Trees as Storytellers
by Marlie Belle Somers
he thought of talking trees conjures up images of the fantastical. Tolkien’s ents patrol the forest, Baum’s forest of fighting trees throws apples at Dorothy, and Marvel’s Groot guards the galaxy. Or, perhaps, we think of those who speak for the trees that cannot speak for themselves: Dr. Seuss’s Lorax, or the dryads of ancient mythology. But I would argue that all trees have a lot to say, if we are willing to listen.
Like all great storytellers, trees have an impressive hook. Each species, a different author, has different tales to tell. Throughout time, some people have listened to those stories, and translated them to a language we can understand. And trees also give us the stories the trees may not even know they are telling, the way a worn and coffee-stained paperback can tell of a voracious and messy reader. Students, lovers of stories oral, written, and visual, can learn from these giants of the forest.
IslandWood, a residential environmental education school on Bainbridge Island, Washington, markets itself to students as “a school in the woods.” On its surface, this imparts expectations of students while on campus. It is not camp, but a school, with all the implications of learning. But what about the second part? The woods as a term indicate the outdoor status of some classrooms, but also plants the idea very early on of the ubiquity of trees. Wood comes from trees, and woods come from trees. This school is where we learn among the trees. Students should be aware of that upfront.
These trees have a long story to tell our students, and the students are ready to listen. When the glaciers retreated from the Puget Sound area 10,000-12,000 years ago, in moved trees from present-day California. The seeds following the glacier’s retreat met an incredibly moist environment that was perfect for the establishment of gargantuan specimens. Even students with individuals of these giants near their school are unlikely to see them in such abundance, or in such a relatively untamed state, covered in moss and lichen.
Students’ chatter while clambering from buses onto IslandWood property is a good clue in to what familiarity they may have with the woods. Students will disembark the bus and are unable to tear their eyes away from the treetops. Audible oohs and ahhs promise for a week of wonder and exploration. Recently, a student walked through the arrival shelter and turned to a friend to say, “so I guess this is what the woods are.” The trees are our ambassadors to these students, and the story they tell is one of upwards growth.
At IslandWood, we teach of the “Big Five:” western red cedar, red alder, western hemlock, bigleaf maple, and Douglas-fir.
The western red cedar is a favorite of many students. On species reference cards, some of the cultural uses are listed: canoe building and basket weaving feature prominently. This already provides a unique connection to place; on their website, the Suquamish tribe introduce themselves as “expert fisherman, canoe builders and basket weavers” (Suquamish Tribe, 2015). This is the identity they first relay to visitors, and one that many students have already been introduced to. To say “this is what the Suquamish used to make canoes and baskets” taps immediately into their understanding of native traditions.
The idea that people tended this land for livelihood before European settlers arrived is abstract for many students. While they may be taught the names of local tribes and heard some of the stories, touching a tree that contributed so heavily to their way of life provides a new experience. I taught a student that the Suquamish use the cedar bark for making clothing, and then heard them explain to a classmate that you can tell the bark is good for weaving because of the way it is stringy and long. The instructor provides one piece of information, and the student is able to gain a deeper understanding from interactions with the tree. The tree is telling the story of its cultural history by making itself so accessible to our young explorers.
A trend that students visiting IslandWood are quick to notice is that many of the red cedars are turning brown and losing leaves. This does not match well with what they have been taught about the definition of evergreen, and they struggle to reconcile reality and the trees. An investigation into why some red cedars are dying and others aren’t will lead students to the reality of climate change. The trees, so long-lived, cannot adapt the same way that other species can. When confronted with this reality, student groups come up with creative solutions, many offering to water the trees with their own drinking water. The trees, for those who listen, are sending out a plea and tell the story of human excess.
The red cedar also introduces students to the concept of sustainability and giving. Just as a dining hall might teach students to not waste food, the trees can show that wasting other resources is avoidable too. The roots, outer bark, inner bark, needles, and branches of trees all serve varied purposes, ensuring that none is discarded. The characteristic swooping lower branches of the tree, which resemble arms outstretched, relate to tradition. One Coast Salish tradition tells of the appearance of cedar tree at the spot when an incredibly selfless man died. IslandWood’s Great Hall has a cedar statue of Upper Skagit woman Vi Hilbert. The arms of the statue are similarly outstretched in welcome to those who enter the space for learning. The tree that gives its whole self to the people who need it sits with its branches outstretched as a welcome for more users.
