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Lessons of the rainforest

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As I sip my morning coffee on a sun-warmed rock in this tiny cove overlooking the Juan de Fuca Strait, three sea otters put on a show in the calm waters below. They dive into the kelp beds, then surface to roll onto their backs and use their bellies as tables as they devour their catch of sea urchins. Afterwards, they scramble onto the rocks and groom each other, their coats glistening in the sun. This Canada’s rainforest.

It’s a rare tranquil day on the westward side of Vancouver Island, renowned for its wild storms. The fog horns that sounded throughout the night are quiet now, the air crisp and clear of fog and mist. Behind me, the rain forest is a living, breathing presence. Our party of four is hiking the 47km Juan de Fuca Trail, the lesser known and more accessible rain forest trail on Vancouver Island’s west coast. The trail meanders from rocky beaches into rain forest—a stunning contrast.

I am learning that the rain forest, like the ocean, has moods and secrets, which it reveals or conceals to those who venture into its realm. Although the ever-changing Pacific marine environment is captivating, the story that penetrates my heart is the one divulged by the forest as we progress southeast through intact old growth forest, recent clear-cuts, and forest areas harvested more than a hundred years ago.

We begin our hike in an old growth stand, along needle-cushioned pathways where the soft forest air is damp and has its own fresh taste. Dappled sunlight and myriad shades of green seem to penetrate directly from eye to brain to soul. Ferns line the pathway; moisture drips from the greenery along the creeks. Birds call to each other but they are almost impossible to see as they flit in the canopy high above.

Where old trees fall, they rot and become nurseries for new growth: shrubs, cedars, and western hemlock. From broken stumps, new trees emerge, their roots initially taking sustenance from the old trunk and over time incorporating them into their new growth. The natural balance of all stages of growth translates into a deep peace and harkens back to a time long since past, but still held, here, in life.

Later that day and much of the next, we hike through a recent clear-cut area. The change is immediate and startling. At the forest’s edge, leafy bushes and fast-growing berries crowd together in the harsh sunlight. Abruptly we delve into a dark and shadowy place. The forest floor is littered with burnt-out tree stumps, black and half-covered with lichen and moss. The trail turns into a hard packed rocky forestry road. The air feels dry and harsh, with no fragrance or texture.

Cedars grow in tight evenly spaced rows, their trunks bare of branches up to their crowns, which are so dense their interlocked limbs block out the sun. No birds sing. Nothing grows on the forest floor. There is no natural order here – only competition for limited resources. We camp the first night in this gloomy, inhospitable landscape. It is a fitful sleep.

Our last two days bring us into yet another distinctive area marked by selective harvesting methods. Generations ago, before the advent of heavy equipment and specialized cutting machinery, the woodcutters took only the largest trees. Although we pass stumps of incredible size that had been cut off at about shoulder-height, many old trees still live amongst younger ones at all stages of growth. Once again, the forest floor is carpeted in deep moss, ferns line the pathway and discarded needles cushion our footfalls. This area is in full recovery; the ecosystem is intact; the forest has been harvested but not devastated. It imparts a sense of balance and natural harmony.

The forest is alive, ancient, and powerful. For those who will listen, it has a story to tell. It speaks the language of the heart. Its message is true.


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