Since I was a teenager, I’ve had the instinct to hug trees. I was conscious of “tree-hugger” as a derogative term for environmentalists, and while this made the act feel slightly subversive, more than anything, the urge was (and is) instinctual.
I’m not from here. I’ve lived here for the past four years, but I’ve spent my life in arid climates with fairly scrawny trees: honey locusts, ponderosas, blue spruce, aspen. You can imagine, then, that when I moved to Vancouver, I found myself wanting to hug what was to my mind an unfathomable amount of thick-trunked trees that my arms cannot entirely encircle.
A few years ago, while staying with my parents in Colorado for Christmas, a scene on TV showed a coastal forest with mature cedars. Tears formed before I knew what was happening.
I was homesick for cedars.
The Western redcedar (Thuja plicata) thrives in climates that receive 890-6600 mm of rainfall per year. Native to North America, they are found mainly on the northern Pacific coast. Some are over 1,000 years old.
The tree is evergreen, intolerant of frost, and the leaves interlock in a texture resembling scales or shingles, forming a pattern of “fan-like sprays.” I find the leaves reminiscent somehow of my grandmother’s thick, ’70s lace curtains.
For such sturdy trees, there is something delicate about these feathered leaves. The Latin word “plicata” means “folded in plaits.” While the branches swoop up, the leaves hang down, like fringe on a flapper dress. The leaves smell especially fragrant in the rain.
The bark is rough and grows in grey, vertical strips. Coastal first nations would carefully strip a section of the bark, soak it, and wear it.
Thuja plicata is not to be confused with Cedrus, the genus found in the Mediterranean and Himalayas. Our cedar is more truly a cypress. Still, I know the cedar is referred to in the Bible. I flip to my concordance at the back of my weather-beaten grey leather ESV. No entry for cedars. I pull out my Baker Compact Bible Dictionary. No entry for cedars. So I looked up “tree” instead. For such a central image, surely there must be something. In each book, I only found three verses under “Tree.” I am grateful for editors and the bleary-eyed compilers and proofreaders of a good index, but this omission troubles me and piques my curiosity. I type “cedar” into BibleGateway, again using the ESV, and find 71 results. Why are 71 results not deemed sufficient reason for inclusion in the concordance or Bible dictionary?
As a Regent student, my bus ride from my Dunbar home to UBC’s campus went through Pacific Spirit Park. I stared out the window, watched mists, rain, or sunlight settle on those ancient, delicate sprays. In a particularly hard season, I felt consolation in their presence.
The Western red cedar is spiritually and practically significant to the coastal first nations. It is called “the tree of life.” A friend tells me that coastal tribes advise anyone with negative energy to come under a cedar tree, bury what troubles you beneath it.
I’m not alone in finding consolation in their presence. There is a long history here. The Old Testament refers to both cedar and cypress as indicative of strength and wealth befitting a king or material fitting for the temple.
Twilight at Memorial Park, I hug a cedar. My arms can only embrace about half its girth. The bark is rough and sticks to my sweater. I’m not a teenager, I’m not a Regent student anymore. It’s a bit silly, I know, but at the same time, it seems an expression of something already happening, of some interaction between the quiet, patient strength of the cedar and a limbed human recognizing that she’s received a gift. What else is there to do?
by Jolene Nolte, friend of A Rocha and freelance writer residing in Vancouver
Photo by Zack Melhus from Pexels