Introduction from the Author: Henry Fielder, the 15-year-old son of a western Oregon millworker, lost his mother three months ago. His father is homeschooling him and occasionally physically abuses him. Henry is just meeting Carter and Josie Stephens, recently retired in their 60s from California, who expand his cultural horizons but put him further at odds with his father. The Methuselah Grove, the last sizable remnant of old-growth forest in Henry’s part of the Oregon Coast Range, was recently set aside as a very small park. Now a new timber sale has been planned right next to the Methuselah preserve. The story is set in the mid-1990s, during what we now call the Timber Wars.
One afternoon I cranked up my courage and turned my bike into Carter Stephens’ driveway. Cart and Josie, as they liked to be called, gave me coffee and cookies and were friendly as could be. It was just them and their gray tabby Catrick, who Cart claimed had been born in Ireland. They had real paintings and art photographs on their walls, and most of the photos Josie Stephens had taken herself. They were scenes from the California coast and deserts and mountain places, but not like the ones you see on calendars and in doctors’ waiting rooms that make Nature look like somebody arranged it and prettied it up. Hers were black and white, which Nature isn’t, but they looked true. “Color is candy for the eyes,” Josie told me
Set in the mid-1990s, when environmentalists and timber communities warred over the future of the last Northwestern old-growth forests, Gifted is the story of a young man with a metaphysical imagination—naïve yet wise, gifted yet ordinary—who comes of age under harsh circumstances, negotiating the wildness of his home country, of his human relationships, and of the emerging complexities of his own being.
Cart was an editor—not the magazine kind, though he’d done that, but a freelancer, someone you send your writing to and he helps you shape it into a book. I asked if he was a writer too, and he said he did write some but hadn’t written any books. He and Josie had owned a small bookstore in the San Francisco Bay Area for the last 30 years, and it looked like they’d brought all the books in the store with them to Oregon—shelves and shelves of books, hardbacks mostly, in all the rooms. “This is a library!” I just about shouted, and Cart said he’d show me through the collection next time and I could borrow books if I wanted. The walls of his workroom at the back of the house were nothing but books from floor to ceiling, just one window that looked out from his desk through a few sizable Douglas firs into Jimmy Hepworth’s pasture.
The Stephenses had sold their California house—nothing fancy, they said—for a lot more than they’d paid for it, and they’d settled in Oregon because their money would go farther here, and they liked Eugene, and they’d been to the Oregon Country Fair before, on the Long Tom River just a few miles from their new home—“Three days of old Berkeley, once a year in the country,” Josie called it. The new Berkeley had got to feeling too crowded; they loved the quiet of their new home, having deer around, hearing owls and coyotes at night. Neither one had ever heard a coyote before.
Cart was a little taller than average, Josie maybe six inches shorter. Her hair was brown with gray streaks, and she wore it tied back. Her glasses, which she kept on a chain around her neck, usually perched near the tip of her nose. She was from Massachusetts and had a face full of lines, as if she’d been born smiling and never quit. I couldn’t guess at the time—old’s just old, to a kid—but it turned out they were in their early 60s. Cart’s gray hair, slightly curly, kind of rambled around his head like a dry weed patch the wind never got done rearranging. “I can’t grow an Afro,” he said, “so I grew a Euramericano.” Around the house he wore baggy sweatpants, slippers, and a t-shirt not tucked in. He had a bit of a gut, all right, and was biking to lose it, on the roads when the weather let him and the rest of the time on an exercise stand in the garage, pedaling, as he liked to say, a million miles to nowhere.
I’d never met people like Cart and Josie or been in a home like theirs. It felt like more than I deserved or had any right to, but they were so friendly and casual they put me at ease. Said they’d like to get to know me. Hoped I would visit often and asked if I could show them some good day hikes in the area and help them identify trees and wildflowers and animals.
Sure, I said, and I started going over there. Twenty years later, I still do. I don’t know how I’d have made it if I hadn’t met those two.
