History. I seem to run into it everywhere. I wasn’t looking for it this morning. Not at all. I simply want to go for a walk, wander in the woods. Dispel somehow the melancholy that seems to own the morning, a March morning, somewhere near spring. A breeze bends some of the drooping tips of the hemlock trees forward.
“Look” I say to my son as we wait for the school bus. “There is the wind.” I can see it in trees in front of us, but just next to these trees others stand still, untouched by the wind, as if they were in a whole different day entirely. I point at the row of hemlocks across the road, just at the base of the hill.
“Watch the wind” I say. The wind bends several trees forward, and we watch as it moves down valley, tree by tree by tree, as if it was moving down the keyboard of a piano, playing each note , one by one, slowly and distinct, with perfect timing.
It seems a good day to be careful. There is something about the way the dog’s bark carries into the morning air despite the wind, as if it was a still day. Purplish clouds bump up against each other and fill up the horizon in front of us. Log trucks rumble by, a rooster crows. Something seems to be coming our way. My son says “try to kiss me” and laughs and runs behind my back. I try to catch him but miss and then the bus is here suddenly, at the rise of the hill. Lights flash, the door opens and he is gone.
So I take a walk. I detour from my usual route, the one that goes along the river and past sloughs and ponds, the place where I see eagles and blue herons most every morning. Even kingfishers and coyotes, and last week a saw whet owl flew nearly between my legs as he crossed the trail, swooping low and then upward onto a branch of a smallish hemlock. Instead, this morning, I veer across the highway and under the power lines on over to the state land.
We come here most often in fall when the chanterelles ripen. October and even into November we slip off into the trees just at the top of the hill. There is a large wide bench of land here sprinkled with old stumps around which the chanterelles congregate. When it snows we come to ski or sled on the wide swath of road under the power line. Today I walk around the locked gate at the bottom of the road. I follow the road under the power lines and up the hill.
This land is a patch work of logging history. The road I walk is a logging road though there hasn’t been much activity for the ten years we’ve lived across the way. Now I notice tire marks, unusual on the closed road. I walk through solid woods for a quarter mile before views open up down valley. A clear cut on the downhill side of the road, now nearly fifteen years old, allows a few glimpses of the peaks down valley. The young but nearly sixty foot hemlocks and Douglas firs will soon close in the road here too and block the view. I reach a break in the grade and off to my right. I spy the wisp of a trail that leads into the woods here, made by mushroom, grouse and deer hunters, by the deer themselves. It is an inviting forest so sparse is the underbrush. I can’t resist going in though it was all the way up the hill I was thinking I would go, up to where state land meets federal land.
The forest floor here is covered with grand old stumps – most three, four and five feet in diameter, many with burn marks from a long ago forest fire and all cut high on the stump and bearing spring board notches. Tell tell signs the trees were harvested with cross cuts most likely over a century ago.
Chanterelles love the remnants of rail line that cuts through the forest here. Maybe it’s the openness of the forest. They tend to like an older Douglas fir forest covered completely with fir needles. And that’s what we have here, Douglas fir, some of them getting upward forty inches in diameter and better, with a few cedar and hemlock mixed into the stand. I like to walk the old rail line, to follow it as if I were going somewhere instead of wandering about. It makes a straight line through the trees. And it is one of the finest remnants I have found. At first I thought it corduroy, or the split lengths of cedar placed in the dirt to make a road of sorts for wagons and stock pack trains to move over. But that wouldn’t make much sense here, dry as the bench is, filled with Douglas fir. Corduroy is usually laid down as a way to travel over wet ground.
When I dig down a bit all I find is dirt. Even after a hundred years, cedar, buried or even laying on the ground, covered in a mound of moss and layer of rot, is solid. That’s why cedar was used; it was plentiful and long lived, resistant to rot, even in the often inclement Pacific Northwest woods. In digging into the dirt one could expect to find solid cedar, but there is nothing. Indications that this is old rail road grade, the temporary kind they used to move timber around. Here the rail lines were laid down and used long enough to leave an indent, an impression in the ground, before the whole thing was torn out and moved to get to the next stand of timber. That is what they did, until logging trucks and chainsaws replaced the crosscuts and railroads.
