From Issue III (2018)
Whose Words These Are:
Andrews Experimental Forest, Oregon
by NANCY LORD
I stretch my arms around the trunk of an ancient Douglas-fir—its name hyphenated because it is not, according to botanists, a true fir tree, but occupies a genus of its own. One hugging reach over coarse bark, then starting again where my far finger touched, and then again: three times and I have yet to complete the circle.
Eighty years is considered mature for a Douglas-fir, the best time to turn it into lumber. This ancient tree is hundreds of years past when it could have usefully contributed board feet to the construction trade, to the bones of multiple American homes. It has spent much of its life in slow growth and is likely rotting at its heart.
The old foresters—the timber cutters—called a forest of such trees decadent. Even younger trees they’ve called senescent—past maturity, past their prime, as good as dead.
I’m thinking how captivated I was, as a child in New Hampshire, when my family hiked through a section of virgin forest in the White Mountains. I remember, still, the quiet disorder of it, needled branches against sky, the sense of parting a wilderness untouched by anyone before me, where bears and mountain lions surely hunkered in the shadows. Later I learned of the climax forest, as though there was such a thing as a peak a forest could reach, a point of stability. As a conservationist, I embraced the term old-growth, without knowing that it first came from the logging industry to denote old trees that needed to be cut; in my time, it meant what had survived logging and needed protection. Old-growth, I understood, was essential for wildlife habitat, for biodiversity and water quality, for its wildness. And now, we’ve arrived at ancient forest. “Ancient” confers value in more than economic terms; “ancient” is venerable.
“Decadent,” though, stops me in my forest-litter tracks. From the Latin de, apart or down, and cadere, to fall. Can we not reserve this for certain humans and their behaviors? My dictionary tells me: having low morals and a great love of pleasure, money, fame, etc. Synonyms: corrupt, immoral, degenerate, debased, debauched, self-indulgent. Trees may age, they may fall down; if they have character, it is built on height and solidity, and on their community spirit. Alive or dead, they are the opposite of decadent as we understand its meaning.
Words are among the songs we hear, the sounds carried even into forest. I commit to an October listening: to the plinks of raindrops on leaves, the calls of birds, water running over rocks, the names we give in reverence and dismissal, the past as it informs the present.
At the site where researchers are engaged in a long-term study of the decomposition process of various species of trees, five-and-a-half-meter lengths of logs have been laid out now for thirty-two years. They are moss-covered, bark-loosened, insect- and fungi-harboring study subjects, marked with flagging, sliced apart, punctured with plastic tubing designed to capture gases and data. I walk among them while listening to the raucous calls of ravens, then the startlingly loud wingbeats as one weaves past me through the living trees.
Next to the path lies a plastic-wrapped cookie. A tree cookie is what it’s called— a cross-section of a tree showing its growth rings. In this case, it’s a round of wood about three inches thick, cut from one of the logs at the study side. It apparently awaits someone to haul it off to a lab, where its rot and the life wrapped within it will be catalogued and analyzed. This cookie is bound in clear plastic cellophane, many layers around and around its bark and then more to secure it in the middle of a piece of plywood. A paper under the plastic must hold all its necessary identification, but I can’t read it through the needles and leaves and green algae that have gathered on the plastic. This is not a freshly prepared cookie, but may have been awaiting its transport for some time.
I know, though, the word-tasty parts of a cookie, outside in: bark, cambium, phloem, xylem, heartwood. In my part of the world, in starvation times before the salmon returned, indigenous people survived on the cambium of cottonwood trees.
I force my way through this forest of young firs. The trees, the largest among them perhaps ten inches in diameter, are lined up in rows, four and six and more feet between them, but it’s their low branches, so thickly sprouting from their sides, that block my way. They reach past one another, forming a stick wall, leaving no space for a wandering human to pass. I stumble through as best I can, pushing at branches, trying to avoid the thick vines and thorns of the Himalayan blackberry, an invasive that takes over disturbed areas. I’m as protected as I can be, in my rainsuit, from the rain that looked like it might quit but did not, and from the scratchy branches and blood-drawing brambles.
