A burl is a clock. An organism telling time. Through a thousand years and the waves of destruction, a message whispered from the forest beneath the forest.
Kids in the woods? Writing poems?
The woman on the phone was putting together a program for environmental arts camp. Fourth graders, in a grove of old-growth redwood.
I had worked in the California Poets in the Schools program, learned that kids in rural classrooms are hungry for visitors and unafraid of poetry. Later, some of them showed up at the local college in my environmental writing workshop.
And I had a darker motive: a Texas corporation was liquidating its coastal redwood holdings a few miles upriver, with log trucks hauling past our house from early dawn six days a week.
So yeah, I said. We’ll write about the trees.
I’ll start with a pair of bookends, a small redwood burl cut in half. Each student can hold one—it will take both hands—and check it out. The outer wood is dark and rugged, but where it’s been cut they’ll see intricate patterns of wood grain, a message the eye wants to decipher.
While the kids look into this mystery I’ll read to them from Song of Myself, where a child comes to Walt Whitman asking, Whatis the grass? Walt admits he doesn’t know, but starts guessing. The grass might be the Lord’s handkerchief, designedly dropt, he says, so we might pick it up and ask, Whose? Or more darkly, maybe it’s the uncut hair of graves. Possibly, he says, the grass is itself a child.
The question will be passed from hand to hand: What is a burl?
Nancy Ryan had been part of the Village poetry scene in the Beat years. She had studied at The New School. Her work had appeared in prestigious magazines; she’d lived in Paris, Rome, Tangier, and New York. She arrived in Humboldt County at the end of the 70s, after Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America urged her to get closer to the earth. At our poetry readings, on the women’s radio show, on the dance floor of my favorite rock-and-roll bar, Nancy was a luminous presence.
Occasionally she would go east to see old friends, return with rare bits of literary gossip. Sometimes she’d stop in Kansas to visit William Burroughs and we’d hear what the bad old daddy of the Beats was up to. Nancy was news.
But now it was the 80s and she and her husband were moving—to New Mexico, where off-grid living might be cheaper and the earth less moldy and damp. Would I keep something for her? A redwood table too big to fit in the car. She might move back here some day.
The Friendly City, as it describes itself, doesn’t feel especially friendly if you’re not aligned with its politics, which are traditionally the politics of lumber.
A redwood burl can grow into another tree, a clone of its parent. A tumescent swelling near the base of its massive trunk, burl is a reproductive alternative to the improbably tiny cones and seeds. Its reserve of bud tissue can be activated by wind-break, fire, drought, even “death.” Fallen and rotting into the forest floor, a nurse log sends up a row of burl sprouts. A stump decayed and gone becomes a fairy ring of little redwood trees.
This survival strategy had not foreseen steel tools and human cleverness. They stood on springboards high above the forest floor, using a two-man saw where the trunk was not as thick and the wood grain straight and clear. They left the burl.
In the old logging photos the stumps are a graveyard of redwood headstones, adorned by green bouquets of newly sprouted trees. The lumber men could say, “Look at how they grow back. They’re weeds.”
The poets in the woods gig isn’t turning out like the Whitman poem. Can I drive down to Fortuna, the arts presenter wants to know—to describe my lesson plan to the teachers and principal? My little honorarium is looking like gas money—but hey, it’s for the kids.
The Friendly City, as it describes itself, doesn’t feel especially friendly if you’re not aligned with its politics, which are traditionally the politics of lumber. That made their biggest mill a popular destination, during Redwood Summer, for environmentalists wanting to be pepper sprayed and thrown in jail. Since then, the industry is down and tourism is up, but the mills still want every tree that isn’t in a park.
When we study the grain of a redwood burl, I would say to the class, it’s like looking at the night sky. We look for patterns, a message.
Yeah, well. That might engage the kids, but the dominant message of their home town is board feet of product. There’s more than a few miles between us.
A sign on the locked door says, No Admittance Till Time Of Hearing. We’re ten minutes early.
