The naked tree-hugger makes her way to Port Renfrew

The rain barely let up in Port Renfrew Friday morning, but that didn’t stop Julianne Skai Arbor from stripping off her clothes and closely embracing the mossy trunk of the massive San Juan spruce.

“It’s my first time on Vancouver Island and there was a downpour, but it’s still beautiful,” said Arbor, the ultimate tree hugger, as she warmed up after the photo shoot.

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Arbor, a 43-year-old California college professor who teaches environmental conservation, travels around the world photographing herself naked with old or endangered trees. She is lending her support to the Ancient Forest Alliance’s efforts to push the B.C. government into coming up with a strategy to protect big trees and remaining patches of old-growth forest.

“The most fragile ecosystems that are still intact should be put aside,” said Arbor, who posts photos of her tree travels on her treegirl.org website and is writing a book about her love of big trees. “It’s amazing for me to see the forests on this Island and I wonder how the people who live here can watch the cutting of the forest. There is only so much you can do before it’s gone.”

The peaceful feeling of being surrounded by nature’s lifeforce in an old forest is very different from feelings generated by a clearcut or tree farm, she said.

Ancient Forest Alliance campaigner and founder TJ Watt, who photographed Arbor with the San Juan spruce, said the photos are a new way of highlighting the grandeur of B.C.’s old-growth forests so they can be protected. “When people see these images, they strike a chord.”

Jon Cash, owner of Soule Creek Lodge and vice-president of Port Renfrew Chamber of Commerce, is hoping the photos promote tourism.

“When you see these pictures, it’s hard to know where to focus. She’s a beautiful woman and it’s a beautiful tree,” he said.

Big trees and especially Avatar Grove — a patch of majestic old-growth discovered by the Ancient Forest Alliance and given provincial protection when it started drawing thousands of visitors — have become a major economic driver in the Port Renfrew area, Cash said. They’re one of three top draws to the area, along with Botanical Beach and fishing.

“At the Information Centre in Sooke, one of the top three questions is: ‘Where is Avatar Grove?’ ” he said. “The big trees have drawn hundreds of thousands of dollars of business.”

The San Juan spruce, which stands in a forest recreation site beside the San Juan River, is the largest spruce tree in Canada at 62 metres tall, with a crown that spreads over 23 metres. It does not have any official protection.

Meanwhile, Arbor, who is a certified arborist, is planning to come back to Port Renfrew in the summer to pose with other big trees.

“My goal is to capture a moment of intimacy in these wild places.”

jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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