A scant 10 minute walk off a logging road near the BC’s West Coast town of Port Renfrew is Avatar Grove, a stand of old cedars so majestic, powerful and gnarled that T. J. Watt said he and his colleagues from the Ancient Forest Alliance “were running around like kids in a candy store” when they found it in 2009 (Globe & Mail, July 23/11).
Watt, along with the co-founder of the Ancient Forest Alliance, Ken Wu, had been searching for just such an iconic stand of trees, one that would dramatize and catalyze enough awareness of old-growth forests to prevent further logging of the tiny remnant that still exists on southern Vancouver Island. Avatar Grove, as this stand was named, just might accomplish such an ambitious feat. Indeed, the Port Renfrew Chamber of Commerce, the BC Ministry of Forests and the company that had the right to log Avatar Grove, Teal Cedar Products Ltd, all concurred that the stand was so sensational that it should be protected.
But it nearly wasn’t. Watt and Wu found a cluster of 20 huge stumps nearby that had been logged the year before. These 900 year-old cedars may have been even more spectacular than the standing trees that were saved. “This would have surpassed Avatar Grove in grandeur – had we found it in time,” said Wu. And shortly after Watt found Avatar Grove, timber cruisers surveyed it for logging, hanging the ominous ribbons of plastic tape that marked a cutting boundary. After 1,000 years of growing, Avatar Grove came within a hair’s breadth of the chainsaw’s bite.
Given the awesome character of Avatar Grove, who cut down the neighbouring trees? What were the fellers thinking as the teeth of their chainsaws bit into millennium-old wood? What thoughts were passing through the minds of the timber cruisers who flagged Avatar Grove for a similar fate? Are “pieces of silver” so numbing of perception and so corrupting of judgment that people simply do not notice or recognize the miraculous when it is manifest? In another time under different circumstances the only appropriate answer to these questions would have been, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Because the trees in Avatar Grove awaken in us the sense of sacred that we do not usually possess, the work of environmentalists such as T.J. Watt and Ken Wu should qualify them as modern-day saints – a status they would probably reject. With their seeing and their conviction, with their dedication and passion, they open the eyes of the blind, bringing illuminating light into a place of dull darkness. They reveal the evident, proclaim the unmistakable, connect us to a wondrous obvious of which we were previously ignorant. What else explains why some trees are felled and others are saved? Whether or not a crucifixion occurs merely depends on the difference between recognizing or not recognizing, between awareness and unawareness.
Show people and they will see. The tourists who now flock to gaze at the massive trees of Avatar Grove are not so much tourists as pilgrims coming to enter the awe of something bigger and older than themselves, something that communes with the slow passage of eon and transcends the limits of self. These pilgrims are doing the same when they flock to such revered places as Banff, Jasper, the wild trails of Strathcona, or to any seashore, lake, mountain, river, valley or forest. Something primal and timeless lures them out of themselves and connects them to a mystery that is greater than anything they can possess, control or understand.
Saints awaken us to such awareness. They make pilgrims of us all. They show us the extraordinary so we will find it in the ordinary. If we are perceptive enough, we can learn to find the miraculous in any tree, any fish, any frog or any blade of grass. The ordinary is no less amazing than the extraordinary. If we are attentive enough, if we are open and receptive enough, every part of nature becomes a wonder that will reduce the greatest of our explanations to an awestruck silence.
No one can understand the utter magic pervading any of the living things that surround us. They are profound because they give context, companionship and meaning to our very existence – the outside of us that enters the inside of us through the miracle of awareness. Then a special stand of trees may infuse us with a moment by-moment sense of magic.
But a pilgrimage does not have to be a physical journey to Avatar Grove. Every time we watch a nature documentary we are paying vicarious homage to the life forces that permeate our planet. Such programs amaze us with the living vigour of reefs, tundra, grasslands, plains, jungles, and all the plants and creatures than enliven them with incredible and diverse vitality – a living planet that we are despoiling and diminishing with an astonishingly blind enthusiasm.
As the Canadian media guru, Marshall McLuhan, so wisely noted, we move through the present looking through a rear-view mirror at what is behind us – we don’t see what is, we only see what is past, where we have been and what we are losing. This principle applies with profound irony when we consider our current fascination with all the myriad wonders of nature that we revere through documentaries and pilgrimages. Just as we are celebrating and learning of nature’s incredible complexity and intricacy, our industrial exploitation is destroying them with alarming zeal.
This is why Avatar Grove is so important, why Watt and Wu were so invigorated by hope. This small stand of glorious trees is a signal, an icon, a symbol, a sign of what remains that we must not lose. It is a warning announcing that innumerable treasures are slipping into an irretrievable past. But Avatar Grove is also a promise and an awakening, if we can understand its deeper meaning. By honouring the extraordinary, perhaps we can learn to protect the ordinary.