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  • As the urban forest falls… are we our trees’ keepers?

    Moira Walker

    Two giant sequoias, that have witnessed our city’s evolution, appear at risk from an impending development.


    TWO STATELY SEQUOIAS that may be 130 years old and are about 20 metres tall stand behind Thrifty Foods on Menzies Street in James Bay. If you look at their bark, one has some burn damage; both have been subject to the attention of woodpeckers. According to a forest ecologist who recently examined them, the trees are healthy. Given the lifespan of these giants is from 1000 to 3500 years, he thinks they may have many more years before them.

    But do they? Recently, the area around their roots has been compromised by the placement of a skirt of paving stones, limiting their access to water, according to a forest ecologist.

    But more troublesome is that the trees stand on land slated to be repurposed. An application to place about 100 units on the site is before the planning department—Development Services— right now. While a City planner has given his assurance that the trees will be “unaffected,” could they still be in danger? Developers aren’t particularly fond of trees, especially large ones. 



    The two sequoias, near Thrifty Foods, on Menzies


    These trees have witnessed so much. They must not be felled.

    The trees might have been part of a shipment of sequoias brought from California in 1889 by Robert P. Rithet, a one-time mayor of Victoria and wealthy businessman with commercial ties to San Francisco. Rithet oversaw the planting of 2,000 trees, 50 of which were Giant sequoias, in Beacon Hill Park.

    If they were planted by 1890, they would have been here when electric streetcar service began in Victoria on February 22. According to a 1902 map, Route 3, which originated in Fernwood, passed the trees, and turned east off Menzies Street onto Niagara Street before stopping at Beacon Hill Park. According to the 1891 census, Victoria had become a city of 16,841 people with 55 hotels and taverns. The five streetcar lines became a popular means of moving about the city.

    The trees may have been here for the 1892 smallpox epidemic, but they definitely were here for the 1911 diphtheria epidemic and for the three waves of the 1918 to 1920 Spanish flu.

    Certainly, the trees were here when the CPR Empress Hotel opened in 1908 and when a road to Mill Bay named Malahat Drive was built in 1911. They’d have witnessed with incredulity the scramble on New Year’s Day 1922 when cars on Vancouver Island switched to the right side of the road so as to be in keeping with the rest of the province and Canada.

    In 1915, the trees would have observed people in Victoria searching for an additional penny before boarding the streetcar. Fares, which had just been raised from a nickel to six cents, were paid to the conductor once on board.

    In 1917, a bird perched atop the trees would have seen the completion of the Ogden breakwater and the following year would probably have been able to see the opening in Saanich of the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, which housed the largest telescope of its kind in the world.

    On October 2, 1921, over 5,000 people gathered along Shelbourne Street from Mount Douglas Park to Bay Street. On that day, the trees witnessed the planting of a memorial avenue of 600 London plane trees, one for each soldier from the greater Victoria area who died in WWI. British Columbia lost 6,000 soldiers in that war. Sadly, the trees have also witnessed in recent years the work of so-called developers: they have cut down 400 of those commemorative trees. 

    The James Bay trees may have been commemorative trees too. Over a hundred years ago, visiting dignitaries often selected sequoias to plant in Victoria.

    The trees’ growing root system would have been shaken December 7, 1918, by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake off the West Coast of Vancouver Island. They’d have paused in wonder when in 1925 a stately pleasure-dome opened on Douglas Street near Bellville Street: The CPR Crystal Gardens with its heated saltwater pool, the largest in the British Empire, and two ballroom-dance floors.

    In 1937, the trees witnessed the beginning of a new city tradition: hanging flower baskets affixed to light standards. The soil mixture remains the same in the baskets hung in 2021.

    The two trees have seen so much.

    The word “sequoia,” the name of the Menzies Street trees, was coined by an Austrian linguist and botanist, Stephen L. Endlicher, as both a descriptor of the plant genus and a way of honouring Sequoyah (1767-1843), the man who created the written form of the Cherokee language.

    Actual settlers, these trees occur naturally only in groves on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada mountain range of California. Scientifically, the two Menzies Street trees are Sequoiadendron giganteum, but John Muir, the Scottish-US naturalist and writer who cofounded the Sierra Club and is said to be the “father” of US National Parks, affectionately called them Big Trees. Sequoias, in fact, are the most massive trees on Earth. 

    In 2011, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a global authority on the status of the natural world and the measures needed to safeguard it, named the sequoias an endangered species, with fewer than 80,000 remaining. The 2020 and 2021 fires in California, coupled with fire suppression, drought, and climate destruction, resulted in the loss of up to 13,640 mature trees. 

    Speaking about his Big Trees, John Muir said, “God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools.”

    For Garry Merkel, a member of the Tahltan Nation and a forester, the problem is that “We’re managing ecosystems—that are in some cases thousands of years old—on a four-year political cycle.”

    And for Jens Wieting, a senior forest and climate campaigner who has crunched the numbers, “We are currently losing about 10,000 hectares a year—that’s the old-growth logging rate—on Vancouver Island.” 

    How do we ensure the sequoias of Menzies Street are still here to see the end of the current pandemic and remain standing when your great-grandchild skips by them to cast a fishing line off Ogden Point or to watch a kite rise above her head on the grassy verge between Dallas Road and the Strait of Juan de Fuca? 



    The new paving stones near one of the sequoias.


    Well, that’s up to you and me. We can speak for these two trees. We can call City Hall. We can ask that the newly placed skirt of paving stones near their roots be removed. We can take our grandchildren to stand before them and tell them about all the trees have seen and all the carbon they’ve caught and will continue to catch, if we only let them. We can witness the trees’ existence just as they have witnessed ours. We can find our voices and speak for them. We can insist they are settlers who must be allowed to stay. We can become their keepers. We can do all this. We can.

    Moira Walker is a retired Camosun College instructor. An oral storyteller, she’s told stories at The Flame, UNO Festival, and Royal BC Museum. She recently completed an MFA from the University of King’s College in Halifax, NS. 

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