Failing Specimen Arbutus Tree

Seven years ago I blogged about an impressive arbutus tree in what was once a relatively untouched part of campus off Agronomy Road near Main Mall.  It was a splendid tree, lush, large, and magnificent. The same tree is greatly diminished today, overshadowed by the Vantage College prep school and encased within the walls of a preschool.

In 2010 the tree was resplendent in a field to itself.  It towered over the landscape, provided a sense of shade, and a visual sense of it’s unique and special self.  The tree was old (as urban arbutus trees go) and needed some love and attention. However, that was not to be. First the tree was  threatened with removal. Then it became encased in a development site. Finally to be locked, for the rest of it’s life within the confines of a daycare play yard (click on photos to enlarge).

In 2014  the initial plans for what is now the Hummingbird Daycare in Orchard Commons was to cut down the old arbutus tree. A few folks penned letters lobbying to retain the magnificent old tree. It’s not clear if the handful of letters made any difference (no response was received) but during construction of Orchard Commons it was clear that the tree was actually going to be kept.  It was, however, a sorry sight to see.  There was an orange plastic fencing dutifully placed around the tree. However, heavy equipment and building supplies compacted the surrounding soil.  Large machinery scraped away accidentally at the lower branches of the tree. As construction proceeded the orange fence became more ground mat than effective barrier.

As construction on Orchard Commons and the Hummingbird Daycare proceeded it was clear that despite initial good intentions to save the tree the construction had seriously undermined it’s health. Subsequent modifications  (ostensibly to enhance the safety of the institutional occupants) may well have sealed the sad fate of the tree.

Concrete footings for an under-tree deck were drilled into the ground through the old tree’s extensive root network.  One day I happened by as a worker was sawing and hacking away at what appeared to be a very significant root.  It was hard to get pictures of that process as by this time the construction site was hidden behind a 6  foot tall barrier that made it difficult to take effective photos.  It seemed that the interence with the tree had come to an end but it wasn’t so.

Some time after most of the construction was over another period of work ensued.  This time to set up braces to hold up several of the old trees large limbs.  Further sets of concrete foundations were poured and then large structural posts set to brace the tree in place. It’s a sad near end of life for this majestic old tree.

Today the old tree looks haggard and worn. Dwarfed by the post-modernist monstrosity beside it, hemmed in by decking and fences, and no longer able to support itself, the old tree gives the impression of an elder hovering on the edge of death.

I’m not sure if anything could have been done to alter the fate of this wonderful tree. Student gardeners in the former Orchard Community Garden tried to prevent or at least modify the plans for Orchard Commons to preserve open productive land – but to no avail.  UBC’s dominant pro-developer business agenda mandated that Orchard Commons be expanded to fully utilize potential housing and marketable density of the site.  Even with good intentions to maintain the tree there are so many competing factors at play that perhaps it would have been kinder to remove the tree at the start of the process rather than the long drawn out tortuous descent that has resulted.  I would like to think that even still it might be possible to pull a small miracle out of the hat and to revive the old arbutus tree that once stood so proudly on a quiet corner of UBC’s campus.

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Reconciliation Pole, Main Mall, and a mini-fir forest

One my way home across campus the other day I stumbled across a crew of plant ops folks planting a min-forest of Douglas Fir on the south west edge of the lawn at Thunderbird Crescent, the southern terminus of Main Mall.  Rather than bother the crew in their work I thought it might be worth asking the university landscape architect to provide a few details as to the process the led to those trees being planted and the purpose they are supposed to serve.  

Mini fir forest, view from south.

“The decision to plant 7 Fir trees on the southwest periphery of this well-used open space will accomplish two things without minimizing the current function and utility of the space. The first is that in maturity, it will improve the safety of children using this space by providing a little separation between the area where people play ball games and the adjacent road. The second is that it will ultimately provide a more dignified and fitting backdrop to the Reconciliation Pole. Perhaps it’s only a designer that would notice but white metallic roof of the Barn is a jarring terminus to our most iconic landscape – the Main Mall – and now this is even more evident with the presence of the Reconciliation Pole”  (UBC Landscape Architect, June 21, 2017).

