The Sitka Spruce is the state tree of Alaska, whose scientific and common name is derived from the Tlingit language meaning “on the outside of Shee,” an island now referred to as Baranof island. Pronounced “Sheet'ká,” this location was originally settled by the Tlingit people over 10,000 years ago. Baranof was the Russian commander who attempted to settle in this area, hence the namesake. Although Russia never ‘secured’ control, Alaska was sold to the United States in 1867, ceremonially transferred between the two countries in Sitka as uninvited Tlingit people watched from the harbor. With this transfer came pressure to assimilate. “Whenever I speak Tlingit I can still taste the soap,” says one elder, recalling the native-language ban in the schools.
The Sitka spruce is by far the largest species of spruce, and the third tallest tree species in the world. These towering trees are native to the west coast of North America, with their northwestern limit on Kodiak Island, Alaska. In addition to their height, these trees are long living, with some known to be 700 years old. Their size does not necessarily reflect their age, as they can grow almost 5 feet in a year.
In Tlingit communities, houses were built with Sitka Spruce; canoes were constructed from its trunk; the roots were used to make baskets, rope, and fishing gear; and the inner bark was eaten. This wood was not as prized as the cedar used for carving and totem poles, but widely employed. Today it is a key tree in the lumber and paper industries, its seeds exported to Europe, New Zealand and Australia, although considered invasive in some locations. Sitka spruce is also the most resonant wood available. Many instruments are made from it, including the soundboards of Steinway pianos.
I am left thinking about the age of these fast growing, resonant trees. They have beared witness to more than any of us will and beyond the minuta of human existence. As an experiment, I try to think in this time frame and I wonder how human decision-making would change if we knew we had hundreds of years to still be here.