Walking through words

The rainforests of Tofino breathe new life
into spoken word artist, Shane Koyczan.

As told by Mike Berard

Part 1

Shane's Poem

Canadian poet Shane Koyczan shares his poem that was inspired by his adventures in Tofino's coastal rainforest.

Part 2

Into the Rainforest

At first step, Shane Koyczan seems out of his element. The Canadian spoken word artist crouches uncomfortably in the small, swaying fiberglass boat bobbing off British Columbia, Canada’s Meares Island.

The captain navigates the skiff deftly to shore as a tempestuous Pacific storm blows sheets of rain high above the protected waters. He gently nudges the bow against a greywhacke stone outcropping, which allows Koyczan to step out onto terra firma. The high tide line here is demarcated with a salty layer of seaweed clinging to the lowest branches of the trees. Finding foot on solid ground, Shane’s guide—Tsimka Martin of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation—leads him to an obscured forest entrance and follows as he ducks into the brilliant green of the island’s inner sanctum.

Like one of his poems, Koyczan moves through the lush West Coast rainforest with strong purpose and varying rhythm. The day before, Koyczan navigated an easy boardwalk stroll to the warm, hidden pools of Hot Springs Cove, but Meares Island’s Big Tree Trail requires a more challenging hike. The slick cedar slats laid upon the boardwalk are weathered and one misstep here would mean falling into the mud below. Indeed, this empire of wood and water is not easy on knees or infrastructure, but it does wonders for the creative spirit. When the lofty hemlock, fir and cedar trunks break holes in the forest canopy above, the poet’s eyes light up. Some of these trees are over 1,000 years old. At least one is 2,000, and measures 18 metres [60 feet] around. A diverse cast of fauna plays supporting roles across the forest floor of these towering lead actors. It is a primal and lush ensemble.

“It’s amazing that something so ancient feels still so alive—and wildly alive,” Koyczan says. “It looks like everything is fighting for space and yet it’s still so harmonious.”

This emerald fortress has made its mark. When Martin invites Koyczan to stand inside a particularly large, hollow cedar tree he beams with an almost juvenile delight. While walking may be challenging here, clearly moving someone is not. It proves even urban dwellers like Koyczan—who spent 14 years living in New York and Vancouver but now calls Penticton, B.C. home—can find footing in the thick under carpet of the Pacific Northwest rainforest.

The idea of walking through a story is a good analogy for the poet’s spoken word. His work possesses a unique cadence of its own, transporting the listener through witty metaphor and powerful imagery. It’s heartfelt stuff. When he won the American National Poetry Slam in 2000, he was a relatively unknown artist, and the first person outside the U.S. to ever earn the title. Ten years later he became a national treasure when he opened the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games Opening Ceremonies with his poem, We are More. Koyczan is visiting Tofino, Ucluelet and the surrounding area on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia—collectively known as the Pacific Rim—for the first time. He’s come to seek inspiration for a new piece: one that will encapsulate a Canadian treasure that has been here since before humankind itself walked—the raw, wild elements of British Columbia’s rainforests.

Part 3

Exploring Distant Shores

On the nearby shores of Vargas Island, Koyczan walks the beach. While only a short boat trip from Tofino, the island’s wild and remote feel encourages an exploratory nature in visitors. He practices the subtle, reflective art of beachcombing with a patient approach. In the name of discovery one must move slowly amongst the driftwood and tidal pools, as the constant shift of salty water covers and camouflages beach treasure easily. The oceanic creatures that call this stretch of black stone and white sand home know how to hide within it. The fourlegged, warmblooded ones do it even better. Luckier travellers here may find evidence of Vargas’ famous wolves—some scat, a footprint, perhaps—but Koyczan’s luck seems to have been used up before he even arrived.

Five grey whales, a colony of Steller sea lions and a raft of sea otters all greeted the boat a few kilometers offshore, but once the crew makes landfall on Vargas the only evidence of wildlife lies still: sandworn shells; the intact, hollow body of a crab; polished driftwood. All these curious found items not quite telling stories. Vargas’ many beaches provide a happy confluence of proof and mystery, where one gains insight into the tale of the West Coast but still returns home with a reinvigorated sense of curiosity.

Part 4

First Nations Storytelling

“Where do stories come from, and when
do they become ours? More importantly,
when do they become everyone’s?” - Shane Koyczan

Shane Koyczan has been telling his story quietly since childhood but now shares it on a global stage. The several First Nations that call Clayoquot Sound home have celebrated the oral tradition for millennia, and their legends have traveled up and down this coast. As the influence of each storyteller grows it ensures the narratives don’t belong to any one person. They grow and move through history. There is no natural copyright. When Shane Koyczan speaks, he may do it for himself, for his grandmother, for his country; but as we walk the path through the grand forest each of us will create our own unique chronicle. Collectively, our history grows with every step.

Yuu-tluth-aht First Nation member Tyson Touchie welcomes Koyczan on the sheltered shore of native owned-and-operated Wya Point Resort.

As the band’s economic development officer, Touchie is an instrumental cog in local politics, in addition to being a passionate surf instructor and youth basketball coach. His energy is gentle and he showcases a wide, disarming smile. Against the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean coastline, the two trade tales as a vibrant sockeye salmon slowly cooks over an open beach fire. Meanwhile Touchie’s nephew, Jeff Charleson, bangs a traditional drum his father crafted, and sings ancient songs in Nuučaannuɫ, a native language. Before each song he announces what story it tells.

“People have lived here for thousands of years,” says Touchie. “The buildings are on top of an old village site. Beneath them are middens that can be dated down 5,000 to 10,000 years.”
“They said ‘we don’t want to see any structures from the beach,” recalls Touchie. “We don’t want you digging deep. We don’t want you taking down a lot of trees. And whatever you put there, the land must be able to take it back.”
Similar to the oldgrowth forests of Meares Island, the fauna at Wya Point and throughout Clayoquot Sound is resilient and unrelenting. The methodical creep of entropy and growth that push and pull in these woods is inherently slow, but the First Nation are well aware of its power to overcome. Drop by drop, creeks swell and the mossy undergrowth bulges with moisture. The capillary actions of the roots pull that same moisture back up and into wide branches. The omnipresent, leatheryleaved salal shrubs below are known to grow to five metres (16 feet) high and sometimes require sculpted tunnels to allow passage. Unmaintained, it will take mere years for a tunnel to fill in and vanish. It reminds us that there is beauty in both strength and suppleness. While the cedar and hemlock sentinels firmly stand guard, rooted in time, the rest of the rainforest builds and rebuilds and absorbs.

“It’s remarkable what trees can teach us.” says Koyczan, looking out over Wya Point’s towering oceanside forest. “They sway with the wind. They work with it. They’re not trying to stay rigid.”

It’s a lovely metaphor for our lives. If we build strong foundations, including room to move with the unknowns that lie ahead, we too can flourish. If we remain in a state of stasis, we risk the decay that comes with it. In life it is more rewarding to walk somewhere new than to stand in safety.

“It’s important for people to come back out into places like this. It rekindles that childlike wonder,” says Koyczan. “It opens up that world of possibility…you don’t have to be what you are currently. You can still be what you want to be.”

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