do trees and people really disappear? or, do not touch this display! or, what a Tree Cookie has to do with colonization.
Last fall, upon strolling to my first ever university course in environmental sociology, one of those hallway displays that add ambience and culture to our institution took me right out of the prairies and back to BC: a wide cross-cut of a Douglas fir tree with a shiny mahogany finish, standing nearly nine feet high. Placed in the heart of an environmental sciences building, the display is fitting – the Tree Cookie, as it is affectionately known, is an impressive slice of life that fittingly alludes to studies in dendrochronology (tree rings!), forest sciences, and conservation.
However, upon a closer look, the tree surprised me with its story.
Surrounding the tree were plaques embedding this Douglas fir within the context of Canada’s national history, particularly the advent of European explorers. Descriptions talked about the “disappearance” of both Douglas fir stands and Indigenous peoples – a word that conjured up, well, conjuring (think of Hermione waving her wand and commanding, evanesco), instead of intentional processes.
Did the trees really disappear? Did the people vanish? Or were the trees chopped down and the people impacted by tricky Canadian policies? I’d say this tree might have been telling some tall tales.
To add to the conjuring, the Douglas fir were amazingly “first sighted by early white explorers such as Captain James Cook in 1778,” and were subsequently “discovered” by European naturalists and botanists on expeditions in the Pacific Northwest. This was a teeny bit surprising considering the long history of various Indigenous peoples in the Pacific Northwest, who (I imagine) were long aware of trees as massive as this one (it doesn’t take a microscope to spot a Douglas fir).
In fact, no connection of the Douglas fir to Indigenous peoples was mentioned. Resistance of Indigenous groups to deforestation (aka tree “disappearance”) on Meares Island, Haida Gwaii, South Moresby, and Stein Valley was absent from the Douglas fir’s story, which neatly bundled all Indigenous peoples together – in the past. In fact, “Native peoples” were said to live in the area until only 1400 (I had a feeling more than a few living folks may beg to differ).
The tree instead told a story worthy of Canada Day, linking our nation to scientific work in botany, forest ecology, and resource management, eh. This story (for intrigue?) kept up the “disappearance” hocus pocus, promoting preservation of Canada’s “wilderness heritage,” as if we were a blank slate of bushland ready for the taking before mister James Cook got here. Funny thing, but even in a forestry building, not one plaque referenced histories of industrial logging, which have negatively impacted ecosystems, climate, and the Indigenous peoples who have called and continue to call these forests home.
This tree was tricky. Fancy yet deceptive.
Being so massive, the tree was also ancient, and this was indicated on the display with dates and brief descriptions of what were presumed to be notable historical events, aligned with the rings of the tree (reminder: dendrochronology). All of the plaques – wait for it – featured feats by white, European men. Oh, except for Joan of Arc, who was dead as this Douglas fir much before her time. So, of course, the plaques featured the first man on the moon and military victories such as the First Crusade. (What the designers missed, however, was the irony of including Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press on a tree. Yeah.)
While this display sounds absurd, every day, hundreds of students, staff, and faculty – in a university (and country and society) (supposedly) dedicated to the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action - repeatedly and inattentively pass by this tree as we proceed to classes and research projects pertaining to conservation, resource management, and environmental sciences (we do! we have places to go! papers to write! I’m serious.). As we pass, this magnificent display and its colonial story turns banal; even the tree’s warning, “Do not touch this display!” appears superfluous in the tree’s disregard by passersby.
After all, isn’t this what most of our plaques look like? Isn’t this the story of our museums? Of our national parks? So routine, the story on the Douglas fir becomes hidden in plain sight – disappears, you might say – part of the normal way of doing things around here. Hm.
This blog post is dedicated to Mary Pinkoski, who shared my indignation over the Tree Cookie, along with a few months of scheming, organizing, stickering, and researching it.
NOTE: Since last fall, the plaques on the Tree Cookie have either been covered or removed, as the faculty is aware of the display’s problematic nature and are eager to redesign in a way that more accurately features current research.