In Florida, pines are the predominant trees. Specifically Slash Pine, Sand Pine and Scrub Pine in the place where I grew up. These trees have a lot of strength in what’s called ‘heartwood’. This means their centers are tougher than rot and, often, tougher than fire. You’ll see the heartwood of a fallen pine still strong and silvery years after the bark and inner layers have sunk back into the Earth. It’s prized as firewood because it burns slow and steady. While the trees grow skinny and scraggly, the heartwood bends in the winds off the Gulf shaping the trees near the shore into strange, back-bent shapes that make little hide-a-ways and branches good for sitting. Grown up in planted lines, the heartwood reaches up straight and high and hosts tuffs of needles only at the very top. Walking in planted pines as a little kid I used to think these were tall, and they are for their landscape. Now I live here and I’ve met the likes of Douglas Fir and Giant Red Cedar and it turns out I don’t know so much about tall.
These true west coast giants don’t compare to the trees back home aside from their both having bark and needles and roots. Almost nothing else is recognizable. Standing under a Sequoia is like being invited to look behind the curtain of time and remember the ghosts of the forrest as they were hundreds, even thousands of years ago. They almost breathe they are so large. Around them, the woods are often quiet. The woods are big here and animals are spread out. No packs of Blue Jays or Cardinals to cheep cheep and, if there are little birds, they flit and fly two hundred feet up above you.
The other difference is that many of the trees here aren’t supported by their heartwood, which is why you can walk into the bellies some of them. Stanley Park is famous for a photo of Victorian-era people standing on the big old shell of a tree that’s left near Prospect Point. It’s got a triangular opening, like the slit of a a tight skirt, and you can walk right into the tree’s empty innards. The heartwood dies here and rots back into the earth in piles of red sawdust gathered by the outside bark layers holding up giants.
Some of this is grandness is visible at the current sculpture exhibition at VanDusen Botanical Gardens which lasts through the end of September. The exhibit, called Touch Wood, is a collection of wood sculptures by a dozen or so B.C. artists placed in obvious and not-so-obvious places through the garden. Here where the woods are so different from the kind I know and where the trees have had such an important role in the lives of the people here, it’s really a beautiful way to get to know these trees better.
We’ve been to the Garden a few times since this exhibit opened, but the other night we arrived just in time to catch that lovely twilight hour just before they closed. Summer’s end is near, visible not only in the cooling of the air around us each evening, but also in the reduced hours many of Vancouver’s attractions are about to envoke. In these few snapshots of carvings made from big, empty trees taken on one of the last late evenings for VanDusen this year will be one of a few different ways I’ll say farewell to another summer in a land of empty trees.