Noel and I wait on the sidewalk in front of the offices of Cal Fire (the re-branded California Department of Forestry). It’s a chilly May morning. We’re clutching take-out coffee with both hands. We met at the Park & Ride where Elk River empties into Humboldt Bay, drove down to Fortuna in her Honda loaded with all the papers and gear of a nature professional. At night in the woods Noel counts spotted owls for a timber company, as required by the fragile agreement that came out of the Northwest Forest Wars. By day an environmental nonprofit pays her to comment on timber harvest plans, as prescribed by California’s Forest Practices Act.
While she drove she filled me in on the details of #1-08-026.
The Timber Harvest Plan (THP in forestry-speak) calls for clearcutting 146 acres of redwoods on the North Fork of Elk River. It’s the latest incident of an environmental crime spree that began in 1987 when junk bond trader Charles Hurwitz took over Pacific Lumber, re-branded it PalCo, and began liquidating its undervalued assets: a mill, a company town, and more than 200,000 acres of redwood forest.
Two decades later, just after we moved to Elk River, PalCo was descending into bankruptcy and liquidating every tree still standing. For weeks, until the winter rains began, a funeral procession of redwoods rolled by our new front door. Now they’re ready to roll again.
The pale green office buildings are surrounded by cement and narrow borders of closely trimmed grass. National and state flags hang from a pole front and center. At 8 a.m. the door opens and a woman lets us in. “That way,” she says, pointing down a hallway to the hearing room.
The interior is as neat as the grounds. The furnishings are austere, with the same feel of a remote military outpost. We are nearing the end of an ancient relationship between humans and forests, which may portend great suffering for our species. It happens in tidy offices like this, with all the appearance of order.
But make no mistake. It’s a real war.
Before and after World War I, two New Jersey poets wrote poems titled “Trees.”
Joyce Kilmer was from New Brunswick, attended its college and then Columbia University, afterward edited a Catholic newspaper. Later he wrote for The New York Times, celebrated for his devotion to poetry, his faith, and nature. “Trees” was popular when it appeared in 1913, but Kilmer’s death in the First World War made it New Jersey’s best-known poem. Among the first to sign up in the fall of 1917, he quickly distinguished himself for bravery and was picked off by a sniper the following summer. He may be the only American poet to have a major military base named after him.
When I lived at Camp Kilmer, an English major in Army barracks converted to married student housing, it embarrassed me that the state’s great poets—Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg—were hardly noticed while half the parks and public buildings in New Jersey were named after Joyce Kilmer. Teachers everywhere forced children to memorize and recite
I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
For our next lesson plan I’ll read Kilmer’s poem aloud, five more rhyming couplets of things he thinks he’ll never see. Kilmer’s tree is an Edwardian Mother Nature, has an arboreal bosom, wears robins’ nests in her hair, and in bouncing iambics lifts her leafy arms to God to pray. The personification, the happy verse, the pious sentiment, all belong to the abstract idealism that makes war possible, and made Kilmer a hero. Fourth graders will have fun deconstructing it.
Imitate Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees”—speaking in the voice of a redwood log on its way to the mill. I think that I shall never see….
A few miles inland, at the edge of the coastal fog, Fieldbrook in the 1980s was a second-growth paradise. It had once been a great forest, then it was a town with several mills and a railroad that hauled out the lumber. Now, except for the weeds and rusting cars, it could be a tourist attraction: See The World’s Biggest Stumps. Maybe Nancy’s burl had come from one of them.
Planed and finished to show the dark convolutions of wood grain, with wildly irregular edges, it’s about three feet by five, maybe three inches thick. Her husband Jim helped me carry it out and we slid it into the Chevy panel.
Nancy had fallen in love with wood when she moved to the North Coast. All of one winter she smoothed and polished this thick biopsy of tree tissue. It had been a low table resting on a couple of plastic milk crates. They were packed with LPs and books, waiting beside the car, heading south.
Forest has another, older word relative—foreign, outside of ownership.
William Carlos Williams’s “Trees” appeared as World War I ended. It reflects some of the war’s losses—which included a disproportionate number of young poets. While Kilmer’s tree grew in the Garden State, a description that lives mostly on its license plates, Williams’s tree lives between Newark and Paterson, in the Jersey you see from the Parkway. His tree is urban, dark, irregular, the poem characterized by twists of language and attitude.
