The Brown brothers, David and Peter, were iconoclasts – they loved the forests, and wanted to create their own. So they did – a 100 tree Redwood patch as well as a variety of exotic and native trees.
All the while they were hounded by a community of homesteaders who had trouble comprehending the sense of putting that time and money into trees that would never turn a profit. Today the value of the forest cannot be measured in board feet. In terms of age and variety, says Roy Forster of Vancouver’s VanDusen Botanical Gardens, there is nothing quite like it in Canada. “As an early private botanical collection, it’s important to have these trees to study. It shows what a unique climate we have in the Lower Mainland that allows giant redwoods and monkey puzzle trees from the coast of Chile to grow side by side.”
Illness set the twins apart from other children at an early age, when scarlet fever struck them deaf. Though proficient lip readers, they had the habit of speaking aloud to others but conversing silently between themselves – when talking to each other, their lips moved but no sound spilled from their mouths. It tended to unnerve people.
The twins’ father was enough of a horticulturist to earn the nickname “Cherry” David “Cherry” Brown Sr. had crisscrossed the continent prospecting for gold before settling in southern British Columbia. He made his home on a hill that looked over 90-metre-tall Douglas fir in the Hazelmere Valley, a stone’s throw from the American border. He taught his sons at an early age the delicate art of coaxing a slip into a sapling. On their 21st birthdays, in 1893, he offered David and Peter 32 hectares of southern-exposed hillside property.
The intention was that the boys would plant and operate a modest fruit and nut farm. The land was certainly ready for such enterprise – denuded by loggers three years earlier, a Pacific gale reportedly finished off what little the saws had missed.
Shortly after inheriting the property, David and Peter took a trip by train to northern California to visit a cousin. What they saw on the western slopes of the Sierra Nevadas changed their lives: they were overwhelmed by the majesty of the giant redwoods. When they boarded the train for the return trip to Canada, their pockets were filled with tiny specks of magic, the big tree’s seed.
The experience among the redwoods was the beginning of a worldwide search for seeds. The twins imported them from four continents and are said to have travelled as far as New York for candidates suitable for their burgeoning arboretum. They planted the most prized seeds close to their house. Most bizarre are the monkey puzzle trees. Thick, tangled rope-like branches mingle haphazardly. Sharp, tough, pointed green leaves leave little doubt about why the trees are avoided by small primates.
For contrast, they planted the incense cedar with its dense and narrow pyramidal crown; Japanese cryptomeria, a graceful skyline tree with a columnar trunk of peeling red bark; and Atlas cedar from North Africa.
Moved, perhaps, by some strange botanical premonition, they planted the dawn redwood from China. Years later, drill core samples taken from the hill revealed Tertiary Period fossils of the same tree.
Around the turn of the century three of the twins’ houses burned to the ground. The Brown family – David and Peter had six sisters and three brothers – blamed the losses as much on poor housekeeping as anything else: the twins’ residences were strewn with plants, herbs, drying grass and newspapers. After the third house was gutted, the brothers became convinced that malevolent forces were conspiring against them.
So in 1912, a tree house, built on four-metre posts, went up among the young Douglas fir. Rough-hewn cedar planks kept most of the wind and rain out. A kitchen on the first floor held a stove, a washbasin, scores of house plants and David’s collection of bric-a-brac. The twins slept on the top floor in beds made of newspapers and old coats. Rows of rusted barbed wire circled the base of the house, for by now their property and possessions had become the target of vandals.
A nearby elementary school harboured a few pranksters who thought it great sport to sneak up on the deaf twins. Sometimes the intruders were malicious, stealing tools, raiding gardens and trampling flower beds.To protect their interests, the twins fashioned a crow’s-nest atop one of the large Douglas fir adjacent to the tree house. From there they could survey their domain and, on occasion, fire a shotgun blast of rock salt at intruders. Local constables answered numerous complaints from parents, and the twins were often reprimanded. Trespassers sometimes left their bicycles behind in their rush for daylight, and over the years many rusted frames were plucked from the thick bush. During Prohibition in the United States, word had it that the twins were gun-toting rumrunners, the forest a staging area for booze which they allegedly carted across the border. Others with less imagination simply called them crazy.
The trees grew taller and, as they grew, they shut out the light of the outside world. Over time, the twins lost their trust in family, community and government. In the 1940s, the municipality of Surrey came close to seizing 16 hectares of the hillside in lieu of back taxes. The experience reinforced the brothers’ belief that a conspiracy was afoot to force them off their land.
Although the tree house continued to be their main residence, the brothers would retreat to a shack built on the ground whenever the weather worsened. Eventually, it became Peter’s home quite by accident. When he prematurely ignited a dynamite charge meant to clear roots, he and the roots were launched skyward. He returned to earth with two broken legs, one of which never mended properly. Climbing the ladder to the tree house became impractical, and Peter settled in the shack.
There he lived until the age of 86, reportedly spry and difficult to the end. He died in 1957, surviving David by eight years, his sanity still in question. Historian Stan McKinnon wrote in 1973: “Peter became nuttier than a fruitcake.”
According to surrey officials, Peter had a verbal agreement with them to leave the land to the community to be preserved in its natural state, free of baseball diamonds and soccer pitches. His will said otherwise. In it he left the forest to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Church that he felt shared his basic distrust of government. Surrey sued and the matter was eventually settled out of court. The ribbon to the city’s 30-hectare Redwood Park was cut in 1960.
Two decades later, as Peter and David had long feared, their home aloft was demolished by the city. The tree house was a magnet for kids, Surrey argued, and rotting timbers presented a safety risk. An interpretation centre was built in its place. Where Peter and David Brown had once scrambled down a ladder, shotguns at the ready, park patrons now read brochures and gaze in wonder at the towering redwoods.
The brothers’ dream that took root a century ago survived decades of antagonism and ridicule. As true stewards of the earth – and martyrs too – David and Peter demonstrated that in the end all that matters is the condition in which you leave the land.