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Nurse Trees support new life in the forest. Photo by Bill Phipps

Life and death and life 

A visit to Haida Gwaii

By Carolyn Pogue

For years, my husband and I had talked about visiting Haida Gwaii, an archipelago on the northwest coast of British Columbia.

Now that we’ve hiked the Golden Spruce Trail, stood beneath a silvered totem pole and seen the Haida Cultural Centre at Skidegate, we are determined to return next year.

Once called the Queen Charlotte Islands, Haida Gwaii is famous for sea otters, eagles, ravens and master carvers such as Bill Reid. Artist and writer Emily Carr came here a century ago to sketch and paint totems. Through her art, Carr gave the rest of Canada and the world a glimpse of Haida art and people.

On the north island, we walked the beaches, camped by the ocean and learned of the white raven. We took in some history of the Haida Nation: 10,000 strong at the time of contact some 230 years ago, they now comprise about 2,500, or half the population of the islands. And yet Haida culture is thriving: the governance is matrilineal; the language is on a comeback.

As visitors, the overarching feeling we had was of peace. It’s not only the laid back friendly people or the myths floating in the mists. Walking forest trails, the only sounds were distant birds and our own steps falling soft on the hemlock and spruce needles.

In a compelling way, the peace of the forest also brought me face-to-face with death: fallen leviathan trees; tangles of roots; mosses, mushrooms and fungi feeding on rotting debris. Simultaneously, there is life: the fallen behemoths become nurse trees for hemlock, spruce, pine, fern and grasses. Everywhere, life and death sing one symphony.

Haida Gwaii provides other opportunities to contemplate life and death. It’s at the end of the road (the Yellowhead Highway) — or the beginning. The cemetery in Old Massett contains the repatriated remains of Haida whose bodies or bones had been stolen for museum display. Here, and at the Tow Road Cemetery, many of the plots are adorned with photos and personal mementos, such as a soccer ball on the grave of a 20-year-old. Death is not a row of identical gravestones in perfect rows, but an individual expression of creativity and tenderness.

In both the forest and the cemeteries, it struck me that people here are more willing to let be, to accept and celebrate the cycle of life and death. It’s a lesson I hope to carry with me for the remainder of my own life.

Author's photo
Carolyn Pogue is a longtime Observer contributor. New posts of The Pogue Blog will appear on the first and third Thursday of the month. For more information on Carolyn Pogue, visit www.carolynpogue.ca..
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