A history of arbourcide

A man passes something to a woman. They're standing in front of a tree missing a ring of its bark. above the missing bark is police tape.
Workers collect bark cut off a tree at the Halifax Public Gardens on Tuesday, July 26, 2022. — Photo: Zane Woodford

One night last week, someone broke into the Halifax Public Gardens and “cut rings of bark off of at least a dozen trees — some 100 years old or more,” reported Zane Woodford:

“The Public Gardens are closed today due to an ongoing police investigation,” the institution tweeted. “It appears an individual or individuals broke into the gardens last night and damaged multiple trees with an axe. We are deeply disheartened by this senseless act.”

Girdling, the removal of a strip of bark around the circumference of the trunk, often kills trees. Most of the damaged trees at the public gardens visible from outside the fence on Tuesday had a strip removed all the way around their trunks.

It’s hard to understand this senseless act of vandalism, or perhaps better explained as tree assassination. Why would someone do this? But unfortunately, it is not unique.

Trees are often the tools for the assassination of people — think: Christ on the cross, and the terrible history of lynchings — so it’s jarring when the formula is reversed and people start assassinating trees.

But what exactly does it mean to assassinate a tree?

We kill trees all the time, for legitimate and useful purposes — trees warm our houses, become our houses, transform into furniture. No woodsman is a criminal for simply going to work.

In ecological terms, it’s the pace of arbourcide that matters.


a woman sitting in a tree
Julia Butterfly Hill living atop Luna in 1998. Photo: treesfoundation.org

When I lived in northern California, I watched in dismay as the old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest were methodically cleared, their ecosystems irreparably destroyed. It was a particularly egregious chapter of predatory capitalism: A reasonably responsible family run business, Pacific Lumber, was deemed underperforming because it let so many trees just stand there, simply living as unused capital assets. So Texan financier Charles Hurwitz floated junk bonds to take over the company, lumberers from across North America were employed in a decade-long spree of liquifying the capital assets; their work complete, there were neither jobs nor trees. Millions of trees were killed.

During the killing spree, environmentalists discovered an extensive grove of old-growth redwoods in the Humboldt Headwaters forest, which they were quite rightly worried would be targeted by Hurwitz. Soon, on Dec. 10, 1997, an earnest young woman named Julia Butterfly Hill climbed one of those trees, which she named Luna, and stayed there for two years. A hundred and fifty feet above the ground, Hill was buffeted by the torrential rain and hurricane-force winds of the Pineapple Expresses that slam into the rain forest; she quite literally put her body on the line for the forest.

Or at least for the tree.

The forest/tree distinction became clearer for me when the ultimate deal was reached: Luna and a small stand of trees around it would be preserved, off limits to loggers forever. Hill descended from tree, a heroine.

Here’s what was in the deal: in exchange for preserving the 2.9-acre plot, Hill and her supporters paid Pacific Lumber $50,000 for lost logging revenue.

Here’s what wasn’t in the deal: Any restriction whatsoever in the pace of Pacific Lumber’s operations. The minor inconvenience and bad press of the earnest young woman up a tree resolved, the company continued to devastate the forest on the other millions of acres it owned or leased.

The tree was saved, the forest was lost.

It’s a variation on the maxim misattributed to Stalin: The (potential) death of one tree is a tragedy; the death of millions is a statistic.

The Golden Bough

A yellowish tree in a forest of green trees
The golden spruce

On January 22, 1997, 11 months before Julia Butterfly Hill climbed Luna, a golden spruce in British Columbia was killed. Wrote John Vaillant for The New Yorker:

There was only one giant golden spruce in the world, and, until a man named Grant Hadwin took a chainsaw to it, in 1997, it had stood for more than three hundred years in a steadily shrinking patch of old-growth forest in Port Clements, on the banks of the Yakoun River, in the Queen Charlotte Islands. The Queen Charlottes, a blade-shaped archipelago that lies sixty miles off the northern coast of British Columbia and thirty miles south of the Alaskan coast, are one of a decreasing number of places in the Pacific Northwest where large stands of virgin coastal forest can still be found. Ecotourism is a growth industry here, and the golden spruce was a popular stop on visitors’ itineraries. The tree was also sacred to the Haida Indians, two thousand of whom still live on the islands.

The golden spruce was more than six feet in diameter, and Hadwin’s chainsaw had only a twenty-five-inch bar, but Hadwin had worked in the timber industry for years, and he knew how to make falling cuts. Leaving just enough of the core intact so that the tree would stand until the next windstorm, he returned by ferry from the island to the mainland port town of Prince Rupert.

Vaillant makes the case that Hadwin killed the tree because he saw that it was being idolized as the old-growth forests around it were being destroyed, a case of the wider culture failing to see the whole forest for the singular tree. In this case of arbourcide, killing a tree was an environmental protest.