I follow the old grade through the woods and that’s when I notice the flagging, blue and orange, hanging on a bush. Then I see a line of flags and stapled to the tree, a six by six inch sign with the words, Sale Boundary. A timber sale, I think. I walk over to the tree to be sure. It is indeed a sale boundary sign.
Of course, I think. Of course. I shouldn’t be surprised. This is state land meant for timber harvest. I live in a logging town, a place where the lumber mill is still the biggest employer. The high school is Home of the Loggers. Sprinkled around town are lawn signs proclaiming “this family supported by timber dollars.” Attempts at transitioning from timber to tourism have sputtered at best. And this is a beautiful stand of timber, nearing maturity, ready for harvest. The bench here is wide and flat, and easy to access as it’s barely a quarter mile off a state highway. Heck that’s why the mushroom pickers all like it – easy access to a prime crop.
I settle down by the base of one of the trees. I can hear the traffic below me, cars occasionally hitting the rumble strips, or a semi truck, ones that go up and down the valley frequently hauling lumber from the mill to markets down valley, others are filled with saw dust for use as compost. And then there are logging trucks, heading up valley to the mill, coming off of state or private lands to the west.
I can’t say I’m happy about the timber sale. It is in my front yard after all. I have come here year after year. This is where I come when I can’t get further out into the woods. I walked here often the summer after my son was born. I would sit in these trees and feel content that I wasn’t out in the wilderness somewhere; I could pretend I had something like that here. As my son grew, we would come for a quick afternoon hike and later to hunt for mushrooms. It was an easy place to test his sense of direction, to let him wander and explore and find what he could without much worry of his getting lost, pretend we were deep in the wilderness. And that is what he called it, wilderness. “Can we go explore the wilderness?” he would ask. This is where he fell in love with the thrill of finding mushrooms; where he learned to cut them off their stems, feeling important that he could walk around in the woods with his own knife. We go into these woods with friends and family, alone or with just ourselves. My son runs after friends, down into the ravines, dwarfed as he is by the giant trees. I hear laughs and protests against going home. “Not yet” he shouts “there are more. I see more.” Love I guess you could call it. These trees helped teach my son to love the forest, to be outside, to feel at ease in the woods. They kept me company when I was a new mother.
I get up and follow the grade some more. Wander around, follow the sale signs to see how far they go. I follow the grade to the edge of an old clear cut where it disappears into the slash and dog hair which looks to be six or seven years old now. I wonder about the old rail road grade. I know smaller and less intact sections of such rail grade on federal lands have held up miserly little trail projects for years. And then the trails only crossed the grade and even then plans were in place to leave the grade undisturbed. Here I wonder if any inventory has been done at all, what studies, has an archeologist been out here. Do they know about this? I will go home and inquire. See what has been done. I know a clear cut will obliterate the grade. But does that matter? Even without the clear cut the grade will eventually disappear, melt back into the forest floor. It will become covered in trees and roots, broken braches, fallen trees. Entropy will do its job. Maybe my interest is purely selfish. Maybe I want the grade to matter because wiping all this away implies the inconsequence of us all, the cruel march forward of time.
I try to follow the grade into the clear-cut but its route is no longer distinct, obliterated mostly. And the going is unpleasant. I can’t walk so much as crawl and bend and twist my way around old slash, the tightly spaced young trees and thick brush that has grown up in the open space of the clearcut. There are no chanterelles here, won’t be for some time. But they will be return. So will the trees, they already are. They will, god willing, grow tall and big and near maturity – maybe become old growth again. Who knows? I can pretend all I want that this is wilderness, but it’s not. Its productive timber land; economically viable. A place set aside for this very purpose. I could rally against it, protest their demise. But what are the alternatives? Where better to get the timber?
Still, I’ll miss the trees. These woods they created. The woods we wandered. This place we’ve come to love.