When Amanda Lewis, a burnt-out book editor, and “completionist,” set out to visit all the Champion trees in British Columbia, she was also tracking something lost during a “difficult” relationship with her goal-and-checklist life. Academic success, professional accomplishments, and a stint in Toronto had somehow come at the cost of joy.
“I needed to regain my confidence,” she writes in Tracking Giants.
After moving back to Vancouver, Lewis gave herself a project: she would visit all of B.C.’s biggest trees.
Champion is a designation given to the largest known examples of each tree species, a score calculated using the tree trunk’s diameter at breast height, the tree’s height, and crown spread. The BC BigTree Registry, a project spearheaded by Randy Stoltmann, author of Guide to the Record Trees of British Columbia (published in 1993) and stewarded after his death by the Faculty of Forestry at the University of British Columbia, would be her guide.
A novice naturalist and casual hiker, Lewis sets out in a Toyota Yaris nicknamed Trouble, determined not to let inexperience and questionable wilderness skills get in the way of bagging her quarry.
Her quest to visit all 55 Champions begins with Scouler’s willow, near Vancouver’s Jericho Beach. Lewis arrives with a tennis ball in hand to use as an object for scale in the photo she plans to take. She finds the tree, at least she thinks she does, but as with any worthwhile endeavour, this journey is not going to be that easy.
In the tradition of nature writing that uses landscape as a tool to explore and transform our inner selves and our relationship to the world, Lewis calls upon the tree to do its work: What is the willow trying to tell her?
“There must be a lesson in its long leaves, a koan in its gnarled bark,” she frets, already stressed. Instead of transcendence, what comes back is … “Oh man, I have to pee so bad.”
“When it came down to it, I was just a girl standing in front of a tree, asking it to change my life,” Lewis writes.
Spiked with wit, self-deprecating humour, and a bright, light-beam approach to philosophy, Tracking Giants is dotted with beautiful descriptive passages and local tree history. Lewis journeys from Champion to Champion, from bitter cherry to weeping birch, cascara, and fir to stumps, vagina trees, and lonely souls left standing in clear-cuts.
Along the way, her efforts to “impose a color-coded spreadsheet on the blank slate, to apply knowing to nothingness for the goal of a checkmark,” fall away. Lewis learns that “assigning trees significance based on their size misses the mark when considering their role in the ecosystem.”
This is progress, not defeat.
The story grows its own captivating heartwood. At its centre is not the tree tracker, but the tree itself, that being connected to a complex system will, with care, outlast all of us, our quests to conquer, our ambitions to be the best and make our mark.
“Trees show us what we value when we plant them, when we protect them, and when we cut them down; in doing so, they’re a reflection of our desires and our worldviews,” Lewis writes.
Anyone who reads this book will find themselves looking at trees in a new way, searching the sky for their crowns, and will marvel at not just their beauty, but their necessity.
In the end, Lewis is no longer a hunter of Champions, but a champion herself – a champion of trees – no longer a seeker of transformation but a human being in service of something greater.