Hadwin’s life story is fascinating — be sure to read Vaillant’s article, and maybe even the book he wrote about the same subject. Most everyone assumes Hadwin died while making a near-impossible midwinter kayak crossing of the Hecate Strait, but his body has never been recovered. Vaillant suggests that Hadwin may have survived:

Sometime during the Thanksgiving weekend of 2000, someone made a nearly fatal chainsaw cut in Luna, the massive California redwood made famous by the environmental activist Julia Butterfly Hill, who spent two years living in the tree’s branches. As with the golden spruce, the cut did not fell the tree, but left it extremely vulnerable to high winds.

Luna survived the attack and still stands today.

Julia Butterfly Hill is now a motivational speaker and life coach.

City trees

I’ve scanned news databases with all the search terms I could think of to narrow in on cases of arbourcide and found many cases of attacks against trees in urban and suburban areas of cities. They seem to be evenly split between trees being killed in order to open up a view and trees being killed for no apparent reason at all. A sampling:

Nanaimo, British Columbia

In 2011 and 2012, four trees — including a 10-metre cedar — on the property of Roberta Bogle and Doug Anthony in the Eagle Point neighbourhood of Nanaimo were girdled with what appeared to be a small handsaw. Bogle guessed that the act was committed by someone who lived in the neighbourhood who wanted a better view of the ocean. “What other explanation is there?” she told Toby Gorman, a reporter at the Nanaimo News Bulletin.

Alan Kemp, the city arbourist, said that some years before, a group of young trees were girdled near the Port Theatre, but those trees were saved. In the case of Bogle’s and Anthony’s trees, “it really amazes me that people would go to such lengths to, in this case, get a better view,” said Kemp. “It’s obviously somebody who knows what they’re doing.”

St. Catharines, Ontario

In May 2015, “at least a dozen” trees along the waterfront trail in Spring Garden Park in St. Catharines, Ontario were girdled. A resident, Frank Iker, told Don Fraser, a reporter with The Standard, that some of the trees had memorial plaques attached to them, and Iker suspected that the trees “are being girdled because they impede lake views for one or more of the homes above the bluff. But no one really knows.”

Washington Grove, Maryland

In January 2017, the Town of Washington Grove, Maryland reported a series of acts of vandalism, including the girdling of an unspecified numbers of trees. Town officials didn’t speculate why someone wanted to kill the trees.

Saint John

A tree with a red ring around its trunk
A tree in the Uptown section of Saint John was girdled in October 2019. Photo: Submitted by Lori Lambert/City of Saint John

In October 2019, somebody or somebodies girdled four trees — three lindens and one gingko — in the Uptown section of Saint John. This came just after Hurricane Dorian felled 160 trees around the city, including several 200-year-old trees in King’s Square.

The trees and the forest

The front gates of the Public Gardens at South Park Street and Spring Garden road, on a sunny day in June 2021. A man is exiting the gardens through the smaller gate on the left of the main gate, probably invigorated from his walk past the pink, white and fuchsia rhodendendrons.
The front gates of the Public Gardens in June 2021. — Photo: Zane Woodford

I have no idea who killed the trees in the Public Gardens, and at this point it’s irresponsible to even speculate publicly about who is responsible — over the weekend, people on social media were making entirely unfounded accusations against particular people, accusations that I found defamatory.

I lament the loss of the trees at the Public Gardens. After taking care of business at the credit union across the street, I often walk through the gardens to catch my breath and clear my mind, even if just for a few minutes before jumping back into the rat race. While I don’t have detailed botanical knowledge, I “knew” several of the trees that were killed, and will miss them as individuals — they each seemed to have their own personality, and a life broader, longer, and more sensible than can be experienced on a human scale. They were grand. Awe-inspiring. They somehow made whatever problems I was experiencing seem inconsequential. This is an important, even crucial, role of public parks in the city. We should do everything we can to value such places.

But I can’t help but think we are again missing the forest for the trees.

I left California in January 2004 and landed in Atlantic Canada in December 2004. I soon learned that while the scale and types of forests aren’t comparable, the same economic issues and political irresponsibility that destroyed the forests of the Pacific Northwest are in play here, destroying the Acadian and boreal forests.

logs piled up outside a building
The Brooklyn biomass plant in December, 2021. Photo: Simon Ryder-Burbidge Credit: Simon Ryder-Burbidge

As the Examiner has reported extensively, the Province of Nova Scotia has made the foolhardy decision to burn biomass, including whole trees, in order to generate electricity, mislabeling the whole enterprise as “green energy.”

a chewed up landscape with only a few trees standing
Clearcutting in Wentworth Valley on Northern Pulp land purchased in 2010 with a NS government loan. Photo: Joan Baxter Credit: Joan Baxter

And while we play games with the definition of “clear cut,” the harvests I’ve seen here are just as extensive as anything I saw in California.

Forest management experts have been telling the province for a century that logging practices are degrading the health of the ecosystems and putting species at risk. Those warnings were ignored, and as a result the forests have changed from a mix of high-value hardwoods to a monoculture of softwoods for the pulp industry. Species have gone extinct, and many more are teetering on the edge of extinction.

Still worse, we now know that the soil of a healthy forest of mixed-aged and mixed-species trees acts as a carbon sink, storing untold tonnes of carbon that is released into the atmosphere when the forest becomes little more than a factory tree farm.

