1. blow down
Can’t enter the woods directly. Too dense, too many snags. Cultural clutter. Overcrowded mind.
So I sidle in, to where young fir trunks are downed by the dozens, snapped and slung to the ground by wind. At first glance it’s chaos, but soon pattern emerges: a cross-slope, mostly northeast orientation. Some perpendicular trunks as well. Thicker trunks are severed higher, thinner trunks broken lower.
Each snag is a sentinel to a fallen self. And each log is host to subtle fungi, some white and amoebic, some black and gnarly, some apricot and globular. Strewn twigs, little arcs, grace the moss and the sword ferns. (O the resilient ferns—underleaves rough with double rows of tiny, tawny spores.)
I move upslope to see: a lattice. Wood in airy layers. Wreckage suspended, like a promise, just inches over the soil.
Here and there in the experimental forest: quirky human artifacts. Plastic non sequiturs. Buckets, screens. Pink or orange ribbons. Spray-paint on trees. Tarps spread on the ground in forest groves. Little buildings, gages on streams.
For science, this is the bric-a-brac of inquiry. Though the exact functions of these paraphernalia remain (appealingly) obscure to me, quantification is the general idea, yes? The oddness of these objects—in the context of the forest—bespeaks the riddle-solving quest.
Seeking patterns amid complexity, science practices anomaly. As do artists. As do poets. And the writers of scrawny essays.
Scientists want data. Artists, what do we want? I hesitate to rush towards an answer here. The question requires research.
In the field.
3. worlds, really
Hiking the old-growth trail at Lookout Creek, I descend, ascend. The trail, following the contours of Lookout Mountain, wends its way through archetypal forest. The March sun, just past equinox, angles down through true fir, Douglas fir, western red cedar.
If I step lightly in these woods, it’s not because of my mood. The ground beneath me is soft with deep forest debris. In places it’s almost buoyant: walking atop a massive log, my feet sink into a spongy pulp. With the next step I’m lifted an inch or two, only to sink again. This, my lilt, my gravity, my comical dance with decay.
I experience the forest not as an expanse so much as an arrangement. It’s a vertical landscape, where levels and layers supplant distance as the focus of attention. The great height of the trees among shifting mountain elevations intensifies this effect. Ascending, descending, through various zones of temperature, humidity, and light, the trees serve as organic gauges: what life forms are possible, what variety and beauty, within given conditions. The lichen-draped, pinkish, sinewy bark on the buttressed trunk of a cedar. The warm brown, gorgeously rough trunk of a Douglas fir.
Here individual trees, which we typically perceive as figures, are so immense as to become grounds. They are platforms for myriad life forms: ferns, mosses, lichens. Fishers, chickarees, chorus frogs. Chickadees, woodpeckers, barred and spotted owls.
Even (or especially) when dead, the trees are grounds for life. Rotting logs feed beetles and fungi. They also sport tree seedlings, and eventually, saplings. As nurse logs, they provide structure. They lift the seedlings above the deepest shade of the understory. They retain moisture. They generate soil.
The trees craft the conditions for their own thriving. Old-growth trees are worlds, really: they create their own climates, and they eclipse the forest floor.
4. ode to rhododendron
Litter of scrolled leaves, leather-brown. Look about: rhododendron trees. Where a gap in the canopy lets down sun, the leaf-stems are intensely yellow.
Rhododendron leaves. Green-yellow. Aglow. Oblong and elliptic. Drooping, slightly. Arranged in a circular pattern from the end of an elegant branch, the leaves are parasols, are celebratory. But quietly so: o soon the erotic buds, the siren pink flowers.
From informational signage at the bottom of Forest Road 1506:
In geologic terms, the landscape of the Cascades is young. The oldest rocks are made up of pyroclastic material (ashflows, mudflows, and breccias) associated with a period of volcanism and uplift 20 to 25 million years ago.
About four million years ago, more recent volcanic activity began to shape the landscape we see today. Beginning again with pyroclastic eruptions near present-day Lookout Mountain . . . lava coursed down river valleys . . .
The landforms of the Andrews Forest may well be an example of “inverse topography.” A general uplift of the region, associated with mountain building, helped accelerate the downcutting action of the developing stream system into the older, more erodible, pyroclastic deposits . . .
Clambering down into another steep creek bed, I’m stopped where a feeder-stream has inundated the way. As I negotiate the sodden trail, one deliberate step at a time, I remember: I’m negotiating not only space, but time.
Moving through time is nothing new, of course. Time, expressed spatially, is usually horizontal, linear. Time moves forward, or in fantasy, back. Yet the slope of this mountainside belies that trope as time expresses itself in the earth. Here that expression is mostly vertical. It has texture and depth.
If my cursory understanding of the local geology is correct, I’m not only descending into a creek cut, I’m entering the original pyroclastic flows. I’m stepping, unsteadily, down (not back) towards 25 million years ago—a sneeze in geologic time, but still . . .
Having lived in Utah, I’m used to traveling canyons, moving through naked geological time. But here, the densely vegetated mountains secret their mineral faces. Deep in the creek bed, obscured by roots and ferns and delineated by water, I catch a glimpse of mineral frankness. Grayness. Blank expression.
On a geological scale, time rumbles upward: mountain lifting. Time etches downward: erosion. On a biological scale, time soars upward, via these trees, some of which are 200 feet tall and over 500 years old. Inside the boles, past forms of the trees have been preserved in near entirety. I know this only because an Italian artist, Guisseppe Penone, once chiseled into a vast wooden beam, working his way down, in three dimensions, to the contours defined by a specific ring. What he revealed was an exact sapling, the tree as it was, and is.
Moving through these layers and scales, I experience time as physical, specific. Time loses its dreadful abstractness. No longer an external force, time is the Earth itself.
6. varied thrushes
Oregon robins, they used to be called. At my approach they start from the forest floor, where they’ve been foraging. Their wing beats are audible as they hurry to nearby branches, where they’re enticingly obscure to me. I know their bold markings: slate gray and orange, the male with a black mask and breast-band.
I spy one in an old Doug fir, and glass him as best I can. As I bring him into focus, I’m thrilled by those fierce markings. To me, they express survival, a ubiquitous presence in coniferous woods.
The scattered birds want to regroup. They begin uttering their contact calls. One note: subtle, metallic, yet sweet.
7. abandoned campground
I learned long ago to visit abandoned campgrounds. Closed for the season. Half-burnt wood in the fire pits. Picnic tables stacked, dumpsters laid on their sides. Forest litter beginning to obscure the asphalt.
To be where people are not. This is, often, my ambition when I’m in the woods. It’s not the same as being alone, nor is it lonely. There are presences enough in abandoned places.
My craving for solitude is comically dire. It’s a neo-romantic flaw. Epicurus wrote: “We know not death, for when we are here, death is not. And when death is here, we are not.” My craving is kind of like that, though not so severe: when I am here, people are not. And when people are here, I am not. Sometimes I like to just miss them.
Delta Campground is gated. I’ve parked the car, careful not to block the gate—I’m a courteous sort of antisocial—when an old Volvo pulls in behind me. A man and a woman, young, pleasantly disheveled, gape at the locked gate. The driver rolls down the window, says, “Do you know of anywhere we could camp around here? This is the third place we’ve tried. They’re all closed.”
“Well, I don’t think they open these campgrounds until Memorial Day,” I offer.
“Don’t they know it’s Spring Break?” the driver asks.
I just smile and direct them to the town of McKenzie Bridge, up the road. You could ask around there.”
In the passenger’s seat, the woman is pointing at some spot on a Forest Service map. The driver nods to her and begins to roll up his window. Remembers his manners. Says “Thank you, sir,” and drives off.
The “sir” part kind of grates on me, I guess. One thirty-second encounter with humanity, and I’ve already forgotten the lesson of time.
In the campground, the Doug firs are plenty big, 200 feet tall, some 650 years old. They skirt some McKenzie River side channels. Lime-green algae wavers in the current. Beneath a fallen fir that spans the water, a pair of mergansers moves through.
8. blue river ridge, in sun
Bees hum, seeking manzanita. Contrails drift. Black spiders shuttle in the scree.
Sometimes place just scratches out words. One word at a time.
9. room in the forest, in rain
It’s the second day of solid rain—and here that adjective is not merely pat. From my room at the Andrews, I’m gazing out through two layers of rain. The first is comprised of thick, sporadic drops from the eaves, and the second is a fine and steady screen. And this against a tapestry of green. There’s an attempt at a lawn, tufts of grass mixed with chartreuse moss, where a flock of robins is foraging. Then, a dense layer of young firs, darkness—and old stumps—beneath their hems. Pillars and snags just beyond, the old growth rimming Lookout Creek. On the black ridge above the old tops, clouds climb and rend all day.
Classic Pacific Northwest. Intimations of Chinese art as well. This scene is embedded culturally via images, the province of artists and poets. And yet: in the experimental forest and beyond, the exploitation of “natural resources” is as graphic as a clearcut slope, or as subtle as silting streams. Once the research at the Andrews Forest served the naked exploitation of the woods. But over the years, research at the Andrews has moved towards sustainability. Informed by such research, we manage for entire ecosystems now rather than individual species. In some very important ways, we are capable of change.
Still, a certain status quo persists: nature as instrumental. (Instrumental: describing a noun case that indicates something is used for a purpose or is the means by which something is done.) Commerce insists on it. Cultural stasis maintains it.
But human-induced environmental change has now presented itself on an unprecedented scale. What we’re witnessing is not “the end of nature”—as that trope suggests an artificial separation of nature from human culture—so much as, to quote Jane Lubchenco, “Humanity . . . as a major force of nature.” Given this reality, what new cultural urges might serve? Global warming, habitat depletion, species extinction, overpopulation: these crises tax our moral capacity, which is to say our imagination.
Imagination. Has the term become quaint? Nevertheless, it’s fundamental. Empathy is a function of imagination. It is also the origin of ethics. How well do we imagine the lives of our human others, including future generations? How well do we imagine the lives of our animal and vegetable others ? The answers to these questions will determine our ethical choices.
Perhaps the greatest challenge to contemporary environmental imagination is our ability to conceive larger temporal and global scales. Addressing global warming, for example, demands such an ability. In this respect, art can learn from science. The Andrews Experimental Forest is an integral member of the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network: “a collaborative effort involving more than 1800 scientists and students investigating ecological processes over long temporal and broad spatial scales.” Research at the Andrews involves, for example, rates of forest decomposition over a 200-year span.
Artists can learn from science to extrapolate from the specific into broader scales. By broader scales, I mean not grand assertions, nor metaphysical slants. I mean an imaginative entry into the physical vastness of time and space.
Environmental science benefits from data-gathering technology: global positioning systems, satellite imaging and mapping, isotope tracing, remote sensors, etc. Scientists get data in the field and feed it into computer programs that simulate changes, usually graphically, over time and space. In other words, science employs present-day data in order to model the past, and for predictive purposes, the future. This is one version of imagination, yes?
Science also offers insight as to how the present, living planet might contain all possible pasts and futures, allowing for both change and constancy. Oliver Morton, in Eating the Sun: How Plants Power the Planet, explains:
The earth is not brute matter…. In flames and hurricanes, whatever might happen next can depend on only what is happening now. For the [living] planet as a whole, whatever happens next depends on everything that happened in the past, because the record of that past, and the means to reproduce its processes, are locked away in molecules that may be accessed and used at any time. Extinctions may remove species and shapes and behaviors, but they do little if anything to biochemical possibilities. For as long as they have a use, the planet will never forget the workings of [photosynthesis]. Or the fixation of nitrogen, or the trick of being a tree, the sense of when to relax a leaf’s stomata. Unlike a simple flame, the planet can be tomorrow what is not today, and the day after change yet again, while all the time remaining itself.
Oh: perhaps nature is instrumental, on a scale so vast we are uncomprehending. Though we may bend it to our will, and radically diminish it, ultimately it meets its own imperatives, not ours. It does so not consciously so much as inevitably. So to shift our attention from human demands to Earth’s requirements is a crucial cultural task, one the artist might well undertake.
How might I begin? Today, rain or no, I walk in the woods. I let the woods direct me. Instinct and science convince me: in this specific present is all the world I require.
After days of wandering through some of my favorite haunts—old-growth trails, abandoned campgrounds, obscure Forest Service roads—I’ve arrived at a place of calm uncertainty. The woods here are