives: the bark was used for clothing, weaving and rope making; planks they cut from it were used for longhouses; the trunks were used for canoes and totem poles. The cedar provided warmth and shelter; it allowed cultural development through art; it provided the means to hunt and fish; it facilitated travel and trade and thus a knowledge of other cultures. The identity of the people was enormously tied to the cedar. It was a magnificent resource, one that was respected and well-used, but never “used” in a way consistent with the Western understanding of that word.

Old Man's Beard Lichen

Old man's beard lichen drapes over western hemlock tree branches. Photo credit: Jeff Mikus and Wildside Grill

My wonder at this forest never ceases when I think of it as the historical showcase that it is. Museums are hardly necessary on this coast; all that is needed are eyes to look with and time for contemplation. And what better place for contemplation?

About the author
Joanna Streetly is an author, editor and illustrator based in Tofino and currently at work on her fourth book. Look for her previous books: Silent Inlet, Paddling Through Time, and Salt in our Blood in local bookstores, or on the internet. For now, you can find her at

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