Tofino, British Columbia is part of the traditional homeland of the Nuu-chah-nulth, fifteen related tribes of Canada's Pacific Northwest coast. The Nuu-chah-nulth share a philosophy of hishuk ish ts’ awalk, which is that every being is accorded respect for its own unique value and contribution to the greater good. There is a profound recognition that the authentic nature inherent in every organism plays a role in the well-being of the broader community. Honoring that inter-dependency fosters an environment where all can thrive.
“The interconnectedness of all living things is both a simple and complex principle. To the Nuu-chah-nulth . . . [it] is not even second nature, it is first nature,’’ said Joe Martin, a member of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation. “We understand that if you harm a part of your environment, you harm yourself. Lower salmon stocks have an impact on larger fish, marine mammals such as whales, bears, wolves, and humans.’
Totems Significant in Tofino, British Columbia
Joe is a master canoe carver in Tofino, British Columbia. When he was a boy, he and his father searched the forest looking for wood from which to make canoes. Joe’s father passed on an early lesson that he said is part of natural law: “Don’t cut down a tree within 100 yards of an eagle’s nest. The eagles are a gift from the Creator.”
Joe is from Opitsaht, a community across from Tofino that means“meeting place.” He spoke of his community’s “constitution” and instructions on how to behave. These teachings are handed down not through the written word, but through crests on carved, wooden totem poles.
There are several totems in front of his family’s home, each erected to commemorate a significant event. The top crest of each totem is a thunderbird–folded wings symbolize female ancestry; open, male ancestry. On the chest of the thunderbird is a sun or moon, emblematic of respecting each other, all life, and that nature provides for need, but not greed. The bottom crest, typically a wolf, bear or killer whale, represents clans that uphold natural law.
Nuu-chah-nulth People Fight For Their Rare Ecosystem
The Nuu-chah-nulth people have lived here for millennia. Their communities flourished along the wild, west coast, in balance with the Pacific and the ancient rain forest. But over the past 150 years, settlers engaged in unsustainable extraction of the abundant timber and marine life. By the 1980s, the damage to Clayoquot Sound from logging led to increased collaboration to protect this rare ecosystem. As a result, the sound was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2000.
Treasure Washed Ashore in Tofino, British Columbia
Charles McDiarmid, the Managing Director of Tofino's Wickanninish Inn (also known as the "Wick"), grew up in Tofino, British Columbia. He spent a lot of his childhood exploring Clayoquot Sound in a 12-foot aluminum boat with a nine-horsepower motor. He and a friend were fogged in on the west side of Vargas Island on one of their excursions. The teenagers had no option but to draw ashore, construct a fire, and settle in for the night despite the fact that they were meant to be home by nightfall. For McDiarmid, it was an early lesson in acceptance, one that he has come to see regularly bears blessings.
“I learned I have to go along with what Mother Nature is delivering, not necessarily what is on my program,” he chuckled. “But while the ocean can sometimes separate us, it also joins us.”
"When just the right kind of storm came up, with the tides and winds perfectly aligned, we’d get up at high tide, sometimes at 3:00 a.m. and beach comb for glass floats used by Japanese fisherman to hold up their nets,” he continued. “The green balls were hand-blown and wrapped in rope, and a huge treasure along our rocky coast, as the only place they would wash ashore unscathed were on the few stretches of hard packed sand of Chesterman and Long Beach."
Appreciating Connectedness in the Community
Artie Ahier, owner of Sobo restaurant in Tofino, considers himself a link in the area’s larger community.
“We have the glamorous side of things, but the salmon fishermen who get up at 4:30 a.m. on a dreary, rainy day have to be passionate about what they do for us to look good,’’ he said.
"It’s a small world here on the island, on the edge of the rain forest, and we try to help each other out,’’ Ahier continued. “I can go to any of the other restaurants in town and say, I’m out of this or that, and they’ll provide it, and they know I’ll do the same."
The Wick’s McDiarmid considers it a responsibility, as part of growing up and living in this spectacular natural environment, to assist others in appreciating the concept that everything is united. “When you care for one another, when you care for the environment, it comes back to you. Call it karma if you will or ‘hishuk ish ts’ awalk.’ By doing what we do every day we hope to have others see this for themselves, to carry this feeling with them and share it in turn with others.”
Tofino Botanical Gardens, and a Living Lesson
Another day, pulling into the 12-acre Tofino Botanical Gardens which are home to some of the most beautiful nature on Vancouver Island, we were struck by gigantic-leafed, prehistoric-looking plants called gunnera, found all over the area. Beginning our self-guided tour, we wandered through the kitchen and herb gardens.
Its twelve acres are a celebration of life in all its vibrant diversity, encompassing gardens, rain forest, and shoreline. Following a boardwalk path, my husband Tom and I were enveloped in the verdant surroundings, and led from one enchanting cul-de-sac to the next, each presenting a magical surprise.
