An Essay by Heather Durham
I don’t remember the first time I met Western redcedar. It must have been sometime around the turn of the millennium when I first moved west to Oregon. Fresh from graduate school in environmental biology, I was awed and inspired by Pacific Northwest forests and the colossal conifers in particular for their stark contrast with the more humble, diminutive leafy green trees of my northeastern upbringing. Whether I first distinguished redcedar in a field guide or in the naturalist training program I joined to help me get my bearings (and ideally, a job), I would have first learned the facts.
That the correct common name is in fact redcedar, not red cedar, because Thuja plicata and its American cousins are not true cedars like the long-needled cedars of the old world, but instead confusingly named members of the cypress family of scaly-needled conifers.
I would have learned that the range of the western redcedar spans what I would later come to think of as my own ecological niche—low to middle elevation west side (wet side) forests of the Pacific Northwest, from British Columbia to northern California. If left undisturbed in their cool, shaded river valleys and creekside groves, they can grow to eight feet in diameter and two hundred feet high.
In the year 2000, I would have learned that western redcedars can live upwards of 2000 years, a fact that’s easy to toss around until you really think about it, think about everything these ancient trees might have witnessed, what this landscape might have looked like and who might have known them as saplings. Certainly not any of my ancestors, off among the oaks on the British Isles.
As long as my species has been in this region, early indigenous or recent colonizer, we have been in relationship with western redcedar.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to Wayfarer Magazine to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.