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.

10. Pacific crabapple: Roundabout

10. Pacific crabapple: Roundabout

“So, this tree here,” I said, “at 2.78 m in circumference, is about the size of the Pacific crabapple we’re looking for.” I unhooked the measuring tape from the tree’s scaly bark and let the tape wheel back into its housing. “I don’t know what type of tree this is, but let’s find a crabapple about this size.”

Jason and I were standing on a leg of the Shell Road Trail in Richmond, near the Vancouver International Airport, surrounded by patches of farmland scattered over the Fraser delta. We’d dined on waffles and the high culture of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells and Stephen King’s Different Seasons before coming out to the flats in the hopes of landing two trees: a Pacific crabapple (Malus fusca) and a black hawthorn (Crataegus douglasii).

Famed BC big-tree searcher Ralf Kelman had positioned both trees at the “south end of Shell Rd., Richmond.” Shell Road is 3.1 km long, running from River Road at the Fraser River near Mitchell Island, to Westminster Hwy. Deciding to focus our efforts on the 800 m block of Shell Road between Alderbridge Way and Westminster Hwy, we parked at the Richmond Nature Park and then walked north along the Shell Road Trail. This recreational trail runs ramrod-straight and north–south along Shell Road, between the road and a CN railroad track.

Shell Road Trail, between Alderbridge Way and Westminster Hwy, Richmond.

Shell Road Trail, between Alderbridge Way and Westminster Hwy, Richmond.

We walked up the trail along one side of Shell Road, and then along the grass on the other side, which was marked as private property. Signs in front of a forest alerted us to the risk of wildfire, and peering through the chain-link fence we could see that a section had burned.

We scoured the canopy and undergrowth, spotting fly agaric mushrooms and plenty of birches, but no crabapples and no hawthorns. 

Fly agaric mushrooms along the Shell Road Trail, Richmond.

Fly agaric mushrooms along the Shell Road Trail, Richmond.

We decided to carry along on the Shell Road Trail south of Westminster Hwy. Numerous runners, walkers, and cyclists passed us while we drifted with the measured pace and wide-ranging eyes of novice big-tree trackers.

I tend to immerse myself in solo pursuits, like organizing buttons or collecting rocks or scrapbooking. Yes, I’ve always been this popular. On this hunt, I realized that tree tracking is both more fun and safer when it’s shared. I’m a regular Aesop’s fable these days.

“Thanks for taking the tape from me when I was trying to measure the circumference of that big tree,” I said. Doing so alone usually means fumbling the pass to yourself.

“Amanda,” he said, “I will take the tape from you any day.”

We bounced identification ideas off each other, dividing up our stock of guidebooks and comparing leaves and bark in our attempt to find what Jason took to calling a “kreb-OPP-el.”  


“Doesn’t this feel like an episode of Sherlock?” I said, my voice a mixture of skepticism and excitement.

“No,” Jason said.

“What if we found a body?”

“Then it would be more like Sherlock, yes.”

This project has been compelling me to closely observe and search for clues that might lead to my quarry—fungi that grow with a certain type of conifer, for example. The boys in The Body by Stephen King, which was made into the film Stand by Me, followed a similar mode of searching for clues that would lead them to the corpse of a boy who’d been struck by a train.

In the place where we were standing, early spring rains had washed part of the embankment away, leaving a gravelly, uncertain four-foot drop-off. The railroad maintenance crews had either not yet gotten around to it in their yellow diesel-operated repair carts, or it had happened so recently it hadn’t yet been reported. At the bottom of this washout was a marshy, mucky tangle of undergrowth that smelled bad. And sticking out of a wild clockspring of blackberry brambles was a single pale white hand.
— Stephen King, The Body

Tree tracking is looking; writing is witnessing; observing closely is an antidote to the woes that betide us on all sides, which I needn’t enumerate—we’re all experiencing a clusterfuck. The poet W.S. Merwin, speaking of the “social role” of poetry, reminds us “The world is still here, and there are aspects of human life that are not purely destructive, and there is a need to pay attention to the things around us while they are still around us.”

