The Tree of Life

b.story 13.01.09 Tree of Life RedCedar6

Our neighborhood park has a wooded stand of towering Douglas Fir and Western Red Cedar trees.  Long ago, my children abandoned the formal play structure for racing bikes down the walking paths and playing fort within the forest of trees.  The cedar tree in particular provides a leafy canopy, protecting and hiding its inhabitants, and strong layered branches which are excellent for climbing.  The games could range from Star Wars to Pioneer Children… and they were all be supported by this ancient tree.

Recently, I had the good fortune to accompany my daughter on a class field-trip to our local history museum.  Vignettes are set up throughout the museum that feature artifacts and depict ways of life of those who came out on the Oregon Trail, those who explored the area with the Corps of Discovery and those who were some of our state’s first inhabitants.  Everybody on the tour had their own particular fascination… a collection of fourth grade boys was enthralled by a particular revolver, my daughter was interested in the various artifacts packed into the Oregon trail wagon and I, always the Architect, was intrigued by the replica cedar plank house that would have been constructed by the native people of the Pacific Northwest and in particular the notion that this structure was created without the use of any power tools (or even axes or saws!).  Instead the Salish tribe (as a for instance) would fell the tree using a system of burning grasses.  Then they would split the tree into planks by wedging an adze (which is, at its most basic sense, a sharpened piece of rock) into the trunk and splitting the cedar tree into thick planks along its straight and regular grain.  

But that was only the beginning.  The Northwest Coastal native peoples called this the ‘Tree of Life’ and every part of the Western Red Cedar tree was used for a purpose.  If not split into house planks, the trunk could be used whole and carved into a totem pole or split in half and carved out for canoes.  The bark would be peeled into long thin strips and woven into skirts, capes, dresses, mats and baskets.  Roots, limbs and small branches were also used as fishing line, rope and twine.  The tree provided shelter, clothing, medicine and even (at their roughest times) food.  There is a legend among the Salish peoples that describes how the Western Red Cedar tree began.  “There was a generous man who gave the people whatever they needed.  When the Great Spirit saw this, he declared that when the generous man died, a great redcedar tree will grow where he is buried, and that cedar will be useful to all the  people; providing its roots for baskets, bark for clothing and wood for shelter.”  

And so, questions started brewing.  Do we still rely on this tree as the Salish people once did?  The answer is a resounding yes!  However, I didn’t realize how important this single tree is to many of the things we touch every day.  Thanks to a natural preservative, found only in a mature Red Cedar tree, cedar products are naturally resistant to decay and rot and so make long lasting decking, siding, posts, windows, doors and roof shingles.  The wood is used to construct kayaks and sailboats thanks to the same rot resistance combined with its relative light weight.  The warm cinnamon, sienna tones of the wood make it desirable for use in moldings and paneling.  The tree’s aromatic oils discourage insect infestations and make the wood desirable for use in cedar chests, closet construction and building siding.  Oils found in the cedar leaf are used in perfumes, insecticides and even certain medicinal preparations.  

I have passed by the Western Red Cedar tree in our park hundreds of times.  I now see the incredible wealth found in every aspect of its structure.  It causes me to pause and reflect on the importance of using materials to their highest and best use… whether it’s split up into pieces and reconstructed as a formal outdoor structure with beams, posts and decking or left whole as a simple tree fort providing hours of imaginative play.


Thuja plicata – Western Red Cedar
An evergreen tree that can grow 150 – 200’ in height and can live up to 1,400 years!  With a narrow, pyramidal shape, the tree will spread 15 – 20’ with a 2-10 ft diameter trunk.  Native to the Pacific Northwest from SE Alaska to NW California, the tree likes to live in forested lands mixed with Douglas Firs and Western Hemlock.  The tree prefers forested swamps, moist boggy conditions and regenerating, damaged land.  Its arching pendulous branches hold flattened branchlets (or leaves) which are fan-shaped, have white, butterfly-shaped markings on the underside (stomata) and have a spicy fragrance when crushed.  The cedar tree’s bark is reddish brown, fibrous and folded into plaits (plicata) or flat, connected, vertical ridges.  Because of its size, the Western Red Cedar tree is used primarily in forested areas or as a large hedge.

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