The answer was not quite what I had expected.  Safety for children?  That really seemed weak.  Just how would a row of fir trees enhance safety? If anything their placement along the edge of Thunderbird Blvd creates a road hazard by obstructing a driver’s view of children playing on the field.  The idea that the dignity of the new reconciliation pole calls for a plantation of a natural shroud of trees raises a serious problem of unconscious colonial thinking.  The most reasoned explanation -the one that in my mind is the actual reason- is the designer’s aesthetic sense that the Old Barn Community Centre presents a jarring terminus to “our most iconic landscape.” 

“jarring terminus to iconic landscape”

I can’t help but wonder why the Old Barn is jarring but the Forest Sciences Building, Thunderbird Housing, or the parking lot adjoining Main Mall apparently aren’t.  I’ll say that I can appreciate the designer’s eye.  Every day walking home along Main Mall I now can’t help but see the patch of grey metal roofing and find a small sense of sympathy for the more aesthetically inclined eye. He’s right – from certain vantage points along Main Mall the poor Old Barn’s roof does rather stand out.

But what stood out in his answer was the idea that the new Reconciliation Pole needed a natural backdrop rather than a faux western barn.

The notion that a natural forest is a “more dignified and fitting backdrop setting” for an Indigenous monument to reconciliation echoes older cultural ideas of “the Indian” as existing outside of time, naturalized, and part of a world of nature.  This is an old trope that has placed Indigenous history into museums of natural history. It’s a vision that denies the contemporary reality of Indigenous peoples and it is one that relegates us to an authentic natural past.  Irrespective of a designer’s sense of aesthetics explaining the mini-forest as dignifying the Reconciliation Pole takes us backward in cultural time.  

The very idea of reconciliation is to bring together what are jarring and disruptive facts of our contemporary world and our history and then to deal with it.  One point of the pole is that there is no dignity in the acts of the settler state in the use of residential schools – that dignity, in fact,  comes with reconciling settlers to their own history and by removing the false walls and veils that settler society has erected to protect itself and those they think require protection.

I am left wondering how ‘naturalizing’ a view line, how deploying the trope of ‘pristine’ or ‘untouched’ nature presents a dignified backdrop to a very modernist monumental art work that is EXPLICITLY speaking to the jarring, disruptive, contemporary reality of colonization, it’s effects, and the ways to move forward.  From my particular Indigenous and Academic perspective I would argue that the mini fir forest actually diminishes the message and the solemnity of the reconciliation pole: it is yet another accidental example of how the “authentic Indian” is removed from time and stuck into  amber of a settler gaze. 

Typically this blog decries the removal of trees from UBC’s campus. This time is differnt. The mini fir forest has to go. There is no dignity in backdropping reconciliation with a falsely protective wall of trees. Reconciliation is about facing the jarring realities of settler past and the continued injustice of contemporary colonial attitudes. Bring in the logging crew!

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Xmas Trees

When I was a child my family would load up in the family car and head out of town looking for a suitable place along the highway to stop and cut our annual Christmas tree.  Dad would find a spot, pull off the road, and then my sisters, my mother and I would trudge off through the snow after Dad looking for that perfect tree. Inevitably the tree we cut would be too tall to get in the house and would require much surgery back home.  But always when we stood there in the woods, knee deep in snow, we were certain the tree was just right or even a bit too short.

Living in a major urban area makes it hard to find trees to cut down for Christmas.  It would take the most brazen of folks to go into the nearby Pacific Spirit Park to nick a tree. Some folks use fake trees – artificial plastic or metal contraptions. While I won’t say never, an artificial strikes me as a poor replacement for the real thing.  Other folks advocate potted trees.  This is the green alternative.  I guess that’s okay, but after a few years one is likely to run out of places to plant these trees.  Besides, every try to lug a ten foot tall potted spruce into your home?  Even in the city I prefer a cut tree. But now my forays into tree hunting takes me to the urban tree lot.

There are a lot of options in the city: school yard lots, charity sales, supermarket trees, and garden shop trees. Over the years we’ve tried them all: from bargain basement Charlie Brown trees (hint, get three) to finely cultivated garden shop beauties.  Some years we have the tree up Dec. 1, others we wait till a just a week before Christmas.  Some trees have dried out so hard the leaves rain off when it is time to take it down.  Others have stayed fresh and fragrant through the full 12 days of Christmas into the New Year.

