Up close and personal with one tree

By Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic, January 2016

2016: A good year for championing everything local.

A few weeks ago I experienced a close and memorable encounter with one lone tree. It wasn’t in the forest, and it wasn’t intact, but it added a whole new and indelible perspective to what I already know to be true about trees—that they have power, majesty and great value. 

My lone tree encounter actually happened in town, at the Robert Bateman Centre. The exhibit known as OneTree is a collection of 42 incredible wood creations all from the loins of a single bigleaf western maple tree. For a century or more this magnificent mother tree graced a Cowichan farm landscape, her crown an avian gathering place, her muscled arms steady under the weight of four gleeful kids gliding on swings below. 

Inevitably she grew weak and tired, her core strength faltering, her limbs becoming brittle bones that clacked like castanets in the stiff breeze. Fate would have sent her to the wood chipper were it not for a vision to harvest her bounty and parcel it out to mostly local artisans, along with instruction to let the wood be their inspiration. 

The result is pure magic. The exhibit, on until January 15, features elegantly stylized bowls with razor-thin edges, as well as more practical but equally beautiful dishes and spoons. There are guitars and flutes, and a drum, mandolin and violin, all sweet enough for the most discerning musician. There’s jewellery that whispers of the Earth. 

Furniture that’s both art and functional includes a live-edge table for 10, a gracefully curved rocking chair, exceedingly fine cabinetry and a coffee table featuring the wood silhouette of a tree inlaid in polished concrete. There are exquisite carvings of animals, including a seal pup caught sliding off a hewn log into the sea. The sea is a mirror, and the effect is stunning.

It’s hard to believe this bounty came from just one old-growth tree, and a rotting one at that. Think of the value: The pieces are all for sale and collectively expected to infuse $100,000 back into the local economy. (All but two of the artisans are from Vancouver Island and environs.)

But in this glorious cache are also disturbing truths that insist on having their say. You can’t stand here and not see the untold wealth that we’ve let slide away—the countless old-growth trees packed into containers and sold to other parts of the world as ordinary, albeit top grade, lumber. You can’t leave here and still be blind to the immeasurable loss of old-growth forests mowed down, carved up and gone forever. The quick and easy economic gain measured in board feet doesn’t come close to cancelling out the loss in ecological and intrinsic value. For those who insist on calculating everything in currency you can take to the bank, that includes a good chunk of the tourism industry perennially fed by visitors hungry for our “supernatural” beauty. 

It also includes the cost of untold environmental damage, notably the release of millions of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere when old-growth forests are taken down. A 2013 Sierra Club report calls for old-growth forests to be designated as non-renewable resources because, once cut down, they take centuries to return to their previous capacity as massive carbon storehouses.

Meanwhile, our own craftspeople and artisans struggle for work and our practical skills are dying out. It’s a story that’s been repeated for eons, in Canada beginning with the fur trade and consequent near-extinction of species a few centuries ago. 

We remain stuck in that self-destructive story: You can bet that the looming Trans-Pacific Partnership, once fully unwrapped, will orchestrate another cavalier shake-up in many of our sectors. We’ll keep sending our top grade products far away and placidly continue to shop from an imported list that includes mediocre furniture, milk, steel, the entire inventory of stuff for a buck, and so on. 

It’s a perverse economic equation that finds profit in this, but that’s what happens when large corporations get involved: Communities get bowled over and the notions of sustainability, quality and common sense get lost under the profit pile. Truly it’s a madness merry-go-round.

OneTree makes me see all this, sears it on my heart. It leaves me thinking that 2016 is a good year for pushback, for championing everything local and Canadian.  

Trudy wishes you a happy and sustainable New Year and intends to ramp her own hunt for Canadian products up another notch. OneTree runs till January 15 at the Robert Bateman Centre in Victoria. www.batemancentre.org