Crooked, black tree
on your little grey-black hillock,
ridiculously raised one step toward
the infinite summits of the night:
In this New Jersey the stars are gray. They draw the tree into “a vague melody / of harsh threads”—a music that’s hard for both ear and understanding. The tree is praised, not for resisting the darkness with a personified valor, but for “warping” itself toward the night. The poem works against idealizing nature and ourselves.
Williams wrote poetry while studying medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, encouraged by the poet Ezra Pound who was a graduate instructor there. Later, he visited Pound and other American expatriates in London and Paris, embracing their Modernist and Imagist call to throw off old forms, to bring the vernacular into poetry. But he thought their work, especially T.S. Eliot’s, still owed too much to Old World poetics. He returned to Rutherford to become a doctor in general practice and to write poems and stories embedded in everyday life. By the time of his death in the 1960s his work had deeply influenced the Beats and another generation of poets. Now every student memorizes—
So much depends
a red wheel
Okay, kids. Kilmer’s poem is a con heart 2×4. Williams’s poem is a burl. Write a burl about a young redwood tree living in Fortuna.
The hearing officer introduces himself, we shake hands. I pictured the THP hearing as Noel and me, some timber guys, maybe a few enviros and regulators, sitting around a big burl table discussing the merits and hazards of 1-08-026. But the room is barely big enough for its three chairs, one metal desk, and Bill’s phone. He’s waiting for a conference call from PalCo and North Coast Regional Water Quality. No need to go over our comments, thank you.
No need to read my letter describing landslides, silt from failed logging roads and cut-over slopes, a river filled with mud, orchards buried, gardens drowned, residents forced from their homes, salmon populations just hanging on. In 1998, after a decade of Maxxam logging, flooding was so bad that CalFire was forced to declare an unprecedented moratorium on logging in Elk River. For five years sediment levels declined, till new regulatory language was approved, the ban was lifted, and the damage resumed. My letter asks for the moratorium to be reinstated.
But it was my first THP comment and I’d tried to sound like I knew more than I did. Using the jargon and acronyms favored by agency bureaucrats, the truth of my testimony was diminished by embarrassing errors—I’d already noticed that it kept referring to the Habitat Conservation Plan as the CHP. My conclusion sounded like an alpha-numerical riddle: “CalFire, by its approval of flawed THPs like 1-08-026, is presiding over the liquidation of the Elk River watershed.”
Noel’s letter nailed the regulatory talk, citing the inadequate SYP (Sustained Yield Plan), failed reinvestment of habitat, winter ops (operations), and new roads and landings. Plus adjacent Level 1, 2, and 3 streams, Level 3 NSO (Northern Spotted Owl) activity centers—and for good measure, degraded water quality and the loss of spawning beds and pools for juvenile salmon.
“Drop this plan,” she concluded. “Work with local residents to restore the watershed.”
The purpose of this hearing—the culture of uniforms and flags, the testimony by long-distance, the regulatory double-speak—is to keep that from happening.
When the old forest was cut, another remained—even older than the missing trees, intertwined and intimate with the earth. Whathas happened to us? it must have asked, through the mycorrhizal internet of roots. The timber industry’s trumpets of “beneficial management” do their best to drown out that question.
And there’s another loss not reckoned, in the lives of those who cut the trees. They got their paychecks and extended unemployment, but when local people asked for a long-term recovery plan, with re-training for restoration jobs, the industry would have no part of it. When the trees were gone, along with the owners and capital, a human culture was also cut off from its roots.
Woods people turned to what they knew: seasonal wild crafting, berry and mushroom picking, salvaging old logs, and from the stumps they cut burl. Smaller chunks were turned into bowls and book ends, live sprouts became little baby trees for sale along the Redwood Highway.
Orick Man Arrested, says the online bulletin. The charge is grand theft—removing a large burl from Redwood National Park. When deputies apprehended the thief at home they also discovered a quantity of methamphetamine plus paraphernalia and weapons. Add that to the damage.