When students learn the red cedar and later point it out on the trail, the swooping branches are most often cited as their point of identification. When asked what those branches remind them of, the first answer might be “the letter J,” but given some time, students arms will go out in an open gesture to mimic the tree. “It’s the tree of life,” they say, feeling connected to the history of that species.
The Douglas-fir tree, a mainstay of this ecosystem, is another favorite of students. While learning about the tree, students inevitably discover a cone on the ground, and pick it up, many questions having sprung forth in their minds. As trees that can grow over 300 feet tall with few lower branches, the opportunity to have a proxy for what goes on above our heads is incredible. The cones are unique to this tree, and tell a great story.
The cones have a two-tone property, as the seeds protrude beyond the scales of the cone. Tradition would tell that those lighter colored pieces are from a great fire that ravaged the land millennia ago. As the fire raged, animals fled, and the mouse ran to seek shelter. Unfortunately for the mouse, every tree it asked for help was worried for its own survival, unable to help the forest friend. When the mouse came upon the Douglas-fir, it opened up its cones and instructed entry; its lower branches would be above the heat of the fire, and its thick bark would protect it from the heat. The mouse and tree survived the fire, and the cones show a vestige of that encounter, as there appear to be little legs and a tail sticking out from every cone.
After hearing this story, students become experts on Douglas-fir identification. If their eyes are cast downwards, looking for signs of life on the trail, they see the cones and are reminded of the story they learned. If they are up, facing ahead and all around, they will see the thick bark that protected the tree. The stories reflect the nature again, and tree identification by means other than leaf recognition starts to be a possibility for students.
IslandWood property, once seized from the Suquamish, was the site of a major logging operation. Students see many trees and marvel at their size and age, but a hike to the harbor tells a different story of these trees. The trees that they have become familiar with are members of species that may live over one thousand years, but this space in particular is a reflection of its past. Blakely Harbor is the former site of what was “the largest, highest-producing sawmill in the world” (Bainbridge Historical Museum, n.d.).
The site at the harbor is unmistakably the vestiges of a former factory of some sort. Some students come in aware of the logging history of the area, and they are reminded of that history by the remnant logs that stick upright out of the harbor, former supports for the mill infrastructure. Some students surmise that the wood, decaying, waterlogged, and now home to aquatic plants, are a forest that has been cut down. When presented with the uniformity of the timber, especially as compared to the forests at main campus, they are eventually reminded of some man-made structures, and then the history of the logging operation can be explored.
To many of these students, IslandWood is the pinnacle of wild. Yet this adventure shows the proclivity of some humans to extract natural resources past their sustainable harvest. The trees that remind the students to be sustainable and giving are the same species that were extracted, sent into the mill and out to be shipped to other parts of the country and the world for human consumption. The Douglas-firs that protected the mice from the fire were cut down and extracted, providing little habitat for any animals.
The average age of street trees in Seattle is 3 years (Brinkley, 2018). Students may understand trees can live to be hundreds of years old, but learning that Douglas-firs can live to be over one thousand years old makes their eyes light up with wonder. Even the relatively young trees on campus have been present for decades, watching the landscape change with the inhabitants. Coming to an outdoor learning facility where the trees reach hundreds of feet in the sky can instill a feeling no book or photo could. Let the trees greet our students with arms and branches wide open.
Marlie Belle Somers is a graduate student in the Education for Environment and Community program at IslandWood, partnered with the University of Washington.
Remnants of the lumber mill docks at Blakely Harbor. Students use this as a clue while investigating what came before our campus stood on these grounds. Photo by Marlie Belle Somers.
Bainbridge Island Historical Museum. (n.d.). Port Blakely: Portrait of a Mill Town. Retrieved from http://bainbridgehistory.org/port-blakely-portrait-of-a-mill-town/
Brinkley, W. (2018, November 2). Urban Ecology. Lecture presented in Antioch University, Seattle.
Suquamish Tribe. (2015). History & Culture. Retrieved from https://suquamish.nsn.us/home/about-us/history-culture/