I’m thinking “doghair,” a term I learned back home in Alaska when accompanying an ecologist through birch forest that had grown up, even-aged and tightly packed, after a fire. Doghair birches, Ed called them, and I thought he was naming a species I’d never heard of. But no, “doghair” meant the forest was as thick as hair on a coarse-furred dog, a terrier perhaps. We twisted and turned to slide between and among the narrow trunks and their shoots.
This hillside, on private land just outside the national forest, is another doghair forest, nearly impenetrable. It’s what’s known in the logging business as a plantation forest. After the area was clear-cut fourteen years ago, it was first burned and then most likely treated with herbicides to keep out the weedy plants that would normally be first to recolonize it. Douglas-fir seedlings were planted in rows. Now the new generation of trees has grown to thirty feet in height, dense enough to intertwine their branches and block most light from reaching the ground. Loggers may come one day to thin the trees, so that those remaining will have room to grow until economics encourage another clearcutting. Or, if the trees are left on their own, natural thinning (competition mortality) will occur, as it does in any forest regrown after a major disturbance. These trees are already competing for sun, water, and nutrients. Some are thin enough to circle with my hands, and there are gaps where the weakest may have been crowded out early on.
I stop in a cul-de-sac of blocking branches. The ground at my feet is carpeted with dead fir needles and the dry brown stalks and leaves of ferns, with blackberry vines twisting through. I spot some tiny orange mushrooms in this otherwise monochromatic landscape, this barren bottom.
I push my way in another direction, past charred logs and old stumps overgrown with moss. Jays are calling from higher on the hill, and now a smaller bird, close in, is chipping. I pssst to it, and it comes in closer, hopping among the low branches, eyeing me curiously. Chip, chip, chip-chip. It’s a Pacific wren, known to associate with old-growth forests. In this case, it seems quite happy among the tangle of branches. It must be finding something that it needs here—shelter, food, less competition from other birds. We make our noises at one another until a second wren joins us, and then they both fly off.
Rough-skinned newts are out after rain, crossing trails. They twist their whole bodies into sinuous curves as they step their right feet forward, then their left feet, and their right again. With each step they turn their feet out and over, flashing their orange soles. Long tails curl behind them.
One on the road seems lethargic, as though stunned by a passing car or a predator that dropped it. I stoop to study its wet brown back, its yellow slits of eyes, its outstretched feet that look like baseball mitts. I trail a finger along its back, testing its roughness. Not like sandpaper, but not slick either. I’ve expected my touch to send the newt scurrying or into its defensive posture of arched head and tail, warning of its toxicity by showing its orange underside. When it doesn’t react, I pick it up to examine its underside for myself. It’s soft and light in my hand, like a rubber toy, and its orange is as bright as the fruit. When I set it down again, at the side of the road, its throat pulses.
I wipe off my hands on wet ferns, just in case. Curious scientists have determined that the neurotoxin in a single newt, when ingested, can kill 1,500 mice. In 1979, an Oregon man reportedly ate a newt on a dare—and died within hours.
Farther down the road, I find a newt that clearly had a vehicular incident. Flipped onto its back and partly flattened, it lies with one elegant front foot held over its belly, as though trying to press out a stomachache. The books say that in spring, when newts leave the woods en masse for water bodies, their traffic deaths lead to local depletions. I smile when it occurs to me that the loss of all those newts would be a case of neutralizing newts.
The trap holds a sleepy chipmunk, curled up in her comfy, dry nest of organic cotton wool. She has eaten her fill of the trap bait—the peanut butter, oat, sunflower seed, and molasses mixture that the researchers have provided—and settled in for a nap. When Tom holds her in his hand, the little glutton empties her cheek pouches, an oatfall cascading. Her metal eartag winks at us; she has been here, or in another trap, before—perhaps multiple times. There are so many chipmunks in the traps—so many repeat customers—that the crew no longer takes their data but only sends them on their way. Spotted owls are declining in the woods, and the biologists want to know everything about their lives. They know already that the owls hunt by night while chipmunks are active during the day; chipmunks, thus, are not a significant prey species.
The clever chipmunks, though, have learned that the traps offer food and shelter, and whatever trauma they experience at being interrupted mid-nap by a human hand is not enough to deter them. The researchers call them trap-happy.
It’s raining, still. It’s been raining for days. Lookout Creek is higher than it was in the sunny days when I first arrived, but far from flood stage. Floods come later, when rains fall on the higher snowpack and the rain and snowmelt wash together down the hillsides.