Despite its grand park headquarters, Orick is the ghost of a lumber town. Behind its roadside chainsaw sculptures there’s a poverty unimagined by the ecotourists driving through. The accused—Roy, I’ll call him—is a burl sprout from the stump of a community.
The mug shot is bad, even by police photo standards. Gaunt, hollow-cheeked, maybe in his early 30s. Long, stringy hair already receding, a complexion you don’t want to see on people still living. Roy is the remains of a redneck—or maybe a hippie, I can’t tell anymore. The end of a culture, either way.
Where does Robin Hood live? Hands go up: Sherwood Forest.
Where’s that? A kid or two might say, England.
What does Sherwood mean? No hands.
It’s after school and I’m sitting in a little chair in the fourth-grade classroom laying out another lesson plan. In other little chairs there’s the environmental arts presenter, two teachers, the school principal, a visual artist, and several CalFire people doing their public service time. The young women who co-teach this class are paying close attention. I wonder if they feel the pressure of grant funding and forest politics. I press on with my lesson.
It means Shire Wood. Okay, what’s a shire? Now we’re back on solid ground—Where Hobbits live! Right. Humboldt County is like a shire. The forest is a wood. The trees around us are in Humwood.
But we wouldn’t say Humboldt Forest Wood, right? Why Shire Wood Forest? Why did they use two words for the same trees?
Because wood is—what’s the language they speak in England? Another cinchy one. But forest comes from a French word. What’s a French word doing in the English wood?
I don’t know much more than the kids about 1066 and King William of Normandy, but I’ll tell them what I learned from Robert Pogue Harrison’s history book, Forests: The Shadow of Civilization. In the centuries after William’s conquest of England, the language of English courts was Norman-French, which was then transcribed in Latin. So when Robin is accused of poaching from the Silva forestis, a clerk has to translate. It means a woodland (silva) which is in King John’s forest—similar to forum, originally meaning his court, then his royal game reserve, and now most of England’s woods.
Forest has another, older word relative—foreign, outside of ownership. The wood belonged to everyone. But after the Conquest the French kings said, No—it belongs to me. If you want a tree from your Sherwood—even sticks of kindling, you better talk to my overseer. What you English call the reeve. The Shire-Reeve of Nottingham.
Our story of trees is hidden in these two words: the wood that belongs to the people of the shire, and the forest claimed by the king.
I’ve not only gone way past fourth grade, I’ve crossed the no man’s land of the timber wars. In this little town, dependent on logging and the bureaucracy that’s supposed to regulate it, the ownership of trees and the rights thereof are not questioned. The CalFire geologist has already been assured that his lesson on erosion need not mention logging. Everyone exhales a little when I finally get to the writing prompt.
So Robin and the Sheriff meet in a grove like this one. His Merry Men are carrying a log. Does it belong to the Shire’s wood or the King’s forest? What happens next? Tell the story in the voice of an old redwood speaking to a young tree on the internet of roots.
Nancy came through town about a year later, picking up some things she’d left with friends. We met one afternoon at the bar.
She’d recently been to the East Coast and stopped in Kansas on the way back. “Bill has taken up painting,” she said. I pictured William S. Burroughs in a beret, holding a paint brush.
“With a shotgun,” she added. Filling shells with pigment, blasting away at sheets of plywood, creating images of an indecipherable order.
Burroughs famously experimented with the surrealist cut-up method—pages cut apart and randomly re-assembled, disclosing a deeper structure beneath our dead language and dying cultural forms. It is the method of Naked Lunch, infamous for its discontinuities and obscenities—what a judge described as “undisciplined prose.” Of course that is precisely its genius—unhinged expression and wild insights: Language is a virus from outer space.
Burroughs spoke to America’s madness, its obsessions with money, sex, and power. His judgments were delivered in a flat Midwestern voice meant to change your thinking. Like a guy holding a 12-guage might say, Okay, buster, look at it this way. And the shells are loaded with poetry—which could blow the top of your head off, as Emily Dickinson said.