Big trees strain our mechanical skills as we struggle to ensure the tree stays upright and stable.  Who hasn’t had at least one tree come crashing down when least expected?  My father used to bring galvanized buckets home from his fish boat, place the hulk of a too big tree into the bucket, and then brace with river stones.  That and the fishing lines anchored into wall and ceiling ensured the tree stayed put.  I’ve made recourse to heavy test nylon fishing lines myself from time to time, but prefer a tree that can stand upright without guy-wires. Not surprisingly, the smaller the tree the easier to stand without bracing!

Christmas trees are a delight. With their roots in pagan European winter festivals one need not be a Christian to enjoy a Christmas tree.

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Another one bites the dust

All across campus trees are being removed.  It’s the inevitable price of development. Some trees should, of course, be removed.  Many of the trees are simply in the way of the grand development plans.  There used to be a wonderful set of old cyprus trees in front of Main Library.  They were removed because they obstructed the view of the monstrously (IMO) post-modern and ugly exterior of the Barber Learning Centre.  I’ve blogged here about the wonderful old pine trees that used to line Thunderbird Blvd near Main Mall (removed for housing).I should note that the university developers do try and replace trees that they unceremoniously cut down.  I only wish they would remove fewer and keep more open and forested greensapces.
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Culturally Modified Trees

Ancient scar from bark stripping

All along the BC coast and throughout the interior of the province evidence of ancient human practices can be found. One of the most intriguing is the result of the everyday Indigenous practice of harvesting red cedar bark. Cedar bark was (and remains so today) used for a range of everyday objects: rope, clothes, mats, baskets, etc.  The process of peeling bark (you can see it here in a video I’ve produced) is one portion of a longer process of harvesting, processing, and then manufacturing everyday items.  Bark wasn’t the only thing harvested.  One can find trees with entire planks removed.  Other trees were selected to build large ocean going canoes.  Other trees were modified with carvings or used as burial sites.  Taken together theses ancient trees that show the markings of human practices are referred to as culturally modified trees (CMT).  In British Columbia CMTs are protected under the provincial heritage act if the cultural modifications occurred prior to 1848.

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Not really about a tree

This isn’t really about a tree.  It is, however, about the removal of something old without notification or consultation.

There used to be an old painting of a fish boat and dock.  It was hung on the wall in the lobby of the Anthropology and Sociology Building.  But now it is gone. Sometime in the next few days a brand new wide screen T.V. will take the place of the old painting.  We will have entered the new age world of digital communication in which digitalsignage ubc, the faculty of arts, and the departments of anthropology and sociology will pump in special messages to keep us all up to date on all of the place of mind adds and informercials we need to view 24/7.

'Fish boats at the dock.'

It’s a small thing (the issue, not the painting).  In the greater scheme of things it’s not all that important.  Yet, I feel there is something underlying the removal of the painting that at least speaks to a wider issue here at ubc and in this sense is similar to what is happening to trees on our campus.

Our history is being erased. An old tree is removed and then replaced with a  smaller one somewhere on campus.  An old painting is taken down and replaced with a digital sign.  The names of old buildings and places are deleted (anyone remember the Ethel Wilson Sound Recording Library?) and those with money buy the opportunity to have their name put there instead.  And then we forget.  New people don’t know the past.  We have lost the markers and the capacity to speak about what was.  The way it is is the way it has always been.

Orwell commented upon this in his distopian novel 1984.  Of course most later day readers will see that novel as a critique of communism.  From the vantage point of the digital world where news is ephemera and the past dissolves and is remixed with out reference to any sense of time Orwell’s ministry of truth speaks to our present as much as it spoke against a mid-20th century form of state socialism.


So what was that old painting which is now stashed in an empty office awaiting its future disposition?  Can I even remember it accurately enough to say anything of value about it?   The painting reminded me of this place, coastal BC. Even though the world that it depicted -an old fishing boat and a harbour- is a world long passed into history; it is the world that I grew up in, the world that shaped the way in which I think and act, the world that plays a strong role in how my intellectual work proceeds.  It was in short an image that made me feel welcome in the university.

