willowdawson_portrait.jpg

For the love of (very big) trees

Welcome to my blog documenting my visits to big trees in British Columbia and beyond. I am planning to visit 43 Champion trees in BC between June 2018 and June 2019.

9. Vine maple: Double down

9. Vine maple: Double down

In a recent episode of his marketing and culture podcast, Akimbo, Seth Godin focused on sunk costs. You’re likely familiar with these: the $240 you spent on a satin dress that is now too tight to wear and hangs in your closet; the $300 you paid twelve years ago for textbooks you haven’t since cracked and don’t intend to, but can’t bear to part with. There’s more going on here than misplaced nostalgia or hoarding—it’s the feeling that you’ve already invested the funds and need to get your money’s worth. But in the immortal words of Jack Handy, “If you ever drop your keys into a river of molten lava, let ’em go, because man, they’re gone.”

Godin applies the idea of sunk costs to work, education, and creative projects. There’s an idea in our culture that quitters are losers, but Godin indicates that “winners are the ones who quit all the time.” Instead of investing their time and resources in an array of activities and improvement that might pay off, winners focus on a few key areas and power through any eventual “dips” in those areas.

“The dip,” Godin says, “is that moment of pain when we feel like quitting.” So when you are on mile-whatever of a marathon, or crunching out your twenty-fifth squat at the gym, or in the “mushy middle” of your manuscript and think, “What’s the point?” that’s the dip in action. And a lot of people do quit at this point. Hands up. I’ll wait.

But, crucially, Godin argues that “if you see the dip in advance, if you know the dip is coming, then you can sign up for it; you can be delighted when it arrives. ‘Oh good! It’s here. That means I can get through it now.’ So we shouldn’t start a project naively believing there is no dip. What we oughta do is sniff around enough to say ‘Oh, I bet there’s a dip with a project like this one.”

When we know a dip is coming, we can “double down” on our efforts and push on through. And sometimes doubling down can mean doubling up: on big trees, and attempts to find them.

A few months into my tree-tracking project, during the lull of the summer, this project assumed a slower pace—natural in the creative process, as the initial excitement and frenzied searching for an appropriate URL wears off, and the size of the task sets in. It’s absolutely OK to take breaks—I had just returned from three weeks looking for big trees all around northwestern BC, for crying in the sink. I reminded myself that hunting trees in my small car way down logging roads wasn’t all that possible when those roads were filled with loaded logging trucks pushing 60 km/hour. But as I sat on my deck, cold beer in one hand and latest celebrity biography in the other, I worried that I was wasting the prime treehunting weeks; that my unsuccessful attempts to find certain trees had been wasted effort; that I hadn’t pushed myself hard enough.

“I have done nothing all summer but wait for myself to be myself again.”
— Georgia O’Keeffe, in a letter to Russel Vernon Hunter

“I looked for your project,” my friend Jan told me the other day, “but it seemed to have died off.” The thing is that I was out looking for trees in the summer, just not always finding them, and I didn’t believe that the attempts warranted blogging. Perfectionism dies slowly, by 1,000 precisely placed paper cuts. By not posting, I felt that I was protecting the integrity of my project, preserving it for those days when I bag a tree.

It’s so easy to believe in your own bullshit story, isn’t it?

Central Park conifers.

Central Park conifers.

On a hot day in July, I headed to Burnaby’s Central Park in search of a vine maple (Acer circinatum) measuring 1.4 m in circumference, 11 m in crown spread, and 11.9 m in height. This 90-hectare park is located in the heart of Burnaby, ringed by condo towers and adjacent to the SkyTrain—what my friend charmingly referred to as the “AirRail”—and that behemoth of consumerism, Metropolis at Metrotown.

The park was created in 1891, and its temperate rainforest—home to western red cedar, hemlock, and Douglas fir—continued to be logged throughout that decade. Remnants of springboard logging can still be seen in the large stumps in the park, many of which have become nursing stumps. So straight and dense are the trees here that in the 1860s the area was the reserve of the Royal Navy, supplying the navy with logs for spars and masts, for the defence of New Westminster and presumably other posts.

The Vosper family picnicking in Burnaby’s Central Park in the early 1900s.  Source : City of Vancouver Archives.

The Vosper family picnicking in Burnaby’s Central Park in the early 1900s. Source: City of Vancouver Archives.

Nurse stump with springboard notches from logging. Central Park, Burnaby.

Nurse stump with springboard notches from logging. Central Park, Burnaby.

The park is now mostly second-growth forest, home to numerous vine maples and other deciduous trees in addition to conifers. The vine maple is native to southwestern BC, including small parts of Vancouver Island. This variety of maple has a particularly beautiful leaf, with a wide circular “palm” and 7–9 short lobes. The “vine” designation likely originates from the appearance of its “short trunk or several branches turning and twisting from [its] base, often vinelike and leaning or sprawling” (National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to Trees—Western Region; emphasis in original).

Vine maple in autumn. What a beaut.

Vine maple in autumn. What a beaut.

The vine maple reproduces by both touching down its branches to the ground and sending up new shoots, and by sending out seeds in samaras (commonly called helicopters). When the light shines through its thin leaves, they glow with a brilliant green in spring and summer, and a yellow or red intensity in autumn. Its bark is typically smooth, and ranges from green-greyish to reddish brown.