While we sit in Bill’s office waiting for the phone call, he entertains us with logging stories. He grew up in Crannell, a vanished mill town on the coast south of Trinidad. Built in the early 1900s by Eastern investors who bought up 3,400 acres of coastal redwood, it supplied much of the old growth that rebuilt San Francisco.
Little River Redwood gave good return on investment, but kept its workers employed into the Depression till it was $4 million in debt. Sold along with the remaining forest, the town of Crannell continued to house the crews that supplied logs to Hammond’s big mill in Eureka. In the 1960s Louisiana-Pacific bought the company, cut second growth for a couple of decades, and eventually tore down Crannell. Bill’s dad worked for L-P.
“Great place to grow up,” he says.
We’re a captive audience to Bill’s timber nostalgia, but for a few minutes we almost speak the same language. I recall an old friend, a much-loved music teacher who lived in Trinidad and played piano for its Movie Club when they showed Nosferatu. Afterward he said it reminded him of Crannell, where he‘d grown up a generation before Bill. The town had a theater where he had played piano for the silent movies.
Everyone loves these memories of community and shared purpose, when life was simple and the fishing was good. Very few want to connect those stories to the present condition of our forests and rural communities. Bill’s not going to be one of them.
The phone rings. He picks up. Goes back to speaking the language of forest management. The call takes only a few minutes. Goodbye, PalCo. So long, Water Quality.
Have a good day, he says on our way out.
She would ask, as I would ask the children, why there’s a war between those who say woods and those who say forest. That question is so dangerous that somebody tried to blow her up.
In a photo next to Roy’s a park ranger is measuring the tree where the burl was removed. It’s an impressive feat of woodsmanship—a meter-high chunk of wood, twice that wide, working with a long-bar chainsaw, probably in the dark. But the online response is not appreciative of Roy’s skills. It’s especially nasty from the tree lovers, who will never see mug shots of the greater culprits—the poachers who wear suits and ties and steal entire forests.
Roy has only one online defender, who points out that the redwood in the photo is a stump, cut long ago. It’s no justification of the crime—the cycle of decay and renewal is a greater wonder than the bigness of redwood trees. And the Park Service now has an ecosystem view of its mission—the ranger is doing his job. But we need to recognize that Roy is part of that ecosystem, and another sign of how deeply it’s damaged.
Judi Bari, a powerful speaker and organizer during Redwood Summer, used to remind audiences that both workers and environmentalists need healthy watersheds. She would ask, as I would ask the children, why there’s a war between those who say woods and those who say forest. That question is so dangerous that somebody tried to blow her up. Even the FBI couldn’t figure out who did it. It’s a real war.
Not long after #1-08-026 was approved, PalCo descended into bankruptcy and nearly 200,000 acres of forest went up for sale—including some juicy THPs ready for cutting. Tree sits, huge demonstrations, and unfavorable publicity eventually forced state and federal officials to buy a token of what was left. Forest advocates identified some 60,000 acres of remaining old growth that should be protected. About 7,500 acres at the Headwaters of Elk River were finally purchased—another $360 million return on the junk bond king’s investment.
Local watershed groups and timber workers cobbled together an offer for PalCo, but the Houston judge favored royal ownership—a scion of San Francisco wealth, a financier, owner of the Oakland A’s. His new timber boss promised no clear cuts, no cutting old growth. Joyful environmentalists celebrated victory. The new boss was greeted by tree sitters newly returned to earth. But when he met with Elk River residents and repeated the promises, he encountered years of pent-up anger and outrage. How the hell can you even talk about more logging? The watershed’s falling apart. It needs time to recover.
I felt bad for the new guy, but over the next decade I saw his promises rewritten by lawyers into regulatory where feasible’s and a whole new alphabet of obfuscation. THPs are now governed by TMDLs—that’s the total maximum daily load of pollutant you can put in a river without killing it. Elk River’s is said to be the strongest TMDL for any of California’s hundreds of 303(D)s. (That’s an “impaired” body of water.)
But logging on steep and unstable slopes continued to have the effect it always had. My neighbors behaved like victims of a war because the violence inflicted on the forest had also fallen on them—in the form of floodwater, silt, and soul-smothering language. Their voices were shrill at that meeting because they knew they would not be heard again.