Were there trees
where they were children
where I had not been
I asked
were there trees in those places
where my father and my mother were born
and in that time did
my father and my mother see them
and when they said yes it meant
they did not remember
What were they I asked what were they
but both my father and my mother
said they never knew
— from “Native Trees” by W.S. Merwin

After wandering for two hours along the trail south of Westminster Hwy, we headed north on Shell Road for one last look.  

“You know,” I said, “I think that tree we saw at the start is the biggest one around here.”

The windfall crabapples around the tree’s base were a dead giveaway. We’d missed them the first time, believing crabapples to be oh, I don’t know, more like apples? These yellow crabapples were so small—they more resembled berries, or beads, about 1 cm long. According to the Vancouver Tree Book, the Pacific crabapple is “our only native apple tree”; all other species are imported. Indigenous peoples on the coast have long eaten the fruit, used the bark for medicine, and made the wood into tools. The tree is commonly found near bodies of freshwater.

As seems to be common, this huge Pacific crabapple was next to another of similar proportions—without taking careful measurements, I’m not sure which is the biggest. But by golly, they’re both huge. And of course, once we found the biggest, we started to find smaller crabapples all along the trail.

Pacific crabapples!

Pacific crabapples!

A tree hunter and her quarry.

A tree hunter and her quarry.

How we found the Pacific crabapple…by finding crabapples in the undergrowth (you can see them here in the leaves at the base of the trunk).

How we found the Pacific crabapple…by finding crabapples in the undergrowth (you can see them here in the leaves at the base of the trunk).

Ignoring CN’s signs to stay off the train tracks, we walked down the railroad beside the trail in case we could spot a black hawthorn from that side. But after we’d checked out yet another lead that ended cold, our grumbling stomachs declared our hunt over.

Upon inspecting Google Maps today, I see that the Shell Road Trail that runs south of Westminster Hwy connects to two other branches of Shell Road. Behold, the confusion of Shell Road. We were at the southern end of the most northerly part of Shell Road. Perhaps the black hawthorn in question is at the south end of the “other” Shell Road, or even the “other other” south end, the “southest.” While I’m endlessly grateful to the BC Big Tree Registry for recording the details of these Champion trees and thus making my project possible, sometimes the lack of clear directions is discouraging, as I’m usually short on time.

We’re all short on time. In a sobering essay that does the math on our mortality, “Your Real Biological Clock Is You’re Going to Die,” Tom Scocca writes, “The clock is running, only it’s not a clock: It’s a sandglass…. This world devours every person and moves on. It does not stop moving, even as we pass through the middle of life telling ourselves it is the front end.”

While we plan and prepare, we’re actually counting down rather than building up reserves of time. As with a project, a weekend, a relationship—we have less time than we think. I am aunt to six beloved niblings, but have no desire to have biological children. I’m doing a great job of keeping my cat alive, though I seem less committed to the welfare of my houseplants (apologies to my succulents). I take some comfort—however morbid—in the belief that, for the most part, these Champion trees will outlive me. On the days when I’m feeling the strain of paying bills, seeing friends, chatting with family, moving the muscles, and cranking out these essays, I imagine the stillness surrounding a moss-covered, 700-year-old western red cedar—there long before me, and hopefully long after—and breathe a little easier.

In short, I hope.

W.S. Merwin says trees are “everything. They’re a kind of life that is incredibly ancient…. All you have to do is just pay a little attention to them and you can be learning from them all the time. You should be feeling a great pleasure in being alive…. There’s so much about it that we don’t understand and we don’t have to understand it. It’s not about understanding. It’s about our one life, our one and only life.”

