Thursday, June 3, 2010

Avatar Grove - Part 1. What's with the name?

Avatar Grove, British Columbia. Photo TJ Watt.

One morning this past winter, environmental activist Ken Wu went for a hike in an exceptional tract of old growth forest which he and photographer TJ Watt had recently discovered near Port Renfrew, off the rugged west coast of Vancouver Island. That patch of untouched forest, made of approximately one hundred giant red cedar and douglas fir trees, is deep into logging territory, and so Ken had always known that it was under the theoretical threat of being cut to the ground.

When he arrived on that day, a nasty surprise awaited him. The area was covered in flagging tape and many of the giant trees were marked with pink and blue spray paint. That patch of forest had been thoroughly surveyed by someone. It was a recent job, since only a few weeks back the area was still in its pre-industrial virgin state with no visible signs of human disturbance whatsoever.

When Victoria-based social and environmental activist Zoe Blunt heard about that situation, she activated her group, the Forest Action Network. It was decided to map the area using GPS, investigate who owned the tree farm license for that zone, communicate with local communities and First Nations, and invite volunteers to come and discover this exceptional swath of old growth forest, which Ken and TJ had renamed "Avatar Grove".

When I first heard that name, I cringed. Avatar Grove? A catchy name, no doubt. But what happens when the hysteria around James Cameron's movie recedes? Shouldn't such an exceptional part of our natural heritage stand on its own feet rather than rely on Hollywood's hype du jour? Then, I reasoned that time appears to be running out for this particular patch of old growth forest and so, I guess - whatever works to save it from the feller bunchers. I decided to go and see the Grove for myself, and so I joined one of Zoe Blunt's volunteer expeditions.

As we left the logging road to enter the forest on a recent rainy Sunday, it struck me right away that this place stood out of the ordinary. No trail. We had to use a small creek bed to enter the zone. The first 50 meters were almost vertical, so I had to cling to whatever branches and tree roots were available to hoist myself clumsily into the grove. After a few minutes of being slapped in the face by low-lying branches and swallowing spider webs, I finally managed to reach a somewhat flatter section where I was able to stand up straight. A quick inspection of myself revealed that I was soaked in rainwater from head to toe. This forest didn't waste any time in whipping me into shape, I thought, a little annoyed.

My senses quickly adjusted to my new environment. The grove I was standing in was exceptional indeed. A completely untouched old-growth temperate rainforest. Massive 500 year-old giants surrounded by many smaller trees in various stages of growth, some of them not much older than myself, others starting to pile up the centuries. The light was dimmed by the dense canopy. The rain, which was coming down pretty hard on the road, only reached us here as a light powdery mist. I was immediately intoxicated by the primal smell of the wet forest. The floor was made of an inextricable chaos of fallen trunks, ferns, branches, moss, mushrooms and lichens, with baby hemlocks growing out of the flanks of their dead ancestors and striving to reach the sky some day. It was a delicate balance of the very large and the very small, a diverse society drawing its collective strength from the multiple relations of its various dead and living members - an ecosystem, in a word.

The pink flagging tape which I had been told about was indeed prevalent and stood out like a sore thumb in this world of brown and green. Every 50 meters or so, a new flag or spray of paint emerged out of the vegetation to construct an elaborate network of signals which were gibberish to us, but no doubt perfectly legible to a trained professional eye. Our mood, looking at all this flagging tape, was that of wild game which hear hunters approaching in the distance and sense the imminent danger, but cannot comprehend quite yet what's about to hit them.

 Blue spray on a red cedar, Avatar Grove. Photo TJ Watt.

Our group of eight hikers was here to find a specific tree in the forest, a bizarrely deformed red cedar nicknamed "the knotty tree" which we needed to geolocate using the GPS device that one of us was carrying. That tree, I was told, had grown some enormous lumps around its base - or burls in technical terms - as a result of a non-lethal bacterial infection. Allegedly, this was Canada's largest "burly" tree, and as such it needed to be mapped with precision to increase its future chances of being preserved.

As we looked for our freak-of-a-tree, we rode the forest's three-dimensional maze, climbing over, crawling under, and walking along fallen trunks suspended in mid air. I silently thanked the sky for this rainy day. The forest is no doubt magnificent under good weather, but it fully reveals itself only in the rain. I sat on a fallen tree for a few moments, and suddenly I realized with amazement what I was sitting on. A forest within the forest. On the dead trunk, an army of small fern-like plants were springing from a carpet of lichen and struggling for existence, reproducing in small scale the battle of giants taking place over our heads. Each plant had captured a drop of rain in its bizarrely curled stem, and that drop was shining like a gem with an almost unnatural bright translucid yellow color which I initially mistook for tree sap. Yet as soon as I picked one of those drops with my finger, it immediately lost its color and turned back into what it was - rainwater.

At my feet, another miniature ecosystem was asserting its right to existence. This one was mostly made of delicate two to three-inch long bright orange plants which I couldn't decide whether they looked more like mushrooms or flowers. I thought that if I touched one of them, it would suddenly retract, but I did not dare to try. Hmm. It appears that I am allowing myself to be penetrated by the Avatareness of this place, I noted with embarrassment. While I was lost in the contemplation of this small world at my feet, one of my travel companions passed in front of me. Because of the position of the fallen trees, she had no choice but to walk through the field of orange mushroomy flowers (or were they flowery mushrooms?) in which my mind was so deeply immersed. She tiptoed very carefully through them, and at one point I heard her mutter to the attention of the forest "I am sorry". Sorry for stepping on some flowers? Okay... Obviously, I was not the only one going native at the Avatar Grove.

Then, on a gentle slope, we finally found it: our knotty tree. And what a tree it was. It looked like nothing I had seen before, and like everything at the same time, since one could read all kinds of faces, shapes and objects in its bizarre intricate knots. It was both grotesquely ugly, and absolutely sublime in its beauty. I was bewildered. What to make of it!?

The knotty tree, Avatar Grove. Photo TJ Watt.

Shayn, an Environmental Technology student at Camosun College who was operating the GPS device, went to work to obtain the knotty tree's coordinates. No luck. Only one satellite was above our heads, and the signal was too weak. Too much cloud cover and natural obstacles. We're going to need a stronger GPS unit, he concluded, one that carries a larger antenna. I'll borrow one from my school and bring it along next weekend.

For my part, I didn't worry too much about satellites and geo-coordinates. I was simply enjoying the moment and the place, in the weird company of the knotted tree. What's in a name? I thought. Whatever people decide to attach to it, I guess. This place is so beyond its 'Avatar Grove' name. For one thing, it's real. And so are the forces threatening it. It's a more subtle world, too, than the digital one being projected in our cities' multiplexes. You actually had to work a little, you had to pay attention, before its ineffable beauty would set itself in motion. But if the name helps people relate to the place, if it's actually going to facilitate their entry as external witnesses and allies into its delicate eco-society, well then hell yes, Avatar Grove it is. Because one thing that this place shares in full with its virtual counterpart, is that it is worth fighting for.

Next: Avatar Grove Part 2. Logging? What logging?



  1. Thank you for making me aware of this Grove! I would like to see it , and see it not logged.

  2. A master story teller at his best. Ivan, your story telling is very immersive. I always enjoy reading it, for you and I share the same connection to nature and see eye to ee on many topics. I is a delight reading your posts. I can almost picture myself being there.

    I hope you one day write memoirs; it would make for a very interesting read

  3. Thank you for your inspiring story Ivan. I hope a way can be found to publish it widely, with its beautiful illustrations, to inspire a broad audience to take action. Marion Cumming