The CMT (Culturally Modified Tree)

The CMT (Culturally Modified Tree) Photo

This ancient hoomis (cedar) and those surrounding it are likely 800 years old or older (the oldest hoomis in Clayquot Sound is 1400yrs). What most people don’t know about trees, is that some trees roots go down beneath the forest floor half as deep as the tree is tall. The root systems of the trees in a given area touch and support one another under the ground. These underground roots systems are how ancient trees are able to stand strong in massive winds and even during earthquakes, by supporting one another. The trees in this area have survived through many seasons and have seen many storms, fires, tidal waves and earthquakes. If you look carefully at the bark of a tree, you can find clues that tell you the story of the tree. The elders teach that the roots systems in these mighty trees are like family and community systems: the more they are connected and support each other, the better enabled they each are to grow and stand tall.

Story: Culturally Modified Trees

Is the Indigenous way of life to tread lightly on the earth, never to damage or destroy it without reciprocity. With the respect for mother earth as a founding tenet of Indigenous worldview, people lived for thousands of years without damaging the land; for this reason culturally modified trees (CMTs) are often one of the few physical traces of thousands of years of land use by the First Nations (Eldridge 1997). In Canada, CMTs have been used in the Heritage Conservation Act (1994) and the Forest Practices Code of British Colombia (1994) to substantiate the longest standing logging injunctions in Canada. They have become commonly used as evidence by the Supreme Court to verify First Nations land claims (Eldridge 1997).

Steve Charleson, director and founder of Hooksum Outdoor school, was the first person to show me a CMT. He told a story of the surprising gift held by CMTs:

“When the Europeans came they thought they had discovered this land. They said that someone called ‘the Pope’ had sent them to claim it in the name of god. We did not know these people, but we knew this land had not been discovered; it had always been here, our ancestors had always been a part of it; but the newly arrived people did not listen to our words, they dismissed our claims. In our tradition, the concept of owning land did not exist. How could one own a part of the creator? All beings come from the land. We were of the land. But because we had not scarred the land, because we had not left it damaged and bruised by our use they said we had no proof of having lived there. This went on for nearly a hundred years. In the 1950s researchers and archaeologists began to visit our community, to conduct ‘scientific’ research. They tried to teach us that nothing was real without ‘scientific proof,’ that our beliefs and teachings were imaginary. This notion of ‘scientific proof’ haunted us, it was used to disregard our oral histories, our land claims and our ecological traditions. We began to realize that even though we had learned to speak English, they would never understand us— they did not speak our language. The only way for us to prove that this land had belonged to our ancestors for millennia was to use this ‘scientific proof.’ They call upon this ‘science’ to tell them the things we already know: the tla’usmit (herring) spawn in March, the muwac’ath (sockeye salmon) will return to the exact river they were born in four years after they spawn as fry and if you ask, trees will always tell you how old they are. Trees knew how to make food from sunlight long before scientists understood photosynthesis, nature holds more wisdom then science ever will. Cedar bark never grows back after it is stripped but the tree keeps track of how much time has passed. In land debates during this time the cedar spirits gave us the ‘scientific proof’ to beat them at their own game because they held the record of our respectful harvest of their bark. Now, all over the world CMTs are used as ‘scientific proof’ to legitimize Indigenous peoples’ claim to their land.”

Activity: Greet a Tree

Imagine all the things a tree has seen over hundreds of years growing in the forest? Sometimes it can be easy to overlook individual trees because they often stand as many and without close inspection they can all look the same. However, upon closer inspection, every tree is unique and holds clues that can help to tell you its story. This is an activity inspired by the Rediscovery curriculum of Thom Henley that enables participants to begin listen to the stories trees have to tell us.

For this activity participants will need to pair up and find something to use as a blindfold (a t-shirt or a toque works great). Ask all the pairs to choose who will be blindfolded and come together in one spot as a group while each pair puts on their blindfold. The person who is not wearing the blindfold can then (gently) spin or walk their blindfolded partner as to confuse their sense of direction. They may take whatever route they want towards a tree that they have chosen to introduce their blindfolded partner to. They will carefully guide their blind partner to the tree and one they have reached it, the seeing partner will place their partners hands on the tree. The blindfolded participant can then spend as long as 10 minutes getting to know the tree. Encourage blindfolded participants to use all senses— smell, touch, taste, hearing— to take in information about their tree. Once they feel complete with their tree, seeing partners will guide their blind counterparts back to the starting point, careful to confuse their sense of direction along the way back. Once back at the starting point, the blind partner will take off their blindfold and be asked to find the tree that they were led to. After this is complete, the pair will switch roles and repeat the activity.

After every pair has had an opportunity to play both roles ask everyone to take 20- 30 minutes of silent, alone space with their notebooks or journals (or writing utensils that you provide them). Ask them to reflect on their experiences greeting the tree when they were blind and journal from a gestalt perspective, writing from the position of the tree. After the time is up, bring the group together to share their writing or experiences of the exercise. Ask them if the way they look at trees has changed after doing this exercise.