Some lit theirs at both ends.
Some clutched theirs as a blind man does his cane.
Some sucked theirs like the only orange.
Some packed clean shirts and a few socks in theirs.
Some spent their lives looking for theirs and they
were wearing it all the time.
Some neglected theirs but the roots found a way.
Some buried theirs. The stones tell when and where.
— “Despair” by W.S. Merwin

Parents have always worried for their children’s future, and the future has always been impossible to predict. But such is our condition these days that to write about nature is, at least in part, to reflect on our current and impending loss. While we plot forward in our lives, we’re measuring the natural world via a countdown to extinction. By 2030, how much biodiversity will be left; how many more acres of the 10% old-growth forest left on Vancouver Island will have been cleared; and will the polar ice caps exist at all?

I’ve written before that my quest to find all forty-three Champion trees feels like a secular pilgrimage to find relics of an older world that exists amidst this one. How did this Pacific crabapple have the opportunity to grow to 12 m high in this area of dense development, beside a railroad track? Why might others of a similar size be cut down and this one spared? I feel less uncertain that my life will end before I find these trees, and more worry that these huge trees will be cleared before then—to make way for residential or business developments, for ill-advised resource extraction, or simply because someone didn’t like them.

In short, I fear. 

We had a treehouse in a big elm which overhung a vacant lot in Castle Rock. There’s a moving company on that lot today, and the elm is gone. Progress.
— Stephen King, The Body

Elizabeth Kolbert, who has long covered the climate change beat for the New Yorker, recently commented on what it means to write about nature in a diminished environment. “Such is the world we’ve created—a world of wounds—that loss is, almost invariably, the nature writer’s subject. The question is how we relate to that loss. Is the glass ninety-five per cent empty or is it five per cent full?”

It’s hard to come to terms with my writing when the world is on fire and here I am, obsessing over a handful of paper
— Ocean Vuong

As part of their latest multimedia project Anthropocene, Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas De Pencier, and Edward Burtynsky refer to the “old-style, resource-based mindset in BC—or, at least, a cynical short-sightedness.”

It’s this short-sightedness that both explains our march to oblivion and offers our path to salvation—we think we have all the time in the world; we believe our days are numbered. But even in the wake of the latest IPCC report, Rebecca Solnit takes a hopeful approach: “Knowing that we don’t know isn’t grounds for confidence, but it is fuel against despair, which is a form of certainty. This future is as uncertain as it’s ever been.”

Pacific crabapple canopy.

Pacific crabapple canopy.

Having children, preserving crabapples, investing in an RRSP, and betting on finding these trees is a skewer in the side of death and environmental catastrophe. Taking action on climate change doesn’t necessarily shift the future as much as it improves the present, offering us the chance to respond ethically to the greatest crisis we collectively face.

The more you know about climate change and the numbers involved and the scale involved of what we need to do to really mitigate this problem, you know that we’re moving in absolutely the wrong direction. It’s not like we’re moving slowly, we’re moving in the wrong direction. It’s very hard to say anything I write is going to turn this battleship around.
— Elizabeth Kolbert, interviewed on the Longform podcast

 We predict the effects of climate change partially through modelling and feedback loops. In many ways, the latest dooming report brings us back to where we started—to the “most”: the greatest amount of carbon, the highest allowable threshold, the worst despair, the grandest hope. We believe we’re moving from a place of biggest, and simply go roundabout to our benchmarks; we create a self-perpetuating loop.

I know myself. And I know that the Pacific crabapple and black hawthorn will be especially beautiful when they flower in May and June.

Two large Pacific crabapples at the corner of Shell Road and Alderbridge Way in Richmond. Big trees often grow together. Which one is the biggest?

Two large Pacific crabapples at the corner of Shell Road and Alderbridge Way in Richmond. Big trees often grow together. Which one is the biggest?

we know that life is not linear, but rather a loop, where, in beginning we begin to end and in ending we begin to begin again—as a thing named but not found.
— Devin Gael Kelly, http://themapisnot.com/issue-ix-devin-gael-kelly

Pacific crabapple (Malus fusca), corner of Shell Road and Alderbridge Way in Richmond, BC, unceded territories of the Musqueam, Tsawwassen, and Kwantlen peoples

11. Tamarack: Unpredictable conditions

11. Tamarack: Unpredictable conditions

9. Vine maple: Double down

9. Vine maple: Double down