A cross story
When the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) first undertook to create the Chase Woods Nature Preserve, we looked around for great images to help tell the story of this magical place. The land, which is 100 acres (41 hectares) of coastal Douglas-fir forest on the side of a storied mountain known as Mt Tzouhalem, is located in Vancouver Island’s Cowichan Valley. The mountain is a popular and well-loved local hiking spot, and has deep cultural importance to the Cowichan people who have lived in the valley for millennia.
One of the more striking features of Mt Tzouhalem is the series of cliffs that jut out and offer stunning panoramic views of the valley. Legend has it that the mountain’s namesake, a volatile leader of the Cowichan in the 1800s, Chief Tzouhalem, tossed people over those very cliffs when he wanted to dispose of them. Priests, dissidents and even wives he had tired of were said to have met their end over those cliffs.
In the mid-20th century a cross was erected on the clifftop. I have come across a few origin stories for the cross. One tells that in the 1950s, a group of Cowichan Tribes members carried a wooden cross up from village below, stopping 12 times on the way up to pray. When they got to the top, they had no specific means by which to affix it to the rock. Out of nowhere appeared a man with cement. He helped them to put the cross up. No one knew who he was, were he came from or ever saw him again. Some see this as a miracle and believe the cross brings blessings to the valley.
Another story talks about an undertaking by two local Catholic churches in 1976, in which a wooden cross was put up as part of part of Easter celebrations. To this day many people hike to the cross stopping to do the “stations of the cross” on the way up as part of the Catholic Easter celebration.
But crosses in prominent places can attract vandals. The wooden cross was repeatedly chopped or burned down. In 1988, a small group, including a man named Jack Pearce, built a steel cross and installed it in place of the wooden one. The giant white cross could be seen across the valley, looking down over the lands and beckoning hikers of all faiths — or none at all — to tackle the forested trails that led up to the clifftops.
Installing the cross had been a renegade act from the start, and it appears no one checked whose land it was actually being placed on. Four main properties converge on those cliffs: municipal lands, a tract formerly owned by St Ann’s Catholic Church (now home to a therapeutic community), Cowichan Tribes reserve lands, and the 100-acre parcel called Chase Woods by its former owner, David Chase, and which NCC purchased in 2009. What we discovered when we undertook the conservation of Chase Woods is that the cross sits just within its property boundaries.
Over the decades the cross had cemented its place as a community icon. Its presence on the cliffs seemed immutable.
And so, when we looked for images to represent this unique project, we found one by Mike Szaszik that captured our attention. The cliffs and the cross are backlit by a glorious moon. The image played a prominent role in our fundraising campaign, helping the local community immediately recognize the land we were working to protect.
But then one day this November, the cross was no longer there.
A massive windstorm had swept through the valley during the night, so some assumed the wind pushed the cross over. Despite the timing with the wind, some believe the cross was helped down by vandals. Regardless of the cause, one November day the cross was knocked over and tumbled down the cliff, landing on a ledge about 30 metres below that was likely a good home for the peregrine falcons that nest on the mountain.
The community noticed the missing cross immediately and quickly jumped to its rescue. A spontaneous crew of five young people hauled the crossback up to the clifftop. We then transported it down the mountain and into the hands of Jack Pearce, one of the original co-creators. Jack fixed the dents and gave it a fresh coat of paint and is now waiting for the weather to warm up so that the cross can be reinstalled.
It’s important to add here that not everyone in the Cowichan Valley wants to see the cross resurrected on Mt Tzouhalem. The Nature Conservancy of Canada reached out to the community through the local media, requesting feeback about the future of the cross from anyone who cared to offer comment.
The emails flooded in.
The overwhelming majority of respondents were in favour of reinstalling the iconic landmark. Not everyone had the same reason for wanting to see the cross go back up — some value its religious symbolism, some see the cross as an important community landmark and others enjoy having it as a unique destination to hike to.
Members of the Cowichan Tribes, including Chief William Seymour, expressed their support for returning the cross to the cliffs.
Those opposed to restoring the cross also had many reasons for their perspective. Some prefer to see a natural site left unadorned, some want a different, more inclusive symbol to top the cliffs and others suggested opting for interpretive signage over statues.
But in the end, about 80 percent of the feedback we received was asking for the cross to be put back up.
We stated all along that the cross does not belong to NCC. While it sits (sat) on NCC lands, we strongly believe the cross itself belongs to the community as a whole.
And so we have decided to support the reinstallation of the cross in its original site. When the weather warms up and the air is dryer, we will help Jack cart the cross back up Mt Tzouhalem, and others who have expressed an interested in helping will be there to see the cross go up, again, on its perch overlooking the Cowichan Valley. It will stand there, a symbol of many things, beckoning us to climb the mountain, where peregrines fly, Douglas-fir trees tower and many other creatures, including humans, find refuge.