Cultural modifications in a living museum

The Bee's Knees takes a visit to Yukusam with Seawolf Adventures.

In August a group of us travelled to Yukusam with Seawolf Adventures.

Yukusam, translated as “shaped like a halibut hook”, is also known as Hanson Island. For some, the excursion was a break from work on a burgeoning food forest garden in Port Hardy. For all, it was an occasion to visit and learn about an ancient cedar garden and a mature forest food garden.

A hike through the woods led us to anthropologist David Garrick, who has lived and worked on the island for more than twenty years.

His work includes researching and documenting the island’s forest groves containing thousands of culturally modified trees, trees altered by native people as part of their traditional use of the forest. He conveyed his knowledge, understanding and love of these groves in a way that brought to life the history of the forest and the foresters.

For hundreds, if not thousands of years, Kwakwaka’wakw foresters carefully harvested bark and planks in Yukusam cedar gardens using a sustainable forestry system that was developed, tested and perfected over millennia. Not only does this system stimulate robust tree growth and healing, over time the yield can be three to six times greater than would be realized by cutting down and killing the tree.

The tree survives and continues to grow while its harvested bark can be put to myriad uses – baskets, mats, clothes, rope, nets, halibut line.

The bark harvest was trans-generationally managed to ensure subsequent generations could return to the same groves, and even the same trees, for repeated harvests over hundreds of years.

A special type of culturally modified tree (CMT), as a result of bark harvesting over long periods of time, turns into a “talking drum”. This type is called a “core knocker”, and adds an acoustic dimension to CMT understanding.

Whether intentionally engineered or not, such trees produce deep resonating, rhythmic sounds when the wind blows, similar to certain raven vocalizations.

Their presence (and sounds) would certainly be known to subsequent generations entering the same groves to access bark. The idea of ancestors talking to present generations through the wind and the knocking trees is a revelation.

Garrick explained how Yukusam forest vividly displays history, serving as a living museum.

The story begins with two patches of original ancient forest that have never been industrially logged and ends with modern-day harvesting. In the interim there are two story lines.

The modified trees show the Kwakwaka’wakw forestry methods, followed in time by early, non-invasive, hand-logging methods of the 1850s with axes and massive handsaws.

Next, mechanized logging is introduced in the 1920s, tractor logging, and eventually clear cutting.

Meanwhile, the culturally modified trees tell the tale of the increasing stress levels of their forest tenders. As logging methods changed, residential schools were established, and potlatches were outlawed, the tree gardens were gradually neglected. Care was not being taken for the future.

The story does not end there, nor end sadly, as a new group of young foresters have recently journeyed to Yukusam to practise and demonstrate sustainable harvesting and care for the future.

To be continued …

Dawn Moorhead and David Lang are longtime practitioners of organic agriculture. They welcome your comments or questions at organic9@telus.net