In the 1940s my great-grandfather bought a lakefront house, named it Carnshanaugh (Irish for “Luck Stones”) and filled it with driftwood lamps. He made the lamps with his second wife – not my great-grandmother, but a beloved member of our family. I never met her, but mum was fascinated by this woman she called Aunt Dora, so I heard many stories about her travels across Canada and how she painted beautiful landscapes. No doubt her artistic vision played a role in choosing where to cut the wood, what shapes would be most pleasing.
The driftwood lamps they made are beautiful. They mirror the wind-swept pines that make the northern Ontario landscape so iconic. To some the lamps are creepy, to others they’re pieces of charming kitsch straight out of what David McFadden calls the “driftwood craze” of 1950s. In An Innocent in Newfoundland, McFadden recalls that “people would phone up and say ‘Come on over and see my new piece of driftwood.’” It was the beginnings of a back-to-nature fashion, where “sunbaked and shellacked pieces of grotesquely twisted driftwood were the ultimate in coffee table ornamentation.”
At a recent cottage visit, my Mum pointed to a floating trunk a few hundred feet from shore. I went out in the canoe, brought in the gnarled, waterlogged trunk and the two of us marvelled at our find. “This is a really good piece!” my Mum remarked. “You might get 2 or 3 lamps out of this one.” It was our come-over-and-see-my-new-piece-of-driftwood moment.
But after doing some research, I realized our harvest may not have been as ethical as we’d thought. Driftwood plays an important role in lake, river and swamp ecosystems – and apparently, it’s disappearing at an alarming rate. In most of Canada, it’s illegal to gather driftwood for commercial purposes without a proper permit, but Individuals can collect the odd piece for personal use. When going out to harvest driftwood, it’s important that we understand what we’re taking and make sure we’re beachcombing respectfully.
In an ocean, driftwood can float for up to 17 months. During this time, it becomes like a floating reef that’s filled will all kinds of ocean life. The pieces of driftwood provide protection from waves and a place to lay eggs, attracting many species of invertebrates and fish, which in turn attract larger, predatory fish. Some driftwood gets washed to the shore where it can protect shorelines from erosion and change the shape of rivers by slowing down the flow of water. Driftwood that doesn’t wash up on shore eventually sinks to the bottom where they become “islands of biodiversity.”
The ecological value of driftwood is so great, in fact, it’s one of the reasons that the Elwha River, which drains into the Salish Sea, began producing salmon after years of being nearly dead. A hydroelectric dam on the river had blocked the flow of driftwood in to the river. When the dam was destroyed in 2014, the driftwood returned, lowering water temperatures, creating habitats for insect nymphs that feed the salmon. As the river became healthier, so did the surrounding habitat. Birds were more plentiful, perching on logs and fertilizing soils – dropping seeds that increase plant life at the river’s edge. As the plant life grew, there were more shaded areas for fish to hide and rest.
The Elwha River is a powerful example for ecologists on why we need to protect driftwood before it’s outnumbered by plastic waste. So, the next time you see a piece of driftwood, think carefully about whether to harvest or leave it be. Now that I know its value in the water, I’ll cherish the driftwood I have and take no more.