Greenheart Aerial Canopy at UBC Botanical Gardens
Article by: Melissa Haynes
Hollywood screenwriters and literary legends have long relied on the mystery, adventure and magic a forest holds to tell their stories. And it’s no wonder after visiting the only aerial forest walkway in Canada: Greenheart Canopy at UBC Botanical Gardens.
The weather is drizzly and grey – perfect conditions to meander through a coastal temperate rain forest only footsteps from where I live on Vancouver’s west side.
There is nobody else here, just my guides Bianca, an equally bubbly and beautiful Brazilian girl, Ian the passionate conservationist behind the operation and Matthew who has a Masters in Forestry Conservation. Tour buses don’t come here, it is one of the city’s best-kept secrets but it is too magnificent not to share here. And to be honest we weren’t entirely alone. Bald eagles call this place their home: dozens of them in fact. This aerial park atop a sea cliff provides the perfect conditions of ocean winds and trees for eagles to soar. From the volar playground their screeches of joy can be heard as they chase and dive-bomb one another in adolescent bliss.
As we began the gentle and easy ascent through the forest canopy I half expect to see ewoks and storm troopers whizzing past on speeder bikes but I soon realize that the forest is far more entertaining than any Hollywood blockbuster. The canopy is where all the action is and up until now this unique view of the forest has been reserved for squirrels and woodpeckers. Solid and serene Giants, they are no longer towering above – we are now at ‘eye-level’ and an entirely new intimate relationship is quickly forming.
Like any good script, the forest has heroes and villains, love affairs and wars – and yes, I’m still talking about the trees. Trees, according to Matthew are competitive warriors and size doesn’t always matter – which may bring relief to some. Some use brute force to strangle their competitor’s life support system, while the shade-tolerant Western Hemlock employs intellect and patience to snuff out his competition. Under the branches of his taller neighbors the young Hemlock slowly accumulates dense foliage to sun-starve his vertically challenged competitors. The patient Hemlock then waits for one of his neighboring giants to succumb to disease or a particularly violent windstorm, leaving behind a window in the canopy. The enduring Hemlock then leaps into action growing tall and strong – easily done when the competition has long since been eliminated.
Armed with this new knowledge, the famous tree battle scene from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings isn’t such a far stretch of the imagination after all. And even Tolkien – an avid tree lover himself, defined his characters as good or evil in part by their feelings about trees. Many of the evil forces in his story are tree-destroyers. Conversely all the good people of Tolkien’s world are tree lovers 1.
But there are healers, nurturers and love affairs in the forest as well. The medicinal scent of the Grand Fir overtakes my olfactory senses at the first platform. For thousands of years our native people have used it as an antibiotic and antiseptic and still do today. Compassionate trees act as supportive crutches for damaged or weak trees and fallen trees provide a nursery for young saplings to grow until eventually their roots outgrow the nursery and they ‘walk out’.
Stringy green moss hugs branches in a symbiotic lover’s embrace and woodpeckers pluck away annoying and potentially fatal termite infestations. The more Mathew speaks, the more my appreciation for the forest grows: it’s like seeing an old friend in a new, fascinating light. James Cameron dreamed of the makings of Avatar since he was a teenager for his lifelong love of trees is sacred as depicted in this award-winning film and sacred these giants are.
Trees are intelligent beings that have a lot to teach humankind. Strong and solid they endure Mother Nature’s ferocious windstorms: yes the weak ones fall but others survive because they’ve learned to ‘roll with it’. Patience, strategy, nurturing and survival – the forest is a proficient master in all.
Countries like Bhutan and scientists like Dr. Elizabeth Nisbet, assistant professor of psychology at Trent University have proven the distinct correlation between nature and happiness. In Bhutan GNH – Gross National Happiness is more important than GNP.
Greenheart, a privately owned company, recognizes that presenting nature with a little dose of adrenaline brings out the conservationist in anyone who experiences it and that is what will protect nature in the future as government funding dwindles. The forest, as Ian says with a boyish smile, ‘provides the perfect environment for growing good, strong humans’. The unique design of the aerial walkway does no harm to the trees and protects the forest floor from being trampled. No heavy equipment is used; everything is carried in and built by hand. A tourist attraction without the destruction of mass consumption.
Trees are healers, trees are nurturers, trees are warriors but most of all trees are intelligent beings – just pick up any Tolkien book – or any literary classic for that matter and one can see how they have fueled imaginations for centuries.
The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a Green thing that stands in the way. Some see Nature all Ridicule and Deformity…and some scarce see Nature at all. But to the eyes of the Man of Imagination, Nature is Imagination itself. -William Blake, 18th century English poet.
Melissa Haynes is the author of Learning to Play with a Lion’s Testicles: A South African expression that means learning to take chances
1 Essay: Tolkien’s Trees by Claudia Riff Finseth