If a tree falls in the neighbourhood... Improving the view is just one excuse for exercising our natural aptitude with a chainsaw By G.D. Maxwell You can’t see the forest for the trees. Maybe it’s because I grew up in the desert, but that clichéd bit of wisdom has always eluded me. I don’t understand how you can’t see the forest for the trees. Aren’t the trees the forest? Isn’t the forest the trees? Separating the forest from the trees or the trees from the forest seems to me a bit like trying to separate an egg yolk from itself. But whenever I used to look out my backyard, I guess I couldn’t see the forest for the trees, literally. Couldn’t see the mountains either. Or the sky for that matter. When I moved into my ground-floor suite in Alpine some years back, pretty much all I could see was trees. The view from every window was trees. A primeval forest of dark green and black coniferous giants. A smattering of deciduous pioneers near the edge of the backyard where it slopes down hill — a steep blue run of a slope — to the forest floor below, where no light penetrates, where Vince the Cat sometimes deludes himself into thinking he’s a jungle cat, and where the occasional black bear forages for something more tasty than urban garbage. The forest growing out the back and at both sides of my house effectively obliterated the neighbours I knew were somewhere beyond the thicket. They shut out most of the road noise from Highway 99, logging trucks excepted in some bizarre twist of irony. And for most of the day, on those days we can prove, beyond supposition, there really is a sun in the sky, they shut out the sunlight. Coupled with an overhanging deck, shading my windows from the shade of the trees, an interior decorated exclusively in cedar and stone, and a lamp with an aggravating, sporadic electrical short, I often felt like a cave-dweller. If it hadn’t been for television, there may have been no light in my cave at all. Oh, there were moments of natural light, and they were magical. With my house facing east, the rising sun summited Wedge and Blackcomb and some hour or so later, summited the Douglas firs and red cedars of my private forest. Long shafts of morning yellow light poured through my windows, illuminated my patio and, on those rare days when heat accompanied light, made my morning ritual of coffee al fresco a joy of solitude and quiet contemplation. For about an hour, after which time the sun disappeared, eclipsed by the deck above. All in all, the lack of light was a small price to pay for what is, in every other sense, a perfect place to live. So it was a bit of a shock a couple of weeks ago when I stumbled into the kitchen to plug in the coffee, at an hour absurd, and found light streaming through the windows. In the caffeine-deprived synapses of my still slumbering brain, I knew something was amiss. I knew there was too much light too early. I knew I’d been awakened by the muffled whine of a chainsaw instead of the maniacal, high-pitched, synthesized screech of the often heard, but never seen, varied thrush who’d replaced an alarm clock in my life a few months ago. Perception preceded understanding and it wasn’t until the coffee had dripped and I was seated outside that enlightenment took hold. The sun was rising over the truncated stump of a burgled Douglas fir, its upper three or four metres stolen sometime since yesterday afternoon. Where broad, tapering branches had been, there was air and light and a view of Wedge, whose snowy slope was quickly giving way to patches of dark rock, compliments of the unusual spring weather. A commotion in another fir, nearer the edge of my peripheral vision, directed me to an early morning apparition. High in the uppermost branches of the tree, virtually obscured from view, was a man. A man poised on climbing spurs, roped into the trunk of the tree. A man with a chainsaw. A couple of two-cycle screams later, more limbs lay on the ground and another tree top was pinballing through the branches below it. "Can you take off the branch on the left?" a woman requested from the deck of the house next door, a woman I could hear but, because of the buffering trees, couldn’t and never have seen. Screech, crack, tumble, another large branch falls to the duff below and more light penetrates my neighbour’s deck. "How about the one next to it," she said. And so it went, for another hour. A bit more here, something off the sides, a free-form haircut taking place in real time on an unruly mop of forest. When she was happy with the view and warming in the increased rays of the sun hitting her balcony, the man in the tree rappelled to the ground, retrieved his rope, collected his tools and disappeared. It wasn’t until a few days later Paul Duncan reappeared, this time in my back yard. His cut and trim earlier in the week was part one of a two-parter. I knew the folks who own the house I live in wanted to thin the forest and recapture some of the view of the mountains they’d had 25 years ago when they built this Swiss cottage of a house, and today was the day. They’d come up from the city to direct the forest barber, this time from their deck, the one above my head. Paul, owner of Garibaldi Tree and Landscape, was dragging chainsaws, ropes, climbing spurs, safety belts, and other implements from his truck and arraying them at the edge of the yard. He’d been hired for the job and managed to turn a two-fer when the neighbours on the left — contacted by my landlady so they wouldn’t be shocked to find someone logging next door — decided to get in on the act as well. He was one neighbour short of a hat trick since the gentleman who owned the house on the other side was not in favour of having any trees removed. Of course, he already has an unobstructed view of the mountains and lots of sunshine, the result of trees removed some years ago. After we introduced ourselves, I explained I was happy to see Paul. Though we’d never met, he was clearly a professional. One of the options my landlady had been considering was having her son-in-law do the deed. Now, I’ve no doubt he may well be a very competent tree feller, but then again, maybe not. It