Even back then, when I could, I kept hours like an owl. It’s my natural habit. I was reading in bed one night, around one or two, when the pickup headlights swam across my window and I heard the gravel popping. My father came in the back and stopped in my doorway.
“Up a little late, aren’t you?” he said.
He went back to the kitchen for a beer, popped the top, and came to my doorway again, leaning his shoulder against the frame.
“We had a run of logs full of nails,” he said. “The saws were breakin’ teeth all shift. Siuslaw lost more money than they made tonight.”
He’d stayed late drinking shots and beers at the Sam and Max, I could smell it on him. He didn’t usually work Saturday nights; he was filling in for somebody sick.
“Just random nails, or were they spiked?”
“Just nails, looked like,” he said. “Some outfits won’t buy timber anymore from anywhere near an old house. Always full of metal.”
I was trying to read my book—The Catcher in the Rye, lent by Cart and Josie—but he sighed and kept talking.
“No tellin’ with the environuts, though. I hear they’re spikin’ trees with super-hard ceramics now, to beat the metal detector.”
“They’re fighting for what they believe in, Dad.”
“Puttin’ loggers and millworkers at risk? They believe in that?”
“I know,” I said, “you told me about the guy in the redwood mill. . . .”
“Mm-hmm. Got his throat cut half an inch from the jugular when the band saw broke.”
“It’s just the Earth Firsters who spike trees and sabotage equipment, Dad. And even they aren’t trying to hurt people.”
He snorted. “I heard about those newcomers you met. They move up here and first thing they’re helpin’ that bunch of hippies at the protest. Been here five minutes, and they know how to manage the woods better than the people who’ve lived here forever.”
I closed my book. “You’re not from here either, you know.”
“Well, Mr. Oregon Native,” he said, his lopsided smile turning a little sneery. “Aren’t you special. Tell you what, I’m a damn sight more of an Oregonian than those two. Or any of ’em, pourin’ up I-5 in motorcades.”
“Whatever, Dad. I’m gonna sleep now.”
“Tell you somethin’ else, too. If those folks are puttin’ wacko ideas in your head, you’re not gonna see ’em anymore, you hear? I won’t have it, Henry.”
“I fill my own head, Dad, and I can’t help it if you fill yours with ignorant trash. Would you go to bed?”
“When I’m ready,” he said.
I turned off my bedside lamp and pulled the sheet over my head. After a while he sighed. “Your mother was soft on you, Henry, God bless ’er. You and your Indians, your animal friends…”
A long pause.
“Yep. A little soft, Leenie. Half-spoiled this boy.”
“Those people you like,” my father said a few days later at the breakfast table. “I drove by their place last night, and you should’ve seen the party. Old farts spillin’ out the door, rock ’n’ roll loud as bedlam. They had one of those strobe lights, you know? I can only imagine the drugs…”
“Oh right, Dad. They were probably drinkin’ booze, like you. And smokin’ some weed, maybe.”
He gave me a sharp look. “Whatta you know about pot?”
I smiled at him. “I know you and Mom smoked it sometimes.”
“We’re adults, you’re not. Are those old hippies givin’ it to you?”
I kept my smile. “What if they are?”
“Don’t mess with me, boy. If you’re smokin’ pot with them, I’m gonna ground you and report them to the sheriff.”
“Cool your jets, Dad. Cart and Josie are really nice people. I’d introduce you if I thought you’d give ’em a chance.”
He shook his head. “It was one in the mornin’ and you wouldn’t believe the racket they were makin’…”
“So what? They don’t have near neighbors. Didn’t you hear Len Peppers’s stereo the other night? Must’ve had his windows open. George Jones for hours. Made me hate a great song, ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today.’”
Len was a retired logger from the glory days of old-growth timber and an official community character who lived a half mile up Boomer Mountain. I’d grown up with country music—my dad usually had it on, at home and in the truck—but Len had taught me who the great ones were, who had influenced who, who was the real deal and not just some poser in rhinestones.