In 1996 the last big flood rushed through here, undercutting the bank across the way and leaving rocks—some as big as armchairs—piled in berms on my side and especially in a large logjam in the creek itself. Douglas-fir giants, undermined by floodwaters, fell from this side, and more trees, branches, sticks, slabs of bark, all manner of vegetative matter washed against them, turning the current away from the old, shallow channel near this bank to the mad torrent that is now the main channel. This side of the logjam, among the rocks and slower water, sediment has gradually been filling in, and the higher ground is home now to a huge variety of streamside plants—among them alders, willows, vine maples, and lush islands of the big-leafed coltsfoot.
As destructive as floods can be, the periodic restructuring of a stream’s curves and straightaways and the redistribution of cobbles and wood is an ecological process with benefits to the system. Stream edges open to sunlight and new growth—including the nitrogen-fixing alder. Logjams and boulder piles slow the current and provide shelter for fish and other aquatic life.
But I have to ask: just how “natural” are natural disturbances in our time? Fire, insect infestations, changes in weather patterns due to climate change—we humans have a hand in all these. In the case right here, clearcut logging in the watershed and the construction of logging roads close to the creek, in the l950s and ’60s, affected the absorption and run-off of rain and melting snow. The flood of 1996 was more severe than it might have been in an intact landscape. Absent logging, might that spindly tree tottering on the edge be standing strong within the forest? Might that eroding bank have held back more soil, more roots, more vegetation? Might fewer fish and their eggs have been swept away? Who’s to say? There’s no control group for these large-scale experiments.
I walk the final spur road, not wanting to abuse my rental car. It ends at a wide clearing, a landing area for logging that took place in 2002. From there the land drops into another drainage, and I’m looking through scattered tall trees and scrubby brush towards the Blue River and more distant mountains. I’m facing not a clearcut, but a cutting unit, in which a more modern forestry approach was utilized. In this system, some semblance of what might have happened in a more natural disturbance is maintained.
Hence the standing live trees, and the standing dead ones—snags. Under the plan, nearly half of the trees in the unit were left. The next year, the area was burned to reduce slash—the limbs and tops left from logging—and to retain the role of fire in the landscape. Perhaps a third of the live trees were killed by that fire, creating snags that provide homes for birds, squirrels, and other organisms. Then the area was planted with several species of seedlings.
I poke around at the edge of the clearing. I don’t know all the plants here, but they include small pines and cedars, ferns, a viney groundcover, thistles, and dandelions—weedy species all. Grasshoppers leap and crackle. The terrain falls sharply at the edge, but I can see that some of the standing trees and snags are blackened on their sides, fire-scarred.
People—hunters, I assume—have camped here, in the clearing. There’s a fire pit of broken rocks, with partially burned logs in its center and some additional split wood lying to one side. And trash: a crumpled paper drink cup, a plastic drink bottle with an orange cap, many bits and pieces of plastic, a faded green gallon jug of motor oil still mostly full.
I make my slow way along the three-mile trail, looking at tall trees, tiny mushrooms, and the way light filters through leaves and needles. On the entire traverse, I find a single piece of litter—the bright blue shiny-paper corner of a nut package, saw-toothed on its top edge, torn to a point, with a picture of an almond. The entire scrap is no larger than a nickel.
There is litter, and then there is litter. The human litter, unnatural in its color and shape, catches my eye. It belongs to trash, garbage, refuse, waste. The forest’s own litter—its dead leaves, needles, bark, cones, seeds, stems, twigs, and branches—is everywhere, layer upon layer of dropped and fallen organic materials. In one year, on one acre, forest litter will add up to five tons. This litter is food for bacteria, fungi, earthworms, insect larvae, and other decomposers.
Far off, a woodpecker hammers on a tree, raining down more litter to the forest floor. Right there, beside the trail, a millipede is snacking on a piece of Lobaria, the lichen otherwise known as lungwort. The scrap has fallen from the forest canopy, where it has captured nitrogen from the air. I look the millipede up later to learn that it’s Harpaphe haydeniana, more commonly known as the yellow-spotted millipede or the almond-scented millipede. The yellow-tipped sections situated between its black back and its many legs are said to warn predators of its toxins.
