Burned-out book editor Amanda Lewis vowed to visit the largest specimen of each species of tree in British Columbia, learning to navigate the wilderness across the province along the way. Her debut book, Tracking Giants: Big Trees, Tiny Triumphs, and Misadventures in the Forest, documents her quest and reflects on our connections to the natural world.
As spring continued, now back to its usual soggy state, I headed to Vancouver’s jewel, Stanley Park, to encounter notable giants. This city park is 1,001 acres of forest and beaches, just west of Vancouver’s downtown core. From above, Stanley Park looks like a goose head, complete with Beaver Lake for an eye. Nina Shoroplova, in her book on the trees of Stanley Park, tells us that the park boasts 180,000 trees, both native and imported. Residents and approximately 8 million tourists every year come to traverse the quiet wooded paths and amble along the seawall, a paved pathway running shoreside. The park is a known cruising location, and underhoused people live within the forest.
Vancouverites mark their evenings by the boom of the Nine O’Clock Gun, a cannon ignited with black powder, that sits on the seawall. Bordered on the southwest by English Bay and the northeast by Burrard Inlet, Stanley Park was officially named (after the Governor General, Lord Stanley) on September 27, 1888, just over two years after the incorporation of the City of Vancouver. The founding of the park, at that time a military reserve, was one of the first orders of business for the new city. Of course, the park’s land wasn’t unoccupied before then: the area had long been home to the Coast Salish Peoples, evidenced by trails, structures, and shellfish middens.
The tallest known tree in Vancouver, a 63.6-meter Douglas-fir, lives here in the Second Chance Grove, so named because these saplings continued growing after fires in the 1880s cleared the undergrowth and opened up more light in the canopy. Despite the fires, the park retains approximately 50 percent old-growth, a few of the conifers taller than the city’s skyscrapers, and mixed in among them are some of the largest bigleaf maples in Canada. The bigleaf maple, also called the broadleaf maple, is common on the West Coast.
It was a short-enough bike ride from my apartment to Stanley Park, but I’d driven because the rain was torrential, much needed after an exceptionally dry May. I’d come to the park to find two Champions. Starting out from Third Beach near Siwash Rock, I flagged down a park ranger passing in his white truck. Unbeknownst to me until then, Stanley Park has rangers, a dream job up there with fire tower lookout or lighthouse keeper, only this way you can grab a cappuccino on your lunch break. I asked him where I could find the Hollow Tree—near that landmark, the second-largest bigleaf maple in Canada grew alongside the trail, and that runner-up would point me toward the Champion. The ranger motioned toward an intersection of trails and handed me a map, with a directive to “Try to stay dry, ya?”
The Hollow Tree is a regular stop for tours, positioned as it is in a keyhole of Stanley Park Drive, the peripheral route. This fifteen-meter-high western red-cedar stump is the widest tree in the park at just under 5.5 meters in diameter. It’s possible to guess a tree’s age based on species, diameter, and height, but rings are the best determinant of age, and you don’t need to cut down a tree to count its rings; you can use an increment borer, which drills into the tree for a small sample. But the Hollow Tree, into which you can easily walk, is a shell without rings, so best guesses put it at eight hundred to one thousand years old.
But western red-cedar’s importance to peoples on the West Coast goes much deeper than a tourist novelty or even its status as the official tree of British Columbia. Indigenous Peoples rely on the Tree of Life for everything from longhouses to dugout canoes, bentwood boxes, and masks. I appreciate this description of the lifelong role of western red-cedar, or xpey’ in Hul’q’umi’num’, shared by Dr. Luschiim Arvid Charlie: “when we were first born, we were wrapped [in cedar-bark blankets], our diapers were pounded red-cedar bark… And when we died, in the past we were put in a cedar coffin. So right from birth, everything in between, to death, cedar was important to us.” Harvested cedar lasts for years, making it valuable for shingles, fence posts, and other building materials. The bark is relatively smooth, with vertical lines looking like frequent but inexpert cuts in cardboard, and it can be stripped in one long vertical piece to be woven into baskets, hats, and clothing. Cedar trees have the remarkable ability to heal themselves from damage by growing over pulled strips or the rectangular holes made by pileated woodpeckers. Stripped-bark trees, called culturally modified trees (CMTs), are evidence of Indigenous Peoples’ interaction with the forest and are automatically protected by BC’s Heritage Conservation Act if the modification dates to before 1846 (pre-contact) and the tree grows on provincial land. Western red-cedars rot from the inside out, losing their heartwood as the outer layers live and the tree continues to grow, making them popular locations for black bear dens.