I grew up in northern BC in a decidedly working class community and family.  UBC has always been a special place for those of us born and raised in this province.  I think that UBC is more than just an ‘excellent’ university; it’s our university, it’s BC’s university.  Yet, it was also a foreign place filled with unfamiliar things, and -most exciting- opportunities.  In a strange way that painting was something familiar that reminded me that UBC is still our university even as our university leaders seek to enter that privileged international circle that leaves much of  BC’s heartland out in the cold.

I suppose that my colleagues who come from afar or my students who have grown up in a different BC may not have even noticed that old painting.  They may not have even liked it.  I don’t know.  I never asked them.   I am sad now not to have asked.

I wonder if people will notice the absence of the old painting this September with the start of the new school year. As they walk by will they notice the bright light of the new screen; will they stop to wonder about what may have been there before?  Or will the painting and that BC that I come from slide even further into the mist of time, erased from our view; just another victim of progress.





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Ponderosa Pine at the Ponderosa Centre

The Ponderosa Cafe was a key meeting place for UBC students for at least 30 years.  Today, the once busy building has been turned over to UBC administrative activities among other things.  You will still find a tiny coffee pit stop in what was once the entrance and lobby.  Current campus transportation options may lead to the Ponderosa being finally torn down to be replaced by a bus loop or perhaps another highrise apartment complex.

I was reminded of the old Ponderosa Cafeteria the other day as I was biking across campus on West Mall.  Normally I just bike through that intersection but on this particular day the sunlight brought me up short and I clicked a couple shots on my phone.  This giant pine is just one of many large heritage trees located around campus.  Just down the street is a monkey puzzle tree, over toward Marine Drive one will find a host of large cedars (one or two sporting eagle’s nests).

If I wasn’t on my way to teach a class I would have grabbed a cup of coffee and allowed my self to imagine the days when the old Cafe was hopping with students.  It’s nice that even while uses of buildings change some things do remain the same -this old pine tree being on those tings.

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Someone is saving ‘valuable’ trees at UBC

Someone is saving ‘valuable’ trees at UBC.  According to UBC’s community planning page:

Valuable trees were recently rescued during a demolition project on UBC’s Vancouver campus. Two buildings—Earth and Ocean Sciences East Building and the Engineering Annex Building—were knocked down in preparation for the construction of the Earth Systems Science Building (ESSB) at 2219 Main Mall. When Dean Gregory, landscape architect at Campus and Community Planning, realized that a group of Japanese Maple trees and various shrubs were at risk during the demolition, he brokered a deal that would see the plants ultimately replanted at South Campus. (read on)

This is, clearly, an important thing to be doing.  It might, however, obscure all of the ‘non-valuable’ trees that have been and continue to be removed (what’s happening to the trees at Fairview and Westebrook in East Campus, for example).  There’s a long list of trees that have been cleared without ceremony across campus.

Once, during a planning workshop, I suggested that there be a biomass replacement policy.  That is, for each cubic meter of wood fibre removed from campus an equivalent volume be replanted somewhere.  The president of UBC Properties Trust was present.  At first he seemed to be in agreement.  Then, as the implication dawned he quickly revised and said that UBC has a tree replacement policy.  That is, for each tree removed, another tree is planted in it’s place.  Not quite the same thing, but at least it’s a nice idea . . .

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Arbutus Tree

At the north west corner of Agronomy Road and Main Mall stands a grand old arbutus tree.  It’s an impressive example. There are few such trees found at UBC these days -more were likely here in the past.

I first met arbutus trees on summer visits south from my childhood home on BC’s north coast.  For those more acquainted with temperate rainforest conifers the arbutus tree is a surprising plant -peeling paper-thin bark, twisting smooth branches, and leaves all winter when other broad-leaf trees drop theirs.

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Pine trees on Thunderbird Blvd

There used to be a fine row of pine trees growing along Thunderbird Blvd and Eagles Drive.  One tree remains at the corner of the Formwerks townhouse development that stands there now.

For years prior to the townhouses my partner and I would collect pine cones from these trees for Christmas wreaths.  There are only a few places on campus where one could find cones such as these.

I was saddened by the trees removal -so much so that I took a series of photos of their destruction.  The lone tree at the corner of Thunderbird and Eagles Drive is a testament to the survival of trees on campus.  There are a number of examples of other trees that survived the developer’s axe -the trees in the pocket park on the western edge of Hawthorn Place is another nice example.  As are the western row of old trees along the block on Main Mall south of Thunderbird.

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