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Talking trees

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"You can't see the forest for the trees" is a popular euphemism for missing the bigger picture when you're too distracted by detail. In the literal sense, however, most of us have the opposite problem when it comes to the details of our Pacific Northwest forests. Some trees communicate with each other underground in very specific ways, often through fungal intermediaries. Other species host a specific range of birds, insects, fungi and epiphytic plants in life, then shift over to host an entirely different suite in death. Forest animals differentiate trees for various uses, whether rubbing, grazing or homesteading. The land's original human occupants also know what's what. Through observation and experience, First Nations people have archived their hard-won experience for thousands of years, knowledge that might help the rest of us see how a forest isn't just a bunch of trees.

That's the idea behind a much-anticipated addition to the Sea to Sky Gondola's already abundant offerings. "This is the missing piece of the puzzle," says general manager Kirby Brown to a small group participating in a preview of the new Talking Trees Walking Tour. "We're not only honoured to be within the unceded territory of the Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations, but to be able to share their rich cultural history through a new partnership with Talaysay Tours."

Each day at noon a First Nations guide will lead an hour-and-a-half stroll along the 1.6-kilometre Panorama Trail, discussing cultural uses of trees and plants harvested by the Skwxu7mesh Uxwumixw people for food, technology and medicine.

"We're extremely excited to share how our people thrived on this land... how the gifts of the forest and the ocean were used, in combination, to sustain our people for thousands of years," says Candace Campo, owner of Talaysay.

Campo, of Coast Salish heritage, leads our group, resplendent in a perfectly crafted cedar-bark headband adorned with a cedar rose, a symbol of beauty. She is accompanied by Iris Lewis, a member of the Squamish Nation, who sports a woven cedar hat gifted by her mother.

First stop is a smallish western red cedar, whose Salish names —"Long Life Giver" and "Mother"— signify a cradle-to-grave reliance on the tree that sees the fashioning of grand longhouses, rot-resistant canoes, durable clothing, watertight baskets, cordage, fish traps, tools, art, and medicine (it's highly anti-microbial). Prized for durability, flexibility and water resistance, we learn, cedar bark is peeled from straight-trunked trees in strips that can be many metres long. Carefully separated into layers, softer fibres are used for clothing, mats, and other textiles. Protocols for correct harvest methodology, seasonal gathering, and honoring the tree are still practiced.  

Where red cedar thrives in coastal lowlands, its cousin yellow cedar prefers higher elevations. Here at 885 metres, however, the cusp between lowland and alpine forest, both are found. Yellow cedar is used in many of the same ways as red cedar, but its tougher inner bark is sought for specific types of baskets and clothing, and the denser, stronger, lighter, more fine-grained wood lends itself to the carving of masks, totems, bowls and canoe paddles. 

"We use materials but keep the tree alive," notes Lewis. "You take a root or two for basket-making, then move on to the next tree. To live sustainably you need a huge territory. You always pull bark from the least sun-exposed sides, and strip upward, to keep water from running into the cut. We'd take the outer bark off, roll it up and leave it in the forest for a year to soften."

The next tree Campo stops at is from the lodgepole pine family. "The sap was used for sealing canoes, as well as treating bronchitis or sinus infections. Western white pine is also aromatic and used for cleaning and disinfecting," she says, pointing to a nearby arbour. "Interior peoples carved white pine because it's so dry there, but because of the potential for wood rot on the coast, we carved cedar."

We learn that the storied Douglas fir is one of the harder softwoods, a source of energy known as "the fire tree" whose wood is also used for spears and harpoons. A rotten stump offers opportunity to hear about potlaches and how red paint was made from decaying wood to anoint body parts as reminders to walk and talk and listen in good ways during the celebrations.

At a rock balcony, Campo has us pause to admire the scenery before dishing on how alpine areas were important for travel and trade by runners, as well as for training medicine people. A wetland inspires tales of how frogs — represented on totems for their wisdom — are environmental messengers that cued people when to start winter or spring rituals. Skunk cabbage was used for pit cooking and the wrapping of butchered game for distribution. Campo saves the best for last, marrying misty past to hyperdrive present.

"When hemlock blooms, the new needles make a tasty tea," she allows. "But we also put the branches in water to collect the eggs of spawning herring. Herring eggs are a real prize. You know when a First Nations person has herring eggs — it's all over Facebook."

Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.

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