The latest consultant hired by the province was Bill Lahey, who spent a few years bringing together the best of the available research, all of which led him to pretty much the same conclusions as all the other experts over the past century. In 2018, Lahey dutifully submitted his report, called the Forest Practices Report (FPR); three years later, in November 2021, he wrote:

None of the work underway on FPR recommendations has resulted in much if any actual change on the ground in how forestry is being planned, managed, or conducted, and I have no indication of when any of it will. From the information at my disposal, I am not able to conclude that much or any change has happened in how forestry is practised based on the work the Department [of Natural Resources] has done on implementing the FPR. This is the overriding and central conclusion of this evaluation.

So yeah, while it’s terrible we’ve lost the trees in the Public Gardens, and I lament that loss along with everyone else, I wish we could spend just a tiny bit of that energy focusing on the orders-of-magnitude worse loss of the forests of Nova Scotia.

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I’m taking it easy for a couple of weeks, hence the abbreviated Morning File, and while I will probably pop in from time to time, you’ll see much less of me until the proceedings of the Mass Casualty Commission resume in late August. Be kind to the wonderful Examiner crew that continue on in my absence.

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Special Halifax Regional Council (Tuesday, 1pm) — virtual meeting


District Boundary Resident Review Panel (Wednesday, 3:30pm, City Hall) — agenda here


No meetings

On campus



PhD Defence, Psychology and Neuroscience (Wednesday, 10am, online) — Lindsay Rubinfeld will defend “The Role of Attention and Working Memory in Reading in Young Adults with a History of Reading Difficulties: Mechanisms and Treatment”

PhD Defence, Psychology and Neuroscience (Wednesday, 10:30am, online) — Meghan Rossi will defend “Sexual Growth and Destiny Beliefs: Associations with Couples’ Sexual Well-being and Coping During the Pathway to Parenthood”

In the harbour

09:45: FS Rhone, French Naval offshore support vessel, sails from Dockyard for sea
10:15: USCG Bear, U.S. Coast Guard cutter, sails from Dockyard for sea
11:15: HDMS Triton, Danish naval frigate, sails from Dockyard for sea
13:00: Augusta Luna, cargo ship, arrives at Berth TBD from Moa, Cuba
15:30: Oberon, car carrier, sails from Autoport for sea

Cape Breton
06:30: Caribbean Princess, cruise ship with up to 3,756 passengers, arrives at Marine Terminal (Sydney) from Halifax, on a 13-day cruise from Fort Lauderdale, Florida to Quebec City
12:00: Shelia Ann, bulker, sails from Coal Pier (Sydney) for sea
12:00: Algoma Value, bulker, sails from Point Tupper coal pier for sea
14:15: SFL Trinity, oil tanker, sails from Everwinds (Point Tupper) for sea
15:30: Caribbean Princess sails for Quebec City


[Insert your own pithy observation here.]

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  1. As a child – one who read everything including cereal boxes – I read something about why houses in Britain are built of stone: the occupying Romans clear-cut the trees for short-term purposes and left few standing. “We wouldn’t do that here in Canada,” I thought smugly. Huh.

    1. It’s a nice story, but it’s not true. The Romans were no more or less rapacious of the natural environment than people before or after them. British houses are built of stone for a variety of reasons, but not that one. One thing that people are learning in California is that it makes a lot of sense to build at least decks, if not whole houses, out of stone, to reduce fire risk (a burning deck is usually the pathway to a burning house; a burning house and its embers are often the pathway to the next burning house). We would do well to learn that lesson here.

  2. Hear hear to the above comments about the up to 125 trees planned to be chopped down for bike lanes. Surely cyclists can’t be in favour of this awful scheme? Our trees are beloved, as evidenced by the outpouring of sadness and outrage at what happened in the Public Gardens. They lower the temperature, provide shade for walkers and are home to our urban wildlife of birds, chipmunks, squirrels, etc. Please do not let this short-sighted move in the name of bike infrastructure progress go ahead in our city of trees.

  3. The profound sense of sadness and tremendous outpouring of anger at the injury and loss of these beautiful living trees is palpable. Halifax City Council is prepared to destroy a number of our most iconic and majestic urban trees to make way for bike lanes. We need to be integrating bike lanes with our tree canopied streets or find options where destroying trees isn’t even an issue. The deliberate loss of one tree is a violation and act of vandalism, no matter where it resides.

  4. And of course the City has declared that up to 125 trees will come down on South St., University Ave, Morris and Robie Streets. All to establish triple A bike paths. I love bikes, but I also treasure trees. Why do we have to sacrifice one for the other? This is here and now. People live and walk these streets. They deserve shade too.

  5. It is tragic that someone(s) thought this was a legitimate way to protest, get even, express their anger, frustration, or desperation, or to have fun. It is even more tragic that humans do worse to other humans every day including right here in NS by how we treat our vulnerable fellow inhabitants. The most glaring local example recently being how HRM has “girdled” the homeless and how the provincial government has absolutely abandoned those who can no longer afford homes.