“One of our mantras is that a garden is a good place to learn how to take what we need from nature without diminishing it,’’ said George Patterson, garden director.
“The major benefit of gardening is that it encourages humility," Patterson said. "Much of the ‘grand scheme’ I started with in 1997 has been left behind in the mud, sweat and tears. Now, I will be a happy man if the Cardiocrinum giganteum (Giant Himalayan Lily) continue to flower. The idea of this garden is that it can be both a kind of basic introduction to the natural and cultural history of Clayoquot Sound, and a place where the relationship between culture and nature can be explored.”
At the cusp of the Old Growth Boardwalk, we studied a “nurse log,’’ a miniature universe of plants and insects that transforms the dead wood into new growth. Indeed, throughout one of the few remaining virgin forests on the Tofino Peninsula, we saw huge towering trees rising from these life-giving stumps.
What to do in Tofino? Connect with Abundant Botany and Birdlife!
Eileen Floody of Tofino Botanical Gardens reeled off a lyrical litany of just some of the trees found here, the names of each evocative of wonderful smells and strange shapes: “There are about half dozen or so evergreen tree species which dominate Clayoquot Sound–Western red cedar and yellow cedar, Douglas fir, hemlock, shore pine, white pine, western yew and Sitka spruce.”
“Ferns abound, with the most frequent being bracken fern, deer fern, sword fern and licorice fern,” she continued. “As you might imagine, flowers and other small plants are too many to list, but most obvious here are bunchberry, swamp lantern—or skunk cabbage, false lily-of-the-valley, lupines, fireweed, foxglove and horsetail. Mosses, lichens and moss-like plants also abound, with a frequent one being usnea which lives on tree branches, especially alder.”
Of birdlife she says: “We see them all go through here at one time or another, as the Tofino Mudflats Wildlife Management Area is an important feeding station for migratory birds. Year round we see bald eagles, blue herons, along with smaller birds such as Stellar’s jays, woodpeckers, and kingfisher. Migrating birds are many and various, with the shorebirds being the most prominent: snow geese, lots more ducks, plovers, sandpipers, sanderling, dunlin and whimbrels. On the water, cormorants, oystercatchers, ducks, grebes and loons are here for most of the year, bur wander widely for food.”
Staying Connected Through Sculptures in Tofino, British Columbia
Eventually, we reached the shore and mudflats, an ecosystem that hosts up to 330 species of 200,000 migrating birds each spring and fall. We trailed after a brilliant blue Steller’s jay with a its plumed black head, as it rustled in the bushes and darted ahead of us on the path.
Offshoots from the main forest trail lead to cul-de-sacs featuring art that celebrates the varied cultures that have made Clayoquot Sound home: the Nuu-chah-nulth people, pioneer homesteaders, Japanese fishing families, and hippies. Sculptures include a psychedelic mural on an old VW bus, a copper cougar with a verdigris coat that seemed ready to pounce, an immense primitive totem head, an elegant gray wooden heron posing in the reeds of a lily pond, and a wire humanoid stationed at a desk with a rusted typewriter.
According to Patterson, most of the sculptures are by Michael Dennis, who lives on Denman Island, off the eastern coast of Vancouver Island. He uses local, natural materials, such as salvaged cedar pulled from old logging sites, cast-off pieces that would normally be burned.
“He thinks a lot about ancestors, cave shadows, reflection, and fire when producing his pieces." Patterson remarked. "His work addresses many universal issues and worries that everyone has - who we are, what we are a part of, and where we came from?’’
"We Are All One"
Michael Dennis expanded on Patterson's introduction.
“Our ancetors lived in caves, if we go back far enough "he said. "They ate and slept like us, with a few technological differences: they laughed and argued, sang and danced, or sat silently by the fire. On the walls, the firelight cast shadows of their lives. I make an effort to sculpt those shadows."
"These figures are created by selecting cedar trunks which by their twist and curve carry some implication of humanity," he continued. "These forms I then accentuate by judicious sculpting of the wood, being ever careful as I remove material to retain some of the natural forms of the trees of origin in the final shapes. By this, I hope that the viewer may see not only the intended human gestures but also some of the gestures of the trees from which they derive. In this sense the figures are also ancestors of trees; they acknowledge the majesty of large trees.”
My visit to Tofino, British Columbia gave me a welcome reawakening. The hush of a forest, the wonder of seeing a ray of light break through high branches, the flap of wings awakening me to the presence of small creatures–-these were all gentle reminders to notice and be grateful for our connectedness.
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Publisher and editor of People Are Culture (PAC). This article was created by original reporting that sourced expert commentary from local cultural standard-bearers. Those quoted provide cultural and historical context that is unique to their role in the community and to this article.