Elk at Fallen Ancient
Part of my personal ecotherapy practice is to live here in Southwestern Washington State, in the Willapa Watershed. It is a choice I have made and I’ve made it because at times this land and what the humans are doing to it makes me mourn with a deep, throat constricted sadness for my earth and all the living things upon it. And that is a truth I do not want to deny or forget.
Willapa is the Native People’s word for weeping forest, which was — before Western civilization came to these lands — a description of the rich and verdant splendor of a unique natural environment that evolved with the cool, rainy climate that characterizes the Pacific Northwest coast.
It was once a land where the ancient climax forests softly wept Willapa tears of joy for the beauty bestowed upon the land by gentle rains.
Now Willapa tears fall from the weak and ever stunted relatives weeping for the loss of strong and towering ancients, chopped and milled into the houses of the Westerners that came, swarming, spreading their farms and cities over the land, leaving little room for the many plants and creatures that once all together made their living home upon it, growing, integrated and complete, with only the added energy of sunlight. The young ones weep as they live out their now relatively brief lives of forty or so years, reduced to crop like stands of scrawny stems, merely harvestable raw material for lumber and paper pulp to keep the farms and cities growing.
I spend a lot of time out in these young forests. Forests that had become these extensive timber company tree farms long before I ever chose to come to this land, tree crops grown on lands purchased from the railroads for mere pennies an acre. The railroads themselves were granted much of the land by some government policymakers who deemed it proper to use land itself to barter with these private companies in order to “encourage” railroad barons to build their iron horse roads in Washington State. This all took place back in the eighteen hundreds when nation “building” was considered the natural purpose of America’s exceptionally endowed Manifest Destiny, and the people who were here before, not using it properly, were simply displaced, as was determined to be their ignominious but sadly necessary part of that great Destiny.
All of this makes perfect sense if you’ll just read the right books.
If I don’t stop to think about what once was, and if I pay immediate attention to what is here now, it’s true that I can see there is much beauty to be found all around me. These forest crop lands are benevolently opened to me by these timber company owners, and to any and all other respectful visitors for hunting and exploring, almost as if they still were our public lands. So really, what have we lost? I’ve heard some of my neighbors ask from time to time.
I’m not the answer man, I tell them.
So the beauty of all this for me is I can simply walk out my back door with my dog Jacques, and we scale a steep hillside, for about five hundred feet, and then we are set free to walk for miles on deer trails and logging roads, whichever I may happen to prefer for that walk. And so I go out amongst the young trees and share their joy as they grow, and admire the beauty they have, for as briefly as they will have it. And I’ve learned how to say good bye from time to time.
One day I’d ridden my mountain bike about ten miles along a logging road I hadn’t explored before, with Jacques running along with me, exploring the realms of scent and sounds that I can only imagine. When, not too surprisingly, I came across what looked to be about a five year past clearcut. The timber company had replanted and a stand of baby douglas fur was growing through the graying stumps and debris. Most of the new trees stood no taller than four feet.
Jacques was sniffing intently along the edge of the road just up ahead, where an embankment rose up into the clearcut. Above him I could see a huge stump, still dwarfing the baby trees that were growing nearby. Contrasting with this patch of clearcut, across the road to my right, a stand of dark and serene forest fell away, sloping downward from the logging road, with trees that looked to be near harvestable size. I wondered how soon the trucks would be rumbling up the road to carry them off to a mill.
As I pedaled slowly up, I was awed by the size of the stump, so I stopped below it, straddled my bike and looked up for a bit. Then I got off and laid the bike on its side in the shallow ditch next to the road and climbed up to this immense, moss covered, grayed and slightly rotting stump, which still had huge roots going down and into the hillside — though I imagined they must be rotted under the surface, and one day the stump would come tumbling down. However, what was left was clearly enough to keep it in place for now.
I noticed a couple of handy notches had been carved in its side so the loggers could put in boards and stand above the ground in the way I’d seen in old pictures of them back when two men would work a huge two man saw together to fell a tree, back before the invention of gasoline powered chain saws, the first of which I recall dates around 1905. That gave me some sense of how long ago the tree had been felled.
Stepping into the notch, I climbed up and stood on the stump and just looked at its expanse, trying to see the rings in the weathered surface, hoping I could count them. The tree that had once grown from that stump was lying, stretching out from it, like a giant’s carcass, cut into sections, each maybe forty feet in length. I figure it had to have been lying there since near the turn of the Twentieth Century, given those notches. The sections were dark and weathered, mossy on the shaded northern side, and somewhat decayed but amazingly still pretty much intact.
Then I thought to lay down on the stump to measure it, and it was at least another two feet in diameter larger than my length, so its diameter must have been at least eight feet.
I stepped across to the first section of trunk, lying so quiet and still on its side for all those years, through maybe two stands of timber, all harvested and gone, turned to lumber and now in houses somewhere, who knows where, and began walking down towards the other. Had it not been cut, it would probably still be standing, huge, deeply rooted, thick in girth, 300 or so feet high, no doubt, and the tragedy of that now seemingly senseless act of felling such an ancient, living being, cutting it in sections and then just leaving it there, filled me with sorrow and brought tears to my eyes.
Then I thought to get out my camera from my pack and I began taking pictures.
I walked along the sections of the ancient carcass, jumping from one to the next. And then as I lined up along the last one, as I was looking through the lens, suddenly I realized I was looking at the face of an elk off the end of that last section of trunk, and the elk was calmly looking directly back at me. I slowly allowed the camera lower from my face, and the elk and I just looked at each other, eyes to eyes, and I could see the animal was at peace. It looked to it’s right, and then I looked around, moving my head carefully so as not to make any sudden gestures to startle this animal, and I came to a realization I was in the middle of an entire herd of elk. Most of them were lying down, resting calmly, a few looking towards me. I turned to look for my dog and he was right behind me on top of the ancient fallen giant, looking at all the elk too. We were all just looking at each other, elk, dog and human. It felt like we were all somehow connected and inseparable and welded into that moment by a force none of us knew how to break, or even wanted to.
I turned slowly and Jacques and I went back down the sections of carcass to the stump, then back down to my bike. We left the herd peacefully in their field of tiny trees, where much grass still grew for them, and would for a few more years until the trees got large enough to block out the light and make a forest canopy of their own, one that would, if left be, eventually become an ancient old growth forest bed.
Why that tree was never taken out after it was cut down remains a mystery to me, and I’d bet no one is alive to tell me, and probably no story about it was important enough to tell their children. Just another tree cut down, for what ever reason, left behind. A hundred years later, still there, nearly intact. They were just cutting trees, shipping them to California, one got left.
Then there was the time I was coasting down a hill way back on a logging road, and I saw three black Lab puppies running down the road up ahead. And just as I was wondering what are those little puppies doing way out there all by themselves, they all turned almost at once and scampered off the road and climbed a tree as Jacques went charging past me, for he too was probably wondering what they were doing out there. …And then I heard all this crashing and crackling in the forest off to my right…
Ren Huntsinger, May 24, 2008