“Well, Len has to turn it up, ’cause he’s hard of hearing,” my father said. “I heard he might be sick with somethin’, by the way.”
“Uh-oh,” I said. “I better go see him.”
Later that week my father had errands to do in Eugene, so I had the day off from homeschool. I decided I needed to see my oldest friends.
The morning was clear with just a hint of sharpness in the air. The day before, mowing the yard, I’d seen at the edge of the woods a perfect orb-weaver spider web, a sure sign of fall. The promise of life after summer!
Felt good to be on my bike, air rushing my face. I pedaled hard up Boomer Mountain, working up a sweat, and turned into Len Peppers’s short driveway. His truck wasn’t there, but I knocked twice just to be sure. A good sign, I figured. If he was well enough to drive, he couldn’t be too sick.
I turned north on the gravel BLM road, down into the leafy bottom and then up and over Noble Dog Ridge. I stashed my bike in a planted forest and struck out overland, skirting upslope above a sheep pasture and a small vineyard. I crossed Rampage Creek the usual way, on a fallen buckskin snag, thrashed through an overgrown clearcut on the next little ridge and down through young and middle-aged timber, the trees getting bigger as I went. I saw something new—colored BLM flagging on some of the trees, marking the timber sale Cart Stephens had mentioned. “A forest is a continuum,” he’d said—a new word, for me. “You can’t simply draw a little square on a map and say, ‘Inside this square is a forest we will protect from all harm. Outside this square we will clearcut and replant in a 30- to 40-year harvest cycle.’”
My father had been half right. Cart and Josie weren’t giving me weed—though my keen public-schooled nose told me they smoked it—but they were broadening my outlook on logging and wilderness. “You have to see it from above to appreciate just how hard this country has been logged,” Cart said, and he showed me some aerial photos. The whole central Coast Range was shot through with clearcuts and squiggly logging roads. It looked like a patchwork quilt, I decided, but Grandma’d had a bad day cutting the patches and must have lost her pattern and then got crazy with the sewing machine, running squiggly lines all over the quilt just for the hell of it.
“It’s been riddled,” Cart said. “And what’s the answer to the riddle?” He stared me down with his baggy blue eyes. “Resistance, Henry. Resistance.”
It was called the Karen Creek timber sale. Nobody knew when the logging would begin, maybe not till spring, maybe this fall if the weather stayed fair. The people planning the blockade, the Methuselah Forest Collective, weren’t taking any chances— they were getting ready, Cart with them. Josie would be on the support team.
I kept on down through the continuum of trees to the bottom where the Methuselahs had been growing in their huge shaggy quiet for centuries.
My mother first took me when I was a month old, and we went there, sometimes my father too, countless times as I grew up. Douglas firs and hemlocks, a few western red cedars, the last sizable remnant in the inland Coast Range of the woods that French trappers and American missionaries and Oregon Trail pioneers knew, and the Kalapuyas for all those seasons going back deep into time. One family had owned the property from Territorial days, farmers down in the valley who could have sold the timber but didn’t. Each of their generations wanted their kids to grow up knowing the trees. Everybody else wanted it for their kids too, so the family did a generous thing. They swapped with the government for some other forest lands, and the Bureau of Land Management set aside 36 acres around the biggest trees as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern, which is BLM talk for “no logging for as long as we say so.” The demonstration that Cart and Josie had supported was for a bigger set-aside; the timber industry had wanted it smaller. Nobody came out very happy.
I did my usual—walked a little, sat a little, touched the thick, crusted bark. In an old-growth forest there’s more light than most people expect, a glareless light filtering through the crowns of the big trees and the understory of big-leaf maples and wild hazelnuts. A winter wren was flitting around among the sword ferns and salal, the fallen trunks and limbs that the mossy ground was claiming for its own. I could see up into the crowns of a few trees—200 feet tall, some of them. Each tree showed its history, written in dead stubs and snapped-off green limbs among the living limbs still whole. Lightning had scarred some trees, lightning or storm wind had blasted the tops off a few. The lower trunks, down at my level, showed old char from ground fires that had killed brush and smaller trees, the great ones inside their thick bark not even feeling the flames.
