Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata): A story…

By Ginna Malley Campos, graduate student in the Institute’s 15th cohort.
Long, long ago, when ice and snow covered the land as far as the eye could see, we speckled the landscape. Only a few of us grew here and there.  But soon came a time when the ice  and snow began to retreat. And as it did, ever so slowly, so we followed. Growing along the rich wet soils left behind, we became more and more abundant along the Pacific Northwest.  In some places, we made up to half of all the vegetation in the forest. We grew and we continue to grow, but of course never without giving back!
We gift our sapwood to Black Bear when they roam the forest hungry, waiting for Salmon to arrive. Our saplings we gladly offer to Deer and Elk, whom depend on this for survival.  Our foliage has been home to numerous mosses and lichen. Our shade provides habitat for fern, salal, and devil’s club. We give Earth carbon from Sky by befriending special fungi through our roots.  Forest creatures gift us in return in many, sometimes invisible ways. Salmon travels unimaginable distances bringing the gifts of Ocean deep into the forest.  Bear and Eagle bring their decaying bodies to our feet, and with them we grow stronger and we continue the cycling of all.

Deep Forest by Ray Troll

We are loved and respected by all, for we are the only one of our species to grow in these parts of Earth.  We tower over many others, our forked canopy may reach 250 feet into Sky, while our strong base may reach 20 feet in diameter. Although tall and grounded, we are free spirited parents and grandparents, we let our children roam and play as they find themselves in the forest.  Sometimes our low hanging branches reach the soil, and they may spread their own roots, becoming their own tree.  Sometimes our fallen branches do this as well, becoming their own tree.  Sometimes our children grow directly out of us when our big bodies fall, becoming their own tree. Sometimes our own roots decide to find the sunlight for themselves, and they too become their own tree.  We spread far and wide traveling the sky, thanks to September winds that carry our seeds.
But truly what makes us resilient is often invisible to all eyes.  Underneath Earth we clasp tightly to each other, grafting our roots with our relatives, sharing nutrients and strength.  You will rarely find us alone, for we grow in groves guided by the wisdom of our elders. You can sit with us in many places, from sea level to high in the mountains, from Northern California to Alaska, near Hemlock and Cottonwood friends.  But most often, come find us by water, enjoying the cool air and softly swaying our fernlike sprays of foliage in the wind.
The people here and us, we’ve had a relationship since time immemorial. For it was not until we made this landscape our home that the people’s culture thrived the way it did.  We have been called the “Long Life Maker”, and fairly so! For we give all our gifts to those who pray for us and honor our spirit as part of their own.  
Wood, bark, roots and withes have all provided year and year for the material and spiritual needs of those with whom we have so closely evolved with over time.  Our wood; soft, light, straight-grained, insulating, aromatic and rot resistant has been turned into totem poles, canoes, paddles, sweat lodges, chests, bowls and smokehouses. All thanks to crafty tools made out of quartz, obsidian, bone, mussel shells, and beaver teeth. Bark, withes and roots, respectfully harvested and processed at the right time of year and with proper prayer.  Split, separated and weaved into baskets of all shapes, sizes and designs.  
But these sophisticated tools mean nothing without the knowledge and traditions, patiently passed down one generation at a time. We who live long lives, rooted in one place for well beyond a thousand years, we have watched this wisdom flow gracefully from ear to ear, hand to hand, heart to heart.  
Well we have not just watched… Since long long ago, people of all backgrounds have gathered strength, clarity, and wisdom by standing under our shade, their backs against our reddish-brown fibrous bark.  For we are forest teachers, patiently waiting for those who are willing to listen.  


  1. Bob Anderson

    Thank you for this! It is beautifully written and very informative. I am teaching an elementary class on totem poles and their significance, and your writing will help build understanding of the importance of the Red Cedar tree!

Leave a Comment