Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Filmmaker chronicles love affair with 'Frankenstein' tree

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
September 9, 2009


Dan Pierce first gazed upon a dead tree, about which he had heard so much, on a rainy fall day a year ago.

He knew much of the lore of the tree, which had maintained a silent vigil for some eight centuries. He knew it had been a tourist attraction, a sight to be shown to foreign dignitaries, a place for residents to pose for photographic portraits.

He also knew the tree was in grave danger, facing the axe despite vocal opposition.

Those who were trying to save it wanted the young filmmaker to record their efforts. They offered to buy film equipment. They included a small stipend. They also promised him full editorial control.

Must be some kind of tree, he thought.

Through the drizzle, he could see the tree — more of a stump, actually — at a crazy angle. It tilted about 14 degrees to the east. (To compare, the famed Tower of Pisa leaned just 5.5 degrees until righted slightly earlier this decade.) A pair of struts propped the stump. Wires and steel seemed to be holding it together.

An ugly blue fence surrounded the site, protecting passersby from the tree should it tumble.

“It looked sad,” he said. “Like Frankenstein.”

He decided to do the documentary anyway.

He thought a story was to be found in the passionate characters who wished to preserve the tree, and those who thought nature should be allowed to run its course.

Added to the mix are those who think it foolhardy to spend money to preserve a dead tree, a not entirely unreasonable assertion if one was speaking of an object with less emotional appeal than the Hollow Tree in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.

A Western red cedar, it grew to be greater than five metres in girth until likely killed by a lightning strike some time before the surrounding land formally became a park. It is a reminder of the arboreal giants logged a century ago.

In 1890, just four years after the founding of the city, six men posed in front of the tree. One of them, a fellow named McCallum, wore an apron and carried a serving tray. A rough, handpainted sign had been nailed to the rear of the tree’s opening. “Stanley Park Hotel,” it read. “Drinks, cigars, 2 bits.”

The Hollow Tree, also known as the Big Tree, became a civic landmark. Locals posed next to the giant stump on horseback, with bicycles, in horse-drawn carriages. In 1904, William Hayward, proprietor of the Commercial Hotel, rode to the stump in a motorized vehicle known as a White Steamer. All manner of early Fords, Daimlers and Oldsmobiles, including those with the rounded carriage that led to its nickname as the Rolling Peanut, made the journey. Harry Hooper, recognized as the city’s first taxi driver, often piloted his nine-seat sightseeing car to the tree, which soon became the image of the striving port city projected to the world.

Men wore top hats and women dressed in their fussy Edwardian finery.

Visiting officials were shown the tree by proud mayors. The head of the Kingston Penitentiary paid a visit, as did men from the Japanese embassy. Earl and Lady Grey saw the tree several decades before a local professional football team managed to claim the silver cup bearing his name.

Lord Strathcona made a pilgrimage in the company of Sir Mackenzie Bowell, a former prime minister.

Soldiers on leave, picnicking lovers, and families all stopped at a tree also favoured by publishers of postcards.

Around 1910, an immigrant named Luigi Trasolini brought his wife and two infant children to the park in a buggy pulled by a horse. Little Norman grew up to become a popular ballplayer nicknamed Bananas, while his sister, Tosca, earned renown as a pioneer aviatrix with a group of women pilots known as the Flying Seven.

A few months earlier, the African-American boxer Jack Johnson, fresh from his triumph over the Canadian Tommy Burns (born Noah Brusso) to become world heavyweight champion, clowned at the tree, wearing a hat sideways as a tricorn while sticking an arm inside his jacket in an impersonation of Napoleon.

Over time, the lantern slides, glass negatives, and stereoscopic images taken by professionals were replaced by the Brownie snapshots, Polaroid stills, and digital images captured by amateurs.

As a documentarian, Mr. Pierce, 23, filmed workers shoring up the interior with a cribbing that looks like a tower of Jenga blocks. He filmed park board meetings, including the one earlier this year in which two earlier votes to cut down the tree were overturned by a decision to allow the Stanley Park Hollow Tree Conservation Society to preserve the stump with funds raised by donations.

Mr. Pierce, who was raised in Stoney Creek, Ont., decided to become a filmmaker while working as a clerk at a Blockbuster outlet, inspired by the 10 free rentals he enjoyed each week. He graduated with a bachelor of fine arts degree from Simon Fraser University last year, then got $8,000 worth of equipment plus a $2,000 stipend from the conservation society for his film. He recently won a grant of $4,000 from the National Film Board. He continues to canvass for anyone with opinions or anecdotes about the tree, good or bad, happy or sad.

Among those filmed include the author and artist Doug Coupland, whom he says told a winning tale of mischief involving the tree.

“When you get close and can touch the tree, you can feel its energy,” Mr. Pierce said. “That’s when you realize it’s worth saving.”

A trailer for the documentary has been posted to YouTube. It includes a remarkable shot in which touring members of the Vancouver Historical Society decide on a whim to see how many can fit inside the interior. Five enter, then 10, then 20, more flowing inside as Mr. Pierce and his camera slowly back away from the opening.

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