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Trees

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.

The Scent of Fall

b.story 12.11.10 FallScent_Katsura_leaf1
The house is filled with the scent of burbling beef stew (my personal favorite is Ina Garten’s Beef Bourguignon) and roasting squash.   Outside, the day is crisp and cold and our breath hangs in the air for just a minute before wisping away.  The freshness of the morning gives way to the musk of…

Patience

b.story 12.04.26 Patience Tulip Magnolia
They tell me that with patience comes rewards.  Be they to your spirit, your treasure or your community.  Or to your garden.  However, I don’t tend to be the patient sort.  When I work I want to see progress made.  If it’s not immediate then I would like it to be at least incremental.  At the…

Anticipation

b.story 12.02.08 Magnolia Tree
My son started developing his Christmas list in July.  Now, I realize to some, this might sound like a greedy enterprise.  However, for my six year old boy, the Christmas list becomes a fine-tuned art.  It might seem a stretch, but drafting the list is viewed as an opportunity to practice hand-writing and spelling, two…

Winter Blooms

b.story 12.01.30 Witch Hazel Tree
Those of us from the Pacific NW seem to be obsessed with our weather.  Furthermore, we are a fickle bunch.  Perhaps it is similar where you live?  Last year, after an unusually wet summer, we spent much of our winter complaining about the incessant grey drizzle.  This year it was different.  A playground chat actually…

The Hills are Alive with Color

b.story 11.11.17 maples5
From my shower, through a small window, I look out at a stand of trees. Gazing out, I plan my dinner menu, solve the design challenge that has me stumped, or daydream about white sand and sunny skies. It is a tiny peephole view where I watch the change in light and weather brought by…

Hidden Surprises

b.story 11.11.10 surprises
Have you ever walked by a corner, seemingly a million times before, and suddenly something catches your eye?  It could be something your eyes passed over many times before, but that something causes you to pause and really see it for the first time.  Perhaps it is a new bloom, creating a colorful spot along the path.  Perhaps…

Flowers Big and Small

b.story 11.06.10 rhododendron
I love plants. Anyone who knows me will not be surprised by that statement. I love their expression of the seasons. I love how they can repair our environment. The rainbow of flowers I can plant in my garden gives me endless amounts of joy. And I love that my plants can surprise me. Throughout…

A Special Place

b.story 11.05.17 home maple tree
We lost a couple members of the family this week. Or what feels like a couple members. One I will be happy to see go. I will mourn the loss of the other two. Three of our six 80-year-old trees that border the sidewalk have reached the end of their lifespan and need to be…

Stewardship

b.story 10.12.16 douglas fir christmas tree
The Christmas tree is up. It sparkles with its twinkly lights and a lifetime of special ornaments. Ours is not a tree of complementing colors and shapes, but is, instead, a hodge-podge of treasures collected over the years. The decorations are as likely to be cut paper as they are to be cut glass. Kids…