Venerable, versatile cedar is generous with its many gifts
Seattle Times staff reporter
LUMMI NATION, Whatcom County — Fran James' hands know cedar, from its gnarly roots to its spicy, plaited boughs.
Each piece of the cedar tree, from root to crown, is vital to Northwest Indians. Western red cedar is the material of choice for master weavers like James, a Lummi tribal elder whose baskets grace the shelves of Seattle's Burke Museum.
Even with her failing eyesight, James weaves as she talks. Her sure, strong fingers raise a rustle as she works. Her son Bill sits alongside, splitting bark for future baskets, cutting it thinner than he used to, to make it easier on her hands.
Cedar is more than a tree to the Indian people, it is a general store, a place of worship and an integral part of sacred ceremonies.
It is a venerable tree: Thuja plicata will live 1,000 years or more.
A mixer and mingler, Western red cedar intersperses itself between Douglas fir, alder and big leaf maple, and prefers filtered light to full sun.
Western red cedar grows along the Pacific coast from Northern California to southeastern Alaska. It stands out in the forest, with its drooping, spreading branches that turn upward at the tips. While the firs, with their upswept arms, seem to be forever cheering a three-point basket, the cedar has a weeping aspect.
And unlike the fir's sharp needles, the cedar's leaves are flat and smooth, with plaited scales that reflect the silvery light of the winter sky.
Up close, the tree is fragrant, especially in a rainy blow. Its bark is shaggy and silvered on the trunk, and bright cinnamon brown on its lacy branches, called withes.
Cedar wood is not strong enough to be used for framing; instead it's valued for decking, roofing, patio furniture and trim. The wood contains complex, naturally occurring chemicals that repel fungus and insects, and create cedar's fresh aroma.
The same chemicals make the wood slow to rot by helping block the bonding of water molecules to the wood.
Cedar is also unusually stable because its long fibers — 100 times longer than they are wide — make the wood resistant to warping or twisting. Its cellular structure is open, with air spaces that make the wood a great insulator, as well as lightweight. It has no pitch or resin, making it easier to paint or stain.
A delight to carve or weave; water, rot and insect resistant; fragrant and beautiful — asked what cedar means to Indian people, for Bill the answer was easy: "It is life."
Lummi master carver Jewell Praying Wolf James — Bill James' cousin — says cedar is one of the many creations by the Great Spirit during the first era of genesis, when all non-human things that exist today were created.
The Great Spirit decided to have more children — humans — and sent the Transformer, or Changer, to persuade the older brothers and sisters of creation, including the cedar, to take final form. When they did so, they were to be sure to give a gift to the children — us — who were considered their younger siblings, Jewell said.
"People say, 'Oh, that's the old noble savage thing, from 300 years ago.' " Jewell said. "No. It's part of the sacred knowledge: The cedar was one of those spirits that wanted to give you everything."
Tribal teachings also instruct that cedar be regarded and gathered with reverence, respect and gratitude. The cedar is also a silent teacher of patience, restraint and humility for those who weave or carve it.
"In keeping with the teachings, we have to be careful what we put into our work," said Jewell. "You have to put good thoughts into it." A flaw is also worked into every creation that only the artist will see, Jewell said.
"Only God is perfect."
The cedar was used by the ancient Coast Salish people for everything from diapers to clothing, hats and baskets woven from its bark. House planks and posts, totems, mortuary poles and canoes were carved from its trunk. Drums, rattles, feast bowls, bentwood boxes, fish weirs and fish nets — all were made from cedar.
The fresh green branches also have ceremonial purpose. Some Coast Salish gatherings still begin with a quick walk across the floor while waving cedar branches, to dispel bad feelings that could get in the way of time together.
And if a tribal member needs to be spiritually and mentally cleansed, cedar branches, lightly dusted over the body in a so-called brushing-off ceremony, pull away that which needs to be removed.
Cedar groves are places of spiritual renewal and contemplation. "We go to the mountains just to smell the trees, feel the trees, to wake up and be alive," said Fran. "You get your lungs just filled with that fresh aroma."
Summertime, when the sap is running, is bark-gathering time.
"We talk to the trees. We say, 'OK, we need some of your bark to help us; we'll make something beautiful.' " Fran James said. "You have to talk to it, and thank it for giving you the bark. You have to go with a good heart. You can't be cranky and fussy."
It's a team effort. Bill makes a small horizontal cut in the bark, then lifts it, and feeds the strip behind him to Fran, who walks it back as he pulls it up and off the tree.
Bill is careful to take only a small piece, so the tree can heal the scar. He takes it from the southwest side of the tree, where it will be bathed with warm rain, never from the cold north side, where the tree could freeze. "We never kill a tree."
As cedar becomes more scarce, carvers and weavers have had to turn to nontraditional sources. Fran is grateful to a nearby log yard that sets cedar logs aside for tribal members to gather bark. Logging companies have also donated entire cedar logs for carving.
Much of the big cedar available for logging is already gone in Washington; the majority of the cedar used in this country comes from Canada.
There are still some giants left. The Olympic Peninsula is home to some of the largest cedars ever known, including the Quinault Lake Cedar, the world's largest known Western red cedar, according to Robert Van Pelt of the University of Washington. It is 174 feet high and hollow at its base, with several roomlike chambers that earned it the nickname House Tree. Its single trunk extends to more than 70 feet as a 12- to 15-foot-thick column before breaking up in to several massive trunks.
Smaller, second-growth logs aren't nearly as desirable for carving, Jewell said. The grain is not as tight, straight or smooth as old growth, and the wood has soft, pulpy spots between wider growth rings.
"The cedar is being wiped out, and monoculture forests are taking over," Jewell said. "It's harder and harder to find cedar for the basket-makers and the carvers. The spirit societies need access to this wood, and to forests that are pristine for visioning, bathing and ceremonies. We see devastation when we go into the forests, hoping to find balance in the relationship with creation."
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Natural Wonders appears every other Monday.