Almond package part, meet almond-scented creature. The first has no smell, the second I fail to check.
I have never seen trees so consistently engulfed in moss. The one I’m standing by, deep in the forest, has no needles at all on its lower branches, no foliage until about twenty feet up. Instead, its dead branches drip with moss, looking like loads of tinsel on a Christmas tree. When I look closely at the strands and the dead wood beneath them, I discover another miniature forest of molds, lichens, and fungi, including tiny white mushrooms. Raindrops bead at the ends of moss strands, more silver for the tinsel, and maple leaves catch here and there like ornaments.
The tree’s bark, mostly covered with moss, is clear enough in a few places to see its thin brown scaliness over a smooth redness. It’s this bark that made the Pacific yew famous. The drug Taxol was first derived from it in the 1960s, for the treatment of breast and ovarian cancers. It was feared for some time that the slow-growing and never abundant tree that lives under the canopies of old-growth forests would be overharvested for that purpose. Today, though, Taxol is synthesized from a European yew as the most commonly prescribed cancer drug.
The yew tree is said to represent both death and immortality. Death because its red berries are poisonous, and immortality because of its long life.
I place my hand on a patch of exposed bark, cool to the touch.
These woody fungi are everywhere in the forest, growing on the sides of rotting trees and fallen logs. I squat beside the trail to look up at the white surface of one underbelly. It’s smooth, like the skin of a beluga whale, a sharp contrast to its toughened dark top littered with dead needles. The pores are small, again like skin. Inside the pores, invisible to me: spores.
Shelf fungus, bracket fungus: these are the general names for a variety of fungi—probably more than five hundred species—that feed on dead wood. While the fungus, with its network of fine filaments, rots the inside of the tree, attacking the tree’s cells, the conk serves as its fruit.
Conk is an American word of uncertain origin, perhaps from conch, a shell. The resemblance is fanciful, although I can imagine someone walking from beach into forest, bringing a familiar image to what she finds there, lined out on bark as shells on sand.
My friend Eva, when she was dying of cancer, used to stop on her walks through the woods near her home to scratch into the hidden soft spaces of conks the word hope. Every conk in this forest, a thousand miles from Eva’s living conks and her ashes, reminds me of her—both her passion for life and her acceptance of death as part of ever-moving, ever-changing, ever-cycling life. As a scientist and a poet, she appreciated conks not just for their plain beauty but for their role in wood decay, for returning nutrients from dead wood back into the forest ecosystem.
Eva wrote on the last page of her last book, “We died and the earth continued and changed. And so, living, dying, dead, reborn in other forms—did we.”
On my last day’s hike, my trail is blocked by a fallen fir, its trunk laid down over shattered limbs. What winter winds can knock such giant trees off their feet? What pull of gravity, of slow-moving slide of land, fells them? What illness or weakness leads not to bend but topple?
This one’s root wad is a mess of gnarly roots, clumps of earth, entwined rocks. Compared to the tree’s height, the roots seem shallow, but I know their thinner fibers, here torn and hanging, dig deeper and wider. It’s said that the mass of a tree’s roots roughly equals the mass of a tree’s crown, one a sort of mirror of the other, above and below ground. But between those two mirrors may be 250 feet of trunk, and all that height is anchored by roots that lie mostly within the top five feet of soil.
Windthrown trees turn up mineral soil to feed new vegetation. Their root wads provide hiding spaces for all manners of creatures—from spiders to bobcats or bears. If I were caught in the forest overnight, I’d choose one (absent a bobcat or bear) to shelter under.
Here it begins again: the downed tree, the rot, the fungus and the moss and the bark shed to litter, the slug and the vole, the violet in spring, the endless circle of life. I can’t help but think of John Muir, lover of both forests and words. “Nature is ever at work building and pulling down, creating and destroying, keeping everything whirling and flowing, allowing no rest but in rhythmical motion, chasing everything in endless song out of one beautiful form into another.”
There’s no last word, only the chorus of it all.
Nancy Lord, a former Alaska Writer Laureate, is the author of several fiction and nonfiction books, including Fishcamp, Beluga Days, Early Warming, and most recently, pH: A Novel. She teaches in the University of Alaska system and in the Johns Hopkins science writing program. Her website is writernancylord.com.