is, after all, an element of Canadian culture that every able-bodied Canadian male can competently and quickly reduce the most stately tree in the forest to lumber in the raw. It has been my experience that you can take the most docile, un-macho, ballet-going, silk shirt wearing, urban Canadian man, give him just the briefest whiff of plaid and put a gassed-up chainsaw anywhere within his reach, and you’ll have a tree arcing through free fall as quickly as you can say Paul Bunyan. It is a cultural imperative, an article of faith. I have witnessed normally sane friends whipped into a frenzy of pulp-lust at the thought of bringing down a tree. I’ve watched bankers and salesmen bounce the same large maple off the side of their house and roof of their car. I’ve seen panicked plumbers desperately pulling on the end of a rope trying to alter the chosen line of a falling oak, an act akin to keeping an airplane from taking off by tying floss to its tail and hanging on. I’ve been present at a tender father and son bonding moment while they worked earnestly to euthanize a century old sugar maple that had become disease ridden and a threat to the rest of their sugar bush. Cutting down trees is a quintessentially Canadian act and rare are the boys who think they can’t manage it. Paul went about his work with quiet competence and a keen eye for safety. Not once did I feel I needed a hard-hat or a running get-away car. Working probably 50 feet in the air, lopping off limbs thick as body-builders’ arms, he quickly removed enough appendages of a western white pine to let it fall to the forest floor without getting snagged in a marriage of branches on the way down. When he’d descended, a quick shower of chips preceded the distinctive cracking of the last splinters of wood holding the 30-year-old tree. The muffled thud when it hit bottom was barely noticeable. Wielding his chainsaw like a samurai parrying with a lesser skilled opponent, he walked the length of the prostrate trunk, deftly removing the remaining limbs, leaving a telephone pole, or a ship’s mast or a skinny, uncarved totem pole behind. A western red cedar, wet with sap and aromatic as a whole forest, fell next. Then one Douglas fir was topped and another brought down whole. Each in turn was shaved of limbs. Up and down the coast of British Columbia, native peoples, including the ones who lived here before Whistler’s pioneers, used the white pine for medicinal purposes. A tea, brewed from the bark, was said to be good for stomach disorders, tuberculosis, rheumatism and other ailments. The cool, wet inner bark was applied locally to cuts and sores, and the tree’s pitch used for stomach aches and coughs. Gum from the white pine was chewed to enhance a woman’s fertility. Such was its strength that some thought it could cause pregnancy without intercourse. Members of the Stl’atl’imx people, among others, used sheets of its bark to make baskets and small canoes. More so even than the white pine, cedars — red and yellow — were tremendously important trees to the first residents of this part of the world, so important, they were woven into the fabric of their cultures. From cedars, coastal aboriginal people crafted shelter, clothing, fish traps, bindings, baskets, tools and transportation. Because it doesn’t rot in the damp climate of the Pacific coastal area, cedar was used to carve totem and mortuary poles, ceremonial dugout canoes, spirit whistles, fish weirs, drying racks, drum logs, a cornucopia of life’s useful and cultural items. The Kwakwaka’wakw called red cedar the "tree of life." From cradles to coffins, cedars met many of the needs of early coastal peoples. Being white men at the end of the second millennium though, we winched, bucked, split and stacked the bulk of these trees under the eaves of our house. Next winter, having chopped the rounds, we’ll burn it to create ambience on cold winter evenings. The branches too small to bother burning were chipped and Paul drove them down to the waste treatment plant where they’ll be mixed with processed people poo to create rich, fertile, biosolids to spread on lawns, gardens and silviculture sites. Such is progress. While I adjusted to the increased light and view being afforded by his efforts, Paul dug his spurs into a Douglas fir probably 80 feet high and climbed his way to near the top, limbing as he went. When the trunk was in the shape he wanted and the top had been removed, he descended and after careful consideration of obstacles in the path of various drop angles, brought the giant of the day down exactly where he planned. The tree fell in the forest and this time, made a very loud noise to prove it. Clambering down the slope, I couldn’t help myself. Like a passerby drawn to the carnage of a car wreck, I had to count its rings. The tree and I were the same age, both born in 1951. Thinking about burning some of its wood next winter, I wondered if I would feel for it something like the kinship I experienced drinking a 30 year old bottle of scotch on my 30th birthday. Probably not. Down on the forest floor, Paul’s handiwork was already apparent. What had always been a dark, wet, uninviting place was now bathed in light. The canopy above, although only reduced by a handful of trees, was remarkably open to the sky. Younger trees, pacific yews, western hemlock, a black cottonwood and some mountain ash, as well as other firs and cedars, were experiencing direct sunlight for possibly the first time in their lives. Now it was their turn to grow and broaden and begin the cycle again of creating a dense forest and slowly, imperceptibly, cutting off the light to whomever will be living in my house 20 or 30 years from now. When he finally stopped for lunch, the bulk of the day’s trees lying on the ground, their limbs chipped to mulch, Paul spoke about his work. We had to speak over the din of Doug the Squirrel giving all within earshot hell for cutting down various of his homes and food stashes. Paul explained that he’d established Garibaldi in 1995 and operated it part time while still working for the Muni’s Parks Department. Now devoting full time to the business, most of