In the library once, I’d found a book of photographs of old people from around the world. Their faces were amazing—landscapes of wrinkles, creases, sags, blotches, scars, their eyes hollowed under their brows, sometimes dark, sometimes with a faraway light like the sky. Those faces gave me the same urge to kneel, to bow, that the Methuselahs did. Trees, humans, they had never stopped becoming themselves. The people in the photographs were probably dead now, in the ground, and most of the Methuselahs already tilted a little, starting into their fall, and the fallen ones were there too, melting into ground, mossed-over, growing riots of fungus and seedling trees.
My mother never got the chance to live herself old. Where was she now? What was she now? I thought I’d felt her near a few times, just over my shoulder, or in the treetops stirring with a wind I heard but couldn’t feel. But just that. Not her black hair, her crooked tooth, the smell of her when we hugged. “How could you just go?” I called out loud, then dropped to hands and knees and closed my eyes and stuck my nose into a hump of moss and rot that used to be a tree, breathing it in. There’s no richer smell, nothing in Nature I love more, and a kind of vision opened inside me. I felt green life in all its forms rising everywhere out of the ground, leaves and spears and fronds and crowns slowly unfolding through the ages, and in all that green life, mind was opening too, the rising life was mind, there was a knowing in seeds and needle buds and blossoms, in the land itself taking form as mountain ranges and rivers, great deserts and deep rocky gorges and windy prairies, whole landscapes opening like leaves or butterfly wings or a baby uncurling from the womb, opening like a waking soul. And in all of it, formed in the great pattern and almost obscured by it, a human face was emerging—not man or woman, not young or old, the color of all colors, the face behind all faces.
I came out of it hearing a car whining and lurching up the potholed road from the east, and I was on my way upslope out of the grove by the time I heard doors open and close, the drift of human voices—a pleasant sound, but the problem with making a place a park is that everybody wants to go there. Decent people, mostly, with as much right to be there as I had. The Methuselahs don’t judge. But still, should there be any road at all to a place so mighty? To be worthy of that majesty, we should walk. Any who can’t walk could be carried on the backs of their friends.
When I got home, after dark, my father was in the kitchen. He tossed a worn plastic zipper bag onto the table. It looked familiar.
“Look what I found,” he said.
“Who said you could search my room?”
“You lied again, Henry. You said those people weren’t givin’ you—”
“I got it from a friend, Dad. And gosh, it’s almost enough to get high on.”
“No sass, Henry. You’re grounded. Lessons in the morning, chores in the afternoon. You’re not to leave this property.”
“Why are you such a dick?” I yelled. “You drink like a fish, and I can’t have a bud or two of weed?”
He came around the table and slapped my cheek with the back of his hand. “This isn’t a democracy, Henry. You’re 15 years old, you’re headed down the wrong track, and I’m doin’ somethin’ about it.”
I pulled away toward the hall.
“There’s a plate of dinner for you,” he called after me, but I slammed my bedroom door on his voice.
I flopped down on my bed but was too worked up to just lie there. I got up and sharpened my pocketknife on the small whetstone I kept in my desk drawer. I took off my shirt and looked at the underside of my left forearm. I drew the point of the blade from the wrist three inches up the arm, just hard enough to break skin. The sting of the cut felt good. I drew another line, parallel. I stared at the cuts, the blood welling up and beginning to dribble. I felt calmer. I watched the dribbles stop and begin to harden.
When he’d gone to bed I went to the kitchen and got the plate of pork chops and mashed potatoes from the oven, took it to my room and ate at my desk, cutting the meat with my pocketknife, taking dips of potatoes with my fingers.
Read two Mount St. Helens poems by John Daniel also appearing in Terrain.org.
Photo of sunrise through Oregon forest by tpsdave, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of John Daniel by Alexandra Shyshkina.