They grow as if cork-screwing out of the ground, the longitudinal strips of their bark spiraled and turning upward. Their roots grab the earth like fingers, then lift and hold the trunk as it bends and winds around obstacles. You get the feeling, in a cedar grove, as if great intention occurred over a sustained period of time. As if one tree were rushing to the side of another tree over, say, 500 years or more because cedars, I am told, grow very, very slowly.
The Northern White Cedar, or thuja occidentalis, is a species of evergreen in the cypress family.It’s not their size you’ll find impressive – they range in diameter from 12 – 24 inches with modest heights 40 to 50 feet tall – but rather the difficult conditions in which they grow. They tolerate large amounts of shade and damp, taking root at the edge of swamps, lakes, rivers, and boglands throughout southeastern Canada and the adjacent northern forest regions. Individual stands may live beyond 500 years of age, though I’ve found written reports of white cedars 1,397 years old living in southern Ontario, with rings counted as high as 1,500 on felled timbers.
Although not currently listed as endangered, these trees are experiencing a disturbing decline, threatened in many areas by the high numbers of deer encouraged by hunting associations. Deer find the cedar foliage an attractive winter food, and strip it rapidly. They also enjoy bedding down under the canopies.
We have an ancient grove of white cedar growing adjacent to our property, and last week the kids and I took a walk among them. We wore sturdy, water-resistant boots, and I brought along the camera. Federal agencies are currently practicing a no-harvesting policy when it comes to these trees, so despite the logging that has been done all around us, this magical cedar grove still stands. (The wood is the most decay-resistant you can find, very aromatic, and with the heartwood making up nearly 100% of the lumber due to its extremely slow growth. They are popularly used for outdoor furniture, not to be confused with Western Red Cedar, also aromatic, but much larger, and with different lumber.)
It’s very easy to get turned around once you are in the grove. The trees rise darkly around you, and some of their roots travel such vast distances, you lose track of what is coming from where. Fortunately, my children are blessed with a sense of direction, and we made it out of the grove so I can share these pictures with you. These trees are a testament to adaptivity. Pattison State Park, known for having the largest waterfall in Wisconsin, has many wonderful groves of protected cedar along its walking paths and hiking trails. I encourage you to walk among them, as you will find at the least a new perspective on what it means to persevere.