As I trod the trail in a fir-fragrant afternoon under a hazy sky, I “got to thinkin’” as I joke with Valerie when I have a spell of contemplation. It wasn’t a solitary walk, Dusty the ragamuffin dog alternated between lagging behind and speeding ahead depending on how interesting the scentscape was in either direction. He seldom interrupted me except when the most intriguing scent imaginable was between my boots in mid-stride. Then the thought was “Dammit Dusty!” as I avoided going ass over teakettle. It was only a temporary mental diversion, then back to the “thinkin’”.
I had not spent this much time in a Coastal forest since I left university. That was over half a lifetime ago, or a lifetime ago depending on how you measure it. It felt weirdly green, dark and oppressive. If there was a sunbeam to be found it was a happy coincidence. Solar geometry meets misfortune as a tree has given way to make room for its successors and competitors.
I had to overcome this feeling of not being at home, made worse by the loneliness of missing the love of my life. Not dead, thank god, just in Arizona – sweet blue Arizona. But that wasn’t the only psychological hurdle.
It was hard for me to detach the utilitarian or industrial view of the forest from simple enjoyment of the forest for what it is. All those lessons of so long ago came flooding back.
Grand fir (Abies grandis). Excellent form factor. Excellent for timber production at low elevations.
Now I tried to see the forest with new eyes, with the patience of a lonely naturalist on a field expedition – not a student scrawling info into a notebook anticipating a test question or a forester laying out his next cutblock.
The scattered Grand fir command attention with their seemingly slender trunks compared to the bulky Douglas-fir with their massively furrowed corky bark and the Western redcedar with fluted boles that flared into buttresses at the ground. The Grand fir’s gray wrapping of subtly split bark spirals up to the dizzy height of the crown above. I picked up windblown branchlets at their base and smelled their resinous perfume and marvelled at the distinctive white lines of stomata under their flat blue-green needles.
Western redcedar (Thuja plicata). Highly valued for its decay-resistant wood. Ameliorates humus forms with its calcium-rich foliage. Recommended secondary species on acidic soils.
The cabin I am calling my temporary home is awash in cedar, from the poles that form the main structure to the tongue-and-groove that lines the walls. Even the roof was hand-split cedar shingles until it was replaced with modern corrugated steel. I re-pile the collapsing heap of old shingles and adjust the tarp to keep the rain off. The shingles are as old as I am. Some edges are frayed with the start of decay but for the most part they are sound and split straight and true into kindling for the fire that keeps the damp cold at bay. The firewood collection includes salvaged cedar logs covered in a mossy shell. When split they carry the fresh scent of yes, cedar. As I open the firebox to add a log to the slow burning fire, wisps of smoke as fragrant as spicy incense waft into the room.
In the forest, it is clear that few cedar were spared by the generations of loggers and homesteaders who tromped over the hills to eke out a living. Now, children of those cedar trees are milled just down the road by a couple of surfer-looking dudes who lean trendy live-edge boards against their fence rail and price them by the piece. The mill yard is dotted with cedar branch globes and free-form towers like pagan monuments to a tree that continues to live large in the minds of those who would make the West Coast their home.
In the forest even the long-dead ancestors make their presence known. They stand truncated with springboard notches hacked into their buttressed bases. But there are also a few truly ancient stumps unsullied by the marks of the modern era. They are bleached and decayed to the point that their buttress forms a web-like skeleton. They look vaguely familiar and then I make the connection in my mind. They are like the skeleton of a dead saguaro cactus blasted by the wind and sand and unrelenting sun.
Pacific madrone / Arbutus (Arbutus menziesii) This evergreen broadleaf tree is common on skeletal soils in the Coastal Douglas-fir Zone. It is generally of no commercial value. The wood is exceedingly dense and brittle.
It is a striking tree, with its multi-coloured bark contrasted between smooth portions and shaggy areas along its sensuously undulating trunk. Bright waxy evergreen leaves, and at this time of year it bears marvelous bunches of red berries. As I touch the trunk I am reminded of the majestic arbutus that dotted the shore of Grandma Evelyn’s property. One of her arbutus crashed down in a wind storm destroying her dream “Doll House” trailer. At least that tree gave back to her on many winter nights, burning as long and as hot as coal in a fireplace shaped like a tugboat.
I marvel at a fact that this tree is related to a tiny sprawling plant from my usual stomping grounds: Kinnick-kinnick, with its mahogany bark, waxy evergreen leaves and plump red berries. Like the Pacific dogwood, it’s country cousins look small and shabby by comparison.
Now when I walk the forest the utilitarian industrial lessons and leanings don’t speak so loudly. They don’t drown the chatter of the nuthatches and chickadees, the few laggard robins and the thump of a lonesome pileated woodpecker. Is his mate here? Or over the channel? Perhaps some background thoughts are still intrusive. Time to hike back to a cell signal and call Valerie…