When I began walking in the Headwaters Forest Reserve, not long after moving to Elk River, its first mile of trail was just being paved. The old train barn, where they repaired the locomotives that hauled logs to the bay, had been taken apart board by board and was being reconstructed across the river, closer to the trail. It would be an Education Center. A sign farther up the trail pictured the old company town of Falk, its mill and cookhouse, shops and offices, housing for workers and families. A community of more than 400 residents—vanished.
Now they’re more visible than the people who still live here.
Our classroom meeting is almost over. The principal’s gone, the agency people leaving. I haven’t yet told the arts presenter, but I’m not going to do the writing workshop. Instead of a few kids it’s 40, plus teachers and parent-aides, writing while sitting in the redwood understory. On a tarp, maybe. And could I bring some wide-lined notebook paper?
I feel like I’m abandoning the kids, but I don’t see much chance of a real connection. The educational bureaucracy, much like the environmental bureaucracy, simulates engagement with truth but can’t acknowledge facts on the ground. I’d be asking children to describe what their elders have failed at for decades: in front of screens in fluorescent offices, translating a forest into words devoid of value; deep in the woods, chips flying and saw screaming, no words for what’s actually taking place.
Just before the on-ramp, on the way out of town, a big sign with an arrow points back to where I’ve been: Burl Country.
Nancy now lives in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, near Taos. For years she hosted a local radio show, Womenspeak, where women poets and writers heard one another’s voices and formed powerful alliances. Now that she’s in her 80s, losing eyesight and unable to read her own poems, that community helped gather them into a book, hand-crafted and read aloud for her at its publication party. Recently, a reader has been helping her, transcribing poems that speak from the high mesa where she and her husband live in a little off-grid adobe. Places seek out their poets, it appears, and call them home.
For years the burl table leaned against the wall of a carport in a damp gully of redwood and alder. When I moved, a friend helped me load it into the Chevy again. A fine green patina of mold was eating the finish, but the wood was unchanged. For another decade it leaned against a house on a sand dune facing the North Pacific. When I built steps for a studio behind the house, Nancy’s burl became a landing. Overlooking a willow swamp, a solid place to stand and listen to frogs or wake up the night herons. In a century or so, still intact, it will be under a rising sea.
Parks and reserves and research stations are the schools and libraries of our future forests, now more essential than ever. But they are the landscape equivalent of a dead language, employing the same value-free vocabulary that pretends to manage our “working” lands. Trying to balance the needs of humans and the wild, speaking the language of bureaucratic science, will leave us with iconic tree museums managed by museum custodians. Woods people—including people like Roy—know that language is not speaking to them.
Freeman House, in his writing and restoration work, proposed another vocabulary for healing our damaged watersheds—a recovery coming from within. He called it the vernacular approach, meaning not only language but people, from its root meaning of a servant born into a Roman household, belonging to it. Recovery of the person, community, river and forest, part of the same thing.
Totem Salmon tells a story of the Mattole Valley, about an hour south of Elk River, whose citizens—or denizens, as he preferred—have worked for decades to embody a healthy human culture and to engage in the recovery of their watershed’s keystone species. He reveals a complex landscape whose residents, with all their human complications, respond to it with all the intelligence and care they can muster—speaking a language rooted in the local and particular, which even their children can use when a poet visits their school.
The vernacular approach, House said, is our only hope of keeping some ecosystems alive long enough to learn the things we need to know to live in them. Living in the place we work—living our work—is part of our attraction to the ghosts of company towns. The challenge now is to engage in such community while bringing trees back to the forest.
Let your writing be a burl, I say. Don’t make it a Joyce Kilmer poem. Pay attention to the trees. Forget you’re in a park.