When a December 2006 windstorm leveled thousands of trees throughout Stanley Park, the Hollow Tree was left listing. The tree had previously been braced on the inside after it was damaged by Typhoon Freda in 1962. After the 2006 storm, the Vancouver Park Board and arborists assessed the damage and determined that another storm could knock it over. In early 2008, the Park Board debated whether to preserve the Hollow Tree or allow it to continue its natural demise. But a committed band of activists, engineers, historians, arborists, and one big-tree tracker—Ralf Kelman formed the Hollow Tree Conservation Society and received permission from the Park Board to temporarily support the stump with struts, cables, and buried cement blocks. After the stump was supported more permanently with an internal metal tripod, an arborist trimmed the top and a welder manufactured a custom steel cap, like a crown for a molar, impeding rot and preventing other species, mainly hemlock, from taking hold in the top.
The Hollow Tree, altered as it was by humans, is also a CMT—or, as Kelman calls it, a CMMT: culturally modified monument tree. The now-supported Hollow Tree is a marker of how we dictate a tree’s life cycle for our pleasure. In controlling trees, we tend to focus on the biggest or the smallest, like bonsai, overlooking the majority in the middle. The Hollow Tree stands out less for its size and more because it only resembles a tree. Douglas Coupland’s tribute to the Hollow Tree is an appropriate simulacrum, removed from the forest and positioned in a business district at SW Marine Drive and Cambie in south Vancouver. Called the Golden Tree, the public art installation is an exact replica of the Hollow Tree, constructed of steel, fiberglass, and resin and coated in artificial gold. The showiness of the Golden Tree, and its location between the international airport and downtown Vancouver, make it an ideal subject for performative pilgrimage and selfies.
It’s appropriate that in a city known for its trees, Vancouver’s prominent public art comments on our extractive relationship to nature. Consider two other instances of stump-inspired art within Vancouver: Trans Am Totem by Marcus Bowcott and Your Kingdom to Command by Marina Roy. Trans Am Totem, created for the 2014–2016 Vancouver Biennale and until August 2021 installed at the corner of Quebec Street and Milross Avenue, is a 33-foot-high, 25,000-pound public art piece—a vertical steel-reinforced 150-year-old cedar stump stacked with five scrap cars, ranging from the smallest Civic at the bottom to the largest Trans Am at the top. The stump has a bear claw carved into it by Xwalacktun (Rick Harry). The artwork pays homage to Indigenous poles of the Pacific Northwest as well as to BC’s logging history, while condemning our car-centric consumerist culture. Your Kingdom to Command is an installation in the financial district between the Paradox Hotel (formerly the Trump Tower) and the Shangri-La Hotel. In front of a mural featuring a large tar and bitumen triangle are two stumps: one is plain and appears dead, and the other is covered in growth, its root ball and moss skirt intact. The nurse stump is atop a fountain, which “pisses” on the bare stump. Roy sourced the naked stump from Spanish Banks; it’s one of the deciduous trees that blew over in a windstorm in August 2015. She found the nurse stump at the UBC Malcolm Knapp Research Forest in Maple Ridge, about thirty miles from the installation. In her artist’s statement, Roy highlights the capitalist nature of the artwork: the haves pissing on the have-nots, accentuated by the installation’s situation in the center of capital in Vancouver, one of the most expensive cities in the world.
Roy opted not to preserve either stump, preferring that they decay naturally, unlike the Hollow Tree. Wondering why, in a park full of living trees, the propped-up dead one is the attraction, I turned my attention to the real thing, leaving behind the supported stump and continuing down the fern-lined Rawlings Trail to find the runner-up maple. Draped in ferns and moss, with a height of 29.5 meters and a crown of 17 meters, this maple is remarkable, but I paid it hardly a second glance as I hustled past toward the Champion, located about thirty feet into the forest and ringed by slender trees. I learned another lesson: large trees tend to clump together under ideal growing conditions. Bigness is only one metric for appreciating trees, but by seeking out the Champion and focusing on it as the largest, at the expense of the runners-up, I conferred and confirmed its status.
Adapted with permission of the publisher from the book Tracking Giants: Big Trees, Tiny Triumphs, and Misadventures in the Forest, written by Amanda Lewis and published by Greystone Books in May 2023. Available wherever books are sold. Read more stories about the outdoors.