A reckoning is happening between humanity and the earth.
“Mount Doug is a good short hike. If it’s a clear day you should be able to see the Olympic mountains in Washington,” Meghan texted me. “You’ll find lots of arbutus trees – a rare species only on Vancouver Island and parts of Vancouver. They have funky multicolour bark and look almost biblical.”
I’m writing this from Victoria, B.C. It’s my first time on Vancouver Island, and Meghan Kort – who used to live here – has lots of helpful advice. I’m packing as much as I can into nine days, in and around the writing project at UVic that brought me here (more on that later).
On Saturday, I went solo up island on the Malahat, a highway that skims the edge of the land between mountains and water. Every few hundred feet of elevation brings a new jaw-dropping scene into view: misty, snow-capped mountains, dark lakes and the ridges on Salt Spring Island.
I made one stop in Nanaimo to buy two Nanaimo bars – one to split with Neil & Virginia Lettinga, the world’s best hosts, and one for my kids (if it survives the flight home). Then I drove further north, until the towns began to thin out and the trees stretched higher. The cars ahead of me, racing between thick, towering trunks, started to look tiny. Past Whiskey Creek, past Cameron Lake and then – just before Port Alberni – are the trees I’d come to see: Cathedral Grove.
On traditional territory of the Hupacasath First Nation, Cathedral Grove is a forest of old-growth Douglas fir. The largest one is a giant over 800 years old, 76 metres (250 ft) tall and nine metres (30 ft) around. It’s taller than the Leaning Tower of Pisa – and so epic in proportion that it’s absolutely impossible to take a selfie with it. This means lots of strangers asking each other: “Would you mind taking a picture for us. . .?” There’s a rumour that scenes from Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi were filmed here, and it does resemble the Ewok’s home planet – especially when shafts of sunlight pierce the upper canopy and the bright green moss seems to glow.
It doesn’t take that long to walk through Cathedral Grove, maybe 20 minutes. I stayed almost two hours, wandering the same loops again and again. This stand of fir is a remnant; for their high value, more than 99 percent of old-growth forests in B.C. have been logged. The Douglas fir is now endangered, and old-growth logging continues – making up 27 percent of what’s cut down each year in B.C. Ten million hectares remain, disputed over by stakeholders, environmentalists and the provincial government in a province where the forestry sector is key.
Like everyone else, I stretched my arms out and embraced the biggest tree, needing proximity to get a sense of scale. Its age and size are mind-boggling. It’s the same feeling you get from looking at the stars on a clear summer night: we are such puny, breakable things. Our days are like grass; the wind blows, and we’re gone (Ps. 103). And this knowledge, of course, is so unpalatable that whole industries are built on helping us forget it. But even when we live like we’re the centre of the universe and like earth is a magic vending machine for everything we could ever want or need, God knows that we’re “made of mud” (The Message). Cathedral Grove knows it, too.
Its limits and its beauty
In her recent Earth Advent series, Jacqui Mignault, pastor at The Road Church in Calgary, looks at Christmas through a lens of creation care. “There is no Incarnation without Mary, a daughter of the earth,” she writes. “Which means there is no Incarnation without the earth: its processes, its limitations, its beauty, its teachings, its deepening. The earth for so long held everything for us, while we used it up and called that virtue.”
For more than a century, old-growth forests have been logged in the name of progress. But there are signs of hope dating back even longer. Signs of Tll Yahda, which means “making things right” in the Haida language. Let me start a list, and you can add your own examples. (This issue of CC is packed with them!)
- The Council of Haida Nation’s 2021 work on a Land Use Vision that includes a 1,000-year plan for cedar growth.
- Young people protesting old-growth logging at the legislature in downtown Victoria.
- Reforestation: 301 million trees were planted last year in B.C.
- Any church that feeds hungry people or opens its doors overnight this winter.
- Any group you host this Christmas large enough that it’ll be hard to take a selfie and get everyone in.
- And the birth of the Christ-child, which we celebrate this month, sent to make things right for us and among us.
“A reckoning is happening between humanity and the earth,” Mignault says. “We are at a threshold where there needs to be a transformation of our hearts and habits, our theology and our anthropology. They all have to love the cosmos as God loved it. So let’s attend to both of these – the child growing within Mary and the earth we live within – as we begin the long vigil of Christmas.”
The sun was starting to set by the time I drove back down the Malahat. It lit the tops of the trees on fire. It drew my gaze heavenward again.
Download Mignault’s Earth Advent free at theabbey.substack.com