Heritage site or dead wood? Why an ancient tree is causing a storm

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 April, 2008, 12:00am


The famed 'Hollow Tree' has stumped generations of visitors to Stanley Park. To pragmatists, the 1,000-year-old cedar is the carcass of a once-grand organism. Preservationists see the tree as a heritage site. But for ecologists, the tree has long symbolised the denial of the natural course of life and death.

The wicked windstorms of 2006 and 2007 changed the landscape of Stanley Park and knocked down hundreds of trees. The Hollow Tree was not spared, suffering severe damage. After a report found that the tree posed a safety hazard, Vancouver's elected park board decided last week to cut it down.

An alternative plan to prop up the tree - the 'bionic' option - would have cost taxpayers C$200,000 (HK$1.55 million). Metal braces would have counteracted the tree's 11-degree lean. The plan was met with almost universal derision. But simply cutting down the tree is not sitting well with many either.

'This is a special tree. It may be dead, it's in a certain stage, but it's a very important tree,' said Ralph Kelman, with the BC Big Tree Committee. 'When you have a tree this important, it's a monument.'

The 40-metre tree is probably the most photographed in Vancouver. Park officials believe it got its distinctive hollowed-out shape, and a hole large enough to stand in, courtesy of a lightning strike more than a century ago.

The Hollow Tree was once the largest tree in Stanley Park and a grand sight - but now, surrounded by metal fencing to keep visitors a safe distance away, it merely looks withered and lifeless. The tree has been around plenty longer than the park itself - it is estimated to be 1,100 years old.

As more people visited, the tree itself changed, says historian Meg Stanley, who has written about the Hollow Tree. For conservation reasons, she says, the tree should be preserved, if not by metal braces then by other means.

'This hasn't been a tree for a long time. It's a sculptural piece. It's a piece of pop art made by the people of Vancouver, made over generations,' said Ms Stanley.

The tree is a cultural artefact, Ms Stanley says. She hopes the tree will receive a heritage designation, which would make it difficult for the park board to take it down. The board has the mandate to remove any tree it deems unsafe.

Park board chairwoman Korina Houghton says that while almost everyone in Vancouver has an emotional connection to the tree, opinion is split about whether to prop it up or cut it down. 'Some say it's dead and we should let nature take its course and others say it's a heritage site,' she said.

The tree has endured all the indignities of old age. Love-struck visitors have carved their initials into its trunk and for generations of drunks, the tree has served as a convenient urinal.

For Randy Harper, the tree is a reminder of his childhood when he climbed inside it and believed nothing could possibly be as old as a 1,000-year-old tree.

'I would walk in there and be inside this thing, and we knew then it was very old,' said Mr Harper, who brought his family to visit the tree, in case he does not get another chance. 'It's time to let this one tree go.'

The park board, at least, agrees. After felling, it is planned to let the tree decompose as nature intended - with as much grace as dead wood can under public scrutiny.