MTPR

'Field Notes:' The Power Of The Western Red Cedar

Nov 26, 2018

The ides of November, a time of limbo between autumn and winter. It is my birthday. I take a walk in celebration of existence. The atmosphere is cool and gray, and the first layers of high-elevation snow have cast a renewed sense of dimension and personality upon the massive peaks above, their tips immersed in soft November clouds. I walk on tribal lands in the Mission Mountains, and cut off trail to saunter along the stream.

Soon the wind rises, and with a whispered howl, a haunting rebel yell, it drowns out the gossip of the stream. I lean weightlessly against the wind for a moment, and then turn to run with it. It guides me into a shadowy grove of western red cedars, where I duck in and take shelter from the storm. This is about as far east as you will find these magnificent trees.

In the grove, everything below is blanketed in moss. I wander slowly over downfall and through a few low hanging branches that I gently push aside like ornate curtains. Upon crossing this threshold of branches, I find myself at the buttressed feet of a giant. For a few breaths, I stand entranced by a beautiful red cedar.

A western red cedar (Thuja plicata) in Vancouver.
Credit abdallahh (CC-BY-2)

It would take three of me to fully hug my arms around her. I sit down with my back against her, and despite the cold wind, I am nothing but warm. In local Native American mythology, the power of the red cedar tree was said to be so strong that a person could receive strength simply by resting against the tree. The western red cedar is called the "tree of life" by the Kakawaka'wakw Tribe [indigenous tribes] of British Columbia. It was, and still is, held in highest reverence by all northwest coast tribes for its healing and spiritual powers.

The western red cedar is considered the cornerstone of northwest coast aboriginal culture because of its great spiritual significance and its many uses. The wood was used to make dugout canoes, house planks, bentwood boxes, arrow-shafts, masks, and paddles. The inner bark and the long arching branches, which are remarkably strong given their flexibility, would be soaked in water and twisted into ropes, mats, nets, clothing, baskets, and fishing line. The heavier grades of rope have traditionally been used by whale-hunting tribes to tow home dead whales.

Women of the Chehalis tribe in Washington used a deer bone to chop and shred cedar bark into soft padding for infants' cradles. In the Salish tribe, babies wore cone-shaped headdresses made of cedar. Various parts of the tree were also used medicinally in indigenous cultures. The Lummi chewed the buds of cedar and swallowed them for sore lungs, the Cowlitz chewed them for toothache, and the Skokomish boiled them for a gargle. The Skagit boiled the ends of the leaves for coughs. In addition to these medicinal uses, the leaves and limbs of cedar were used for scouring the body in bathing, both for ordinary purposes and in preparation for ceremonial occasions, especially winter dances.

Above me, the wild twisted branches dance to the wind-rhythms. This is the mating dance of the cedar, as they use the wind to carry their mature seed cones up to 400 feet from the parent tree for germination.

Western red cedars can grow to heights of 125 feet, and can live up to nearly a thousand years. Imagine standing in the same place for a thousand years. A thousand winters. For these trees, existence and place are inseparable. They are where they are. Every tree has its place, and a cedar’s wisdom comes from knowing everything that has happened in a single place throughout the centuries.

As I rest here in the warmth of this tree of life, the wind subsides, the forest becomes hushed and calm, and the dance of branches draws to an end; and in the mellow silence, the first snowflakes of the year quietly fall.

"Field Notes" is produced by the Montana Natural History Center.

(Broadcast: "Field Notes," 11/25/18. Listen weekly on the radio, Sundays at 12:55 p.m., Tuesdays at 4:54 p.m. or Fridays at 4:54 p.m.,  or via podcast.)