The Importance of a Big Dead Tree

FINDING COMMON GROUND

“At the heart of each of us, whatever our imperfections, there exists a silent pulse of perfect rhythm, which is absolutely individual and unique, and yet which connects us to everything else.”                 George Leonard (1923-2010)

Long before Lord Stanley gave Canada the world’s most famous sporting trophy (yes, the Stanley Cup is Canadian) or presented the then young frontier town of Vancouver with the 1,000 acres that we now know as Stanley Park – a solitary western red cedar tree or Thuja plicata had been growing in the local forest for about 600 years. Somewhere down the line it was struck by lightning, which severely damaged the tree and eventually caused a huge cavity to emerge at the base –  a chasm wide enough to back a car into. And as soon as the park opened in 1888, they started coming… hordes of people in horse-drawn wagons and sleighs, all looking to have their photographs taken with Stanley Park’s hollow tree. They would be followed by many more, using ever-changing modes of transportation – such as bicycles, buses, automobiles and even on one occasion, a circus elephant – all looking to immortalize themselves in photographic print with this half-dead titan. The decay would eventually cause structural damage and in the 1930’s the tree was topped in order to reduce wind resistance. By 1965, iron braces were added for support but that didn’t stop the voyeuristic public from dropping by to take a quick snapshot with this Vancouver landmark. Then in 2006, the windstorm of the century devastated Stanley Park, destroying vast tracts of forest and leaving the hollow tree (or by then, the 40′ tall stump) leaning at a precarious 12 degree tilt. It was then that the city became concerned about the stump’s structural integrity and the subsequent liability should an accident occur (trust the insurance guys to put a damper on time-honoured tradition). To make a long story short, public outrage and private funds saved and restored all 58 feet (the circumference) of the old cedar. But then again, it only seems appropriate –  as the park’s board was little more than a token custodian, and it was the love of the people that transformed this big dead tree into a urban icon. The hollow stump at Stanley Park has stood for over 700 years now – through world wars, great depression, the birth of rock & roll and significant societal changes – it has always been there for us. The shell of what was once an ancient tree has become our common ground, a touchstone of humanity where generations of peoples came together for the briefest of moments, but long enough to remember and be remembered.

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