Forest wake brings Comox community together to grieve loss of second-growth trees

Forest wake brings Comox community together to grieve loss of second-growth trees
Photo by Madeline Dunnett/The Discourse
Save Our Forest Comox Valley is a volunteer organization that partakes in old growth and urban forest advocacy.

Holding a wake for a forest may not be the most common way to spend a Saturday morning, but some Comox Valley residents gathered to do just that last weekend.

The wake was hosted by local, volunteer-run Save Our Forests Comox Valley (SOFT-CV). It invited people to come together on the unceded traditional territory of K’ómoks First Nation to mourn a patch of second growth forest off of Pritchard Road that was recently logged for development.

“Be kind [and] respectful of one another. This is a wake, not a political rally,” said Wendy McNiven, volunteer member of SOFT-CV, in an opening speech.

The Merriam-Webster definition of a wake is “a watch held over the body of a dead person prior to burial and sometimes accompanied by festivity.”

The practice of watching over a corpse can be traced back through Celtic history but the custom changed to include prayer as Christianity was introduced. It later became obsolete in England during reformation, but survived in Ireland, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

The event held by SOFT-CV wasn’t a wake in its most traditional sense, according to the dictionary definition, but it still involved a watch over lost living beings — the trees.

According to the Town of Comox, this section of land in the North Pritchard area was first identified for development in 1984. This was confirmed in 1994 through an Official Community Plan update (OCP), and again in another OCP update in 2011. Photo by Madeline Dunnett/The Discourse

‘We have lost a loved one’

Participants were invited to come together and grieve the loss of the forest, listen to music and poetry and hear speeches from various community members.

Alongside McNiven, speakers included Megan Ardyche, one of SOFT-CV’s founding members; Comox Councillor Jonathan Kerr, former Coun. Barbara Price and Comox Valley Land Trust president Leslie Giroday. Dan Vie came to the stage to provide music and SOFT-CV member Mel McLachlan read a poem he wrote.

Holding a wake or ceremony for a tree or a stand of fallen trees is not a new concept. After a totem pole is carved, it is common practice amongst First Nations to hold a ceremony of gratitude for the tree that has fallen.

World-renowned artist Roy Henry Vickers — who is of Haida, Heiltsuk, Tsimshian and mixed European ancestry — said that “each tree is like a human being; it has its own personality and uniqueness,”

Read more: Magic mountain, melting snow: Climate uncertainty in the Comox Valley

The forest wake comes alongside a broader sweep of environmental events that deal with ecological grief as a result of climate change. Recently, a mock funeral procession was held in the UK to mourn the loss of biodiversity in the country. In 2019, 100 people hiked to a glacier in Iceland to hold a funeral for Okjokull, a glacier deemed dead in 2014 by glaciologist Oddur Sigurðsson. The funeral included speeches and poetry readings, and brought conversations surrounding climate grief and mourning into the public discourse.

McNiven said that the collective grieving of the land is important, and that healing lies in connection to others. She expressed her gratitude to be able to learn how to be in relationship with the land.

“It can be said that the Earth is our mother. When we grieve for this forest’s loss, it’s not exactly the same as losing a human family member, but there is a similar sense of finality about it. We have lost a loved one,” McNiven said.

Jonathan Kerr, a local physician and councillor for the Town of Comox spoke at the event as well. In an interview with The Discourse he said he sees eco-grief and anxiety both in his community and in his work as a doctor, especially in younger patients.

“It’s a real thing — their anxiety about the world, about their future.”

He said eco-grief can lead to feelings of hopelessness, and lead many to wonder what the point is of anything if the world is being destroyed. Kerr thinks it’s a good idea to provide space for the community to grieve.

“I mean, this was a very beautiful forest that was just clear cut in the name of more housing,” Kerr said. “There was once this [other] beautiful second growth forest [beside the high school]. You drive past it now … and it’s a giant clear cut.”

He noted that evidence of what was once there is still seen today as families of deer wander the area looking for a new home.

McNiven said that collective grief is a part of a larger sadness and fear for the Earth’s whole ecosystem. It is related to the current climate emergency, biodiversity and “more immediately, the possibility of a dry summer which will affect our local gardens and food security.”

Jonathan Kerr read a poem inspired by Dr. Suess: ‘‘Finally, I leave you with Dr. Suess’ famous words at the end of my rant, May these words be a seed you take to heart and plant, Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” Photo by Madeline Dunnett/The Discourse

Forest land first identified for development in the 1980s

According to the Town of Comox, the North Pritchard neighbourhood area was first identified for development in the 1980s, and it is under single family zoning. In a memo from February 2024, the town provided various directions to explore different residential density options in the neighbourhood “with the goal of providing affordable housing, retaining more trees and ensuring servicing infrastructure and maintenance costs are recovered.”

The town is legally obligated to process applications received for single family zoning in the area. The town, however, is not required to follow its tree retention policy for this area because the “application is a subdivision and not a rezoning application,” according to the memo.

Jordan Wall, chief administrative officer for the Town of Comox, confirmed that the applications they received for the location were from developer Simba Investments, with engineering work done by a company called McElhanney.

Wall said the town shared increased density scenarios with Simba investments, but the developer chose to move forward with the current single family zoning.

He also said the Town of Comox is nearing completion of a Climate Action Plan which will go to council some time in the late spring or early summer. The town has also been approved for an ecological accounting grant to help document the town’s “ecological assets, their value and how to properly care for them.”

Councillor says region needs to be more intentional about where housing is built

The Comox Valley’s vacancy rate is lower than most others in the province, and the region is also experiencing a rise in homelessness. But Kerr thinks the valley should be doing more to think about where and how new housing developments are built.

“Absolutely we need more housing,” he said.

“On council, every meeting we have, it’s a real push for housing from the federal government and the provincial government, from our residents. Rents are too high, people can’t find a place to rent, people can’t find a place to live, young people in our community can’t afford a place to buy.”

“But,” he said, “does this push for more housing absolutely need to come at the expense of our urban forests and trees? I mean, can we look at the empty lots, the unforested land, and build on those instead? Can we increase density in areas that are already developed?”

McNiven said she did not want to minimize the complexities of the decisions that led to the loss of the forest.

“We do need housing, desperately. People need jobs and incomes,” she said.

But she pushed for the need to retain old trees and a healthy tree canopy in response to climate change.

“The task before us, even as we grieve, is to build bridges with those who share this beautiful part of the world, no matter what side we are on. We are all humans together. And we all need a healthy planet. Ultimately, without a healthy planet … nothing else will matter. Nothing.”

At the end of the event, McNiven invited guests to whisper their wish, prayer or action into cupped hands and blow it into the wind, “letting the energy of these thoughts permeate the consciousness of Comox Valley,” she said.

As everyone whispered their quiet prayers into their hands, the wind blew through the crowd of people that had gathered along a dirt road for the forest wake.

Madeline Dunnett, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Discourse

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