Thursday, February 04, 2016

The Arbutus...and the mystery of the "ordinary".

They are all around, and yet they had quietly and over time, almost slipped away from my awareness. Familiarity had nurtured a sense of the "ordinary"...

Base Camp 1 is located close to the sea, on south Vancouver Island. There are many Arbutus trees that fill the woods around our home, sharing the forest floor with the towering Douglas firs. In some ways, they are a most unlikely, but delightful pairing. As with many things in life that "have always been there", we have tended to take them for granted...and forget to appreciate their special uniqueness and beauty. The Arbutus (Latin word for "strawberry tree) truly are a gift - rare, splendid and delightful.

Arbutus trees (Arbutus menziesii), also known as Pacific Madrone, are the only broad-leafed evergreen trees in Canada. Growing up to 30 metres in height, they are native to the Pacific Northwest and Northern California and are usually found only within 5 km (3 miles) of the ocean. Other than their desire to be near the salt water, they ask for very little, and are content to live in shallow, nutrient-poor and rocky soil. Like their neighbours, the Douglas fir, they are drought-tolerant which make them a perfect fit for the hot, dry summers.

Paddling along the coast of Vancouver Island, and the magical Gulf Islands, is to be welcomed by the Arbutus as they reach out - often, completely horizontally - over the water, their crooked trunks bidding us welcome. They must have some marvellous stories to tell...of other mariners they have observed over the millennia, storms they have faced, seasons through which they have transitioned.

The bark is thin and delicate, a warm combination of red, chartreuse, and brown. It flakes off and covers the ground, "crispy" beneath the hiker's feet. For countless generations, the Coast Salish people used the bark for tanning hides and making a medicine to treat stomach aches, skin ailments, cramps, colds, and even as a basis for contraception. 

When the bark is wet, it simply shines, as if highly polished by a patient and devoted artisan.

In the Spring, clusters of bell-shaped white, flowers hang from the end of twigs, attracting bees and providing a source of honey for beekeepers. 

The red berries of the Arbutus are edible and fruit-eating birds such as thrushes, robins, waxwings, woodpeckers appear to experience a mild form of intoxication as they gorge on the brightly coloured treat. Apparently the berries can ferment, while still on the tree...offering a slight "buzz" - also enjoyed by bears willing to climb up into the branches! Perhaps more of interest to we humans, the antioxidant capacity of polyphenols, found in the berries, have revealed a high potential to treat diseases such as heart disease and cancer.

We have lived amongst these Arbutus trees, here on Vancouver Island, for just over thirteen years now. Stunning and eye-catching at first, over time they became "part of the forest", almost invisible to our busy and distracted eyes. They became, in many ways..."ordinary". 

They are, however, extraordinary, not unlike a glass of cool, fresh water...or a sunrise or a sunset...or the sound of rain falling, or the rush of waves releasing their energy upon the shore...or the colours of a gentle rainbow. These trees are full of mystery, like the invisible current that powers our a message, sent 5000 miles in a brief the wonderful infectiousness of a smile.

I began to realize, that even those around us who are very precious - family, friends, neighbours, co-workers - can become as an Arbutus in a forest. Part of our every day, they can quietly slip beneath our consciousness, and become part of life's backdrop. We must never let that happen.

Today is a good day to remind someone we love, someone we appreciate, someone who has touched our lives, even a stranger who has yet to become a friend, that they will never become "ordinary"...for they, like the Arbutus, are gifts - full of wonder, mystery, potential, and infinite value.

I must never let the Arbutus trees, who faithfully greet us every single morning and bid us a fond good night at the end of each day, slip from my awareness again. They are, indeed, precious.

"The wonder is that we can see these trees 
and not wonder more..."

Ralph Waldo Emerson


  1. What extraordinarily wonderful trees Duncan - and a species I've not even heard of, so one which would be "front and centre" of my attention if encountered..... Your words have, however set me thinking of how many times I must have walked past Hollies (another evergreen broadleaf) without a second glance - something to put right :o)

    Warm wishes

    1. It's so true, Ian, we pass by so much beauty in life, minds occupied, agendas, schedules, and "to do" lists impatiently pulling us along. I think of hill walks in Scotland, and being drawn to the tiny and varied heather - flowers so tiny and exquisite, that one must actually come to a full and complete stop to truly savour their beauty. Worth every second. :) Warm wishes.

  2. D, I have always loved those trees. Throughout my whole life I have been drawn to them and their unique shapes and beauty. Oh and there is no hope of you ever becoming ordinary Duncan ;))

    1. Ah L, they do have such magical shapes, and even a twinkle in their eye as they reach up to the sun they love so much. They are the true "character" trees of the forest. As for "ordinary", thank goodness! Haha! Warm wishes SG. See you on the trail. ;).