what he does is what he’d spent the morning doing, residential tree work, removal and trimming. The work is as varied as cutting and topping, to consulting and, occasionally, fetching cats stuck in tall trees. "Most of what I do is view work," he said. "Restoring views of the mountains in some of Whistler’s older neighbourhoods and cutting views where none ever existed." A certified arborist with a diploma in horticulture, he often dances a fine line between what’s best for the trees and what his clients want. "Topping a tree isn’t the best thing you can do for it," he explained. "The ISA — International Society of Arborculture — doesn’t promote topping and actively discourages it. On the other hand, it’s usually the first route people want to take and sometimes I can’t talk them out of it. Lots of times, I’ll start out topping a tree and take a little more off and a little more after that, then finally, with a little convincing, get them to just take the whole tree out. But they’re the ones paying the bill, so ultimately, they call the shot." Probably the best non-professional argument for not topping trees to regain a view is that the result looks both hideous and ridiculous at the same time. The symmetrical poetry of a tree is destroyed when it is topped. Topped trees are the visual equivalent of a good mystery novel someone’s ripped the ending out of. If for no reason other than aesthetics, trees shouldn’t be topped. The professional arguments for not topping have more to do with weakening the "structure" of the tree, introducing an open wound prone to disease, and stimulating weakly attached growth that can cause further damage or require additional maintenance. On the plus side, Paul said, searching for a plus side, "It can make a tree more wind firm and the rotting-over top can be good habitat for woodpeckers." I think he was reaching on that one. But like he says, it’s a lot of people’s first choice. Regaining a view and opening your house to sunlight may not be the best reason to cast a critical eye to trees on your property though. Especially in Whistler’s older neighbourhoods where 20 and 30 years have passed since people built their cabins, dense stands of trees up tight against houses are an unnecessary fire hazard. Heading into what is shaping up to be an El Niño driven, hot, dry summer, Alberta and Ontario are already ablaze. Wildfires have arrived early in both of those provinces and have burned out of control and close enough to populated areas to force evacuations. Somehow, the idea of wildfires anywhere near Whistler is hard to imagine. In a place where campers usually have difficulty finding anything dry enough to burn — short of an old Whistler Question — the idea of trees burning in the absence of a gasoline bath is uncommon. But that’s why it might pay to take a quick look around your property, especially if this summer turns out to be the hot, dry summer of your dreams. Given the most common varieties of trees growing in this area have highly flammable foliage and many species, like the mountain hemlock, have very low resistance to fire, a fire starting small wouldn’t need much encouragement to become big, fast. The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and the Ministry of Forests have joined together to produce a community planning manual, Working Towards a Fire Safe Community, that spells out a couple of easy steps a homeowner can take to reduce the possibility of and danger from fire. Some of the recommendations — removing debris, wood piles for example, from near your house — sound backbreaking and onerous. Some of the recommendations though, are the kind of thing any red-blooded Canadian boy with a chainsaw might use as an excuse to create a little mayhem and exercise his natural-born heritage. First and foremost would be removing any trees growing within 30 metres of your house. There are two problems with this recommendation however. First, removing trees within 30 metres of houses would effectively remove all trees between houses in this town. Second, removing trees near houses is probably a job you shouldn’t be doing. Call Paul for that part. But thinning standing trees, clearing out understory growth — the trees and shrubs growing below the big trees’ canopy — and pruning branches growing within about 2.5 metres of the ground, can provide a measure of safety and give a boy all the slash and burn kicks he can handle before his muscles seize up. Each of these actions remove fuel from any fire that may get started and the latter two get rid of fuel along the ground that could give a fire enough strength to climb or "ladder" into the resin-rich crowns of big conifers. Who knows, pruning low lying branches and clearing undergrowth may be enough to satisfy the "I’m a Lumberjack and I’m okay" urge we all have, north of the border. Then again, where there’s chainsaws, trees and hardy Canadian guys — okay, and a Kokanee for good measure — there’s gonna be sawdust sooner or later. Before you get too deep into the destruction though, be aware of a Muni bylaw known as the Rural Area Tree Protection Bylaw. It’s as incomprehensible a bit of mumbo-jumbo as any piece of legal work put together by people who believe language is best used to confuse, not enlighten, but it covers what and where you can and can’t cut in Whistler. Don’t bother reading it, just call Parks to figure out whether what you’re doing is okay. Fire danger or not, Paul’s handiwork in my back yard has created a new sense of place. A spindly pacific yew and a medium size Douglas fir, formerly dwarfed and shaded by the one now lying on the forest floor, are growing in the sunshine. Even from the ground floor, views of the mountains, though not unobstructed, exist where none did before. Morning light arrives earlier and stays later and has made having coffee in the sun a more drawn-out, leisurely affair. Small ash trees, a Rocky Mountain maple, and the ubiquitous fireweed growing at the edge of my lawn seem to be thriving in their prolonged exposure to sunlight. After a few days adjustment, I don’t miss the trees removed. But sometimes, I can still hear them falling.