Sunlight edges down through the high doorways. Nine of us sit in a circle in the old locomotive barn, scribbling in journals or notebooks or on scraps of paper, taking dictation from the trees where we’ve just been walking. We’re not wearing masks, but our chairs are widely spaced and a light breeze blows through the barn. We’re keenly aware that another forest, thousands of miles away, has sent our species a message that won’t be ignored. But this afternoon we’re reporting the news around us that we easily miss. Next we’ll review our notes, underlining knots of image and meaning, then read these fragments aloud, round and round the circle, till it makes a sense we can almost understand. It’s a burl, I tell them.
I’m trying out lesson plans on an older group, local residents except for Julie’s father, who’s visiting. It’s billed as a nature writing workshop, free to the public, part of the education program that Julie has been developing since Headwaters’s beginning two decades ago. She and her father sit outside our circle, officially a park visitor and an observing ranger, but she’s also the forest’s ambassador, historian, and storyteller. I know her mostly from meetings on the trail, sometimes walking with a gaggle of school children around her.
In addition to the glory days of timber, the Reserve now educates visitors about the deeper past of forest ecology as well as the more recent story of Redwood Summer and the political struggle from which the Reserve was born. To keep the history current, on weekend afternoons hikers can stop at the train barn and talk to a third-generation apple grower who lives just over the ridge. Kristi can tell them about growing up here, playing in the abandoned buildings of the old mill town. She can also describe what it was like before two decades of liquidation buried her river and orchards in mud. Maybe she’ll catch you up on a recent timber harvest plan, just across the boundary of this remnant forest. Maybe she’ll have a bag of apples.
This history is familiar to some of the local writers, but to keep it strange I add the story of Nancy’s table—then Bill Burroughs’s painting. Let your writing be a burl, I say. Don’t make it a Joyce Kilmer poem. Pay attention to the trees. Forget you’re in a park. Blam.
There’s another place I want the writers to see, but it’s farther up the trail and we’re out of time. And I’m still trying to understand what its lesson is.
Ancient and gray, several arm spans in circumference, some time in the past an unimaginable wind broke it off about 30 feet from the ground. Fire-scarred, axe-bitten, huckleberry and fern and salal grow from its crevices. Near the base, maybe centuries later, a two-man saw left a wide, deep cut, with an undercut on its other side. Ready to be felled, but left standing.
One morning years ago I met a friend on the trail here and asked him about this gray ghost. Bob had lived and worked in these woods since the 1960s. After he retired he continued to walk the old log roads till his knees gave out. He took a dim view of the park’s improvements—and humans in general—but now he biked the trail with his dog every morning. He thought the cuts dated from the 1880s, when they laid the train tracks through here. The fallers must have figured out it was rotten inside, and left it. A thousand years old, he guessed. It had an air of endurance that he plainly admired. Now that he’s gone, it’s a place I stop and think of him.
It was years before I noticed it. On the side away from the trail, sprouting from the base of this broken giant, a slender offspring rising through the alders. Taller than its great grandmother, a redwood no older than the Reserve. In defiance of loss, a small, life-affirming consolation for all we couldn’t save.
A burl is a clock. An organism telling time. Through a thousand years and the waves of destruction, a message whispered from the forest beneath the forest.
I imagine forests returning, growing in acreage and years, even as park boundaries are dissolving. I think of rural communities studying to be forest people. It’s all a park, folks. Generations it might take, learning how to live with trees again. Woodlanders, we were once called. People belonging to the wood. The wood belonging to the people.
I don’t see a shining pathway to that future. I walk the trail we have, learn what I can from the trees, go to meetings. I recall something Nancy Ryan wrote, when her book of poems was published: For as long as I remember, darkness has been my familiar. Even if it sometimes barks like a Coyote. My place is here.
This is what can happen when a redwood falls. Through the long years afterward, a burl can stay connected to the forest, draw nourishment and instruction from roots. Roots can find their way in the dark.
A burl is a lesson plan for a forest.
Recent work by Jerry Martien appears in the Limberlost Review: A Literary Journal of the Mountain West. A companion piece to “Burl”–”Song of the Redwood Tree: Language and the Loss of Our Forest” was published in Catamaran Literary Reader in Summer 2018.
Header photo of redwood burls by Stilson Snow. Photo of Jerry Martien by Allie Hostler, Two Rivers Tribune.