The western redcedar (Thuja plicata) is one of the most culturally significant trees in my home province of British Columbia and throughout the Pacific Northwest. Despite its name, it is not a cedar at all but a member of the Cupressaceae, the cypress family. Western redcedar is sometimes called arborvitae, Latin for “tree of life” – an appropriate epithet for a tree that shaped the lives of the native peoples of this region.
Arborvitae has been used by people of the Pacific Northwest coast for thousands of years, and of all the plant species in the region, western redcedar was used the most and for the greatest variety of purposes. The wood was used to create many essential items, including dugout canoes, dishes, furniture, ceremonial items, and tools. Thin branches (withes) were used for weaving rope and baskets, the roots were used to make baskets, nets, hats, and mats, and the soft, fibrous inner bark was used for baskets, clothing, blankets, and even diapers. The tree was also used medicinally, with the buds, leaves, inner bark, or seeds boiled as a tea.
Western redcedar would have been ubiquitous in the lives of the people of the region, and the people treated these trees with great respect and honour. Prior to European contact and the availability of iron tools, cutting down a tree would have been an arduous task that required much time and effort. Fallen logs were used when possible and, if a tree needed to be cut, the people would pray to the spirit of the tree to ensure that it would fall the right way – probably in a way that would not injure any of the fallers or cause too much damage to the forest understory. Harvesting the bark – which was the task of the women whereas felling the tree and splitting boards was the task of the men – was also an occasion to show respect. Harvesters were careful not to take too much bark from any one tree so as to cause as little damage as possible to it.
Why was the wood of these trees so valuable? The wood contains certain chemical compounds that resist decay. Because of this, the wood is still used extensively throughout the world for building materials. Redcedar wood also splits easily, contains little pitch or resin, and burns with little smoke. And as its decay-resistant compounds are gradually broken down by fungi, the heartwood rots and creates a hollow trunk that is used by bears, bats, and cavity-nesting birds. The thick bark also provides habitat for insects, which in turn provide food for birds and other animals. Even in death, this tree nurtures future life.
And western redcedar is a long-lived species. Individuals approaching 1000 years old are not uncommon, while others may even be 2000 years old – old enough to have seen the rise and fall of entire civilizations. At their largest, these trees can reach 60 to 70 metres in height and over 6 metres in diameter, making them truly massive trees. Walking in a forest of these trees (even among the relatively smaller ones), you cannot help but feel humbled, reminded of how very small humans are.
The western redcedar is an example of how a non-human species can not only be an essential component of the natural environment, but also can be a part of the human community. For the native peoples of this region, “community” would have likely been perceived in a manner that included both humans and the more-than-human residents – the redcedar trees, ravens, salmon, whales, bears, and all of the other creatures who shared the land and water with the people. Thousands of years ago, people first started interacting with arborvitae, the tree of life, and gradually over the years they discovered that it was useful for many things – and that it had special properties (decay-resistant wood, soft fibrous inner bark, flexible roots and branches) that made it the best tree they could use. The use of this tree in turn shaped the human culture of the region. The trees were highly valued and honoured as members of the community, rather than simply being seen as “resources” to be used or plundered.
The western redcedar today reminds us of the necessity of interaction with other species. Not only are these other species a part of our communities – even when they are relegated to the role of outsiders, struggling to survive – they also enrich both our communities and our lives. They can aid us, inspire us, clothe us, feed us, teach us. If we do not respect them and approach them more as valued members of society than as objects or tools, we shall impoverish ourselves. Western redcedar is a tree that has been part of the lives of humans for millennia, but there are many trees like it in the world. While I have discussed the western redcedar in this post, there are many “trees of life”. There may even be one in your own backyard.
- Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast (also published as Plants of Coastal British Columbia) by Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon (Lone Pine, 1994) – Superb field guide to to the plants of this region, including ethnobotanical information.
- Wildlife and Trees in British Columbia by Mike Fenger, Todd Manning, John Cooper, Stewart Guy, and Peter Bradford (Lone Pine, 2006) – Useful guide for those in BC (or elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest) to the ecology of the forests and the interactions between trees and wildlife.
- Plant Technology of First Peoples of British Columbia by Nancy J. Turner (UBC Press, 1998)