The BC Big Tree Registry indicated that the Champion vine maple was “south of tennis courts in Central Park, Burnaby,” which are on Patterson Ave, near the Patterson SkyTrain station.

On my way to the tennis courts, a woman in slacks and a blazer called out to me. “Excuse me! Where is the party?”

A fair question, since I was treehunting in a long skirt and croptop. Assuming she was referring to the vine maple, which most assuredly is a wild party, I told her I didn’t know. Yes, I did aim to find out. I kept walking.

“I am a wild party
I am a wild party
Shakin’ like a human being”
— Kim Mitchell

It’s worth mentioning that the tennis courts are six deep and back onto the expanse of the 90-hectare park. I dutifully combed the forest along the courts, side-stepping old clothing, tennis balls, and used condoms. I found huge firs and cedars, measuring one Douglas fir at 5.3 m in circumference.

Vine maple leaves in summer. Central Park, Burnaby.

Vine maple leaves in summer. Central Park, Burnaby.

Once I’d swept the southern perimeter of the tennis courts, I wove through the rest of the local forest. I saw many vine maples, beautiful but none large enough to blog about. Though the park was filled with walkers and fitness enthusiasts, and likely police bike patrols, I was wary of going too far off the main trail. After spending two hours in the park, I packed it in for the day. On my way back to Trouble, I did find the party, and it looked nothing like a vine maple.

I am a wild party.

I am a wild party.

My copy of the Vancouver Tree Book noted that there was a large vine maple growing beside the sidewalk in front of 716 E 15th Ave. It was on the way home, so I swung by to check it out, and measured it as larger in circumference, at 2.19 m, than the Champion tree, at 1.4 m. Do we have a new winner on our hands? I’m going back this week with my tree tape, an inclinometer, and my favourite mathematician to calculate its circumference, crown spread, height, and overall tree score.

“Sometimes what you’re looking for is already there.”
— Aretha Franklin

Yesterday, in the spirit of doubling down, and with a strong desire to see vine maples flaming in autumn, I headed back to Central Park. With my direction pointed squarely south of the tennis courts, I hopped a split-rail fence and found myself in a golf course. The tightly mowed lawn was spongy, and the course smelled like sewage and saltwater. Dodging the balls of pitch-and-putters—the risks I take for you, Dear Reader—I wandered the groomed course. Golf has to be one of the most ridiculous activities ever invented, a waste of a good walk. Then again, there I was wandering the green, cup of mint tea in hand, with no yellow flags or numbers to mark my way.

Vine maples in their autumnal glory. Central Park, Burnaby.

Vine maples in their autumnal glory. Central Park, Burnaby.

I could likely learn a thing or two from golfers, who record their attempts (in strokes) as well as their wins. Artist and writer Austin Kleon implores all creatives to “show your work!” and that’s what I will be doing for the rest of this tree-tracking project: blogging about my attempts as well as my successes. I’ll go back to search again when the opportunity presents itself—I can’t expect to land all of the trees on my first try—and I’m planning trips to see more trees in the Kootenays, northeastern BC, Vancouver Island, and Haida Gwaii. Bagging trees helps maintain momentum, of course, but acknowledging that my project is less about necessarily finding the forty-three Champion trees and more about narrative and a new form of exploration is the real victory. And the blog posts themselves can be imperfect—says I, the editor.

What in the actual shit.

What in the actual shit.

I headed toward every tall shock of yellow and red I saw throughout the course. Golfers looked at me wonderingly as I passed them for the third or fourth time—there are, after all, better places to walk. I combed the course—many a maple, but no vine maples—and then hopped another fence to head back into the forest between golf course and trail.

VineMapleLeavesUnderfoot.JPG

The dappled sunlight of mid-autumn shone through the overstory, illuminating a grove of vine maples. I found two large vine maples, about 4 m apart. Their circumferences appeared to be roughly the same. One was tall, and the other had a vast crown. I’ll go back to measure them. But in the meantime, note that the afternoon sunshine filtered through their ochre leaves. The arms of their trunks gracefully twisted upward and outward. The twigs and dried leaves littering the forest floor crunched as I stepped over moss-covered logs. The air smelled less of sewage and more of fir. And the strident voice in my head quieted for a moment.

+++

Update on the vine maple at 716 E 15th Ave: I went back this week to measure the tree and confirmed it’s not a vine maple, it’s a red maple. On October 28, I contacted the Vancouver Tree Book’s author, David Tracey, for more information on the large vine maple he indicated was at that address. David wrote back and told me that I’m likely right, and an error may exist in the City of Vancouver’s open database of street trees, where he learned about the existence of the large vine maple. I’m grateful to David for telling me about this excellent street trees database!

Vine maple trunk.

Vine maple trunk.

The “other” Champion vine maple—one of two to measure, east of the golf course.

The “other” Champion vine maple—one of two to measure, east of the golf course.

Glowing vine maple. Central Park, Burnaby.

Glowing vine maple. Central Park, Burnaby.


Vine maple (Acer circinatum), Central Park, Burnaby, unceded territory of Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples

When tree tracking, have the patience of one who balances stones.

When tree tracking, have the patience of one who balances stones.

10. Pacific crabapple: Roundabout

10. Pacific crabapple: Roundabout

8. Shore pine: Don't tread on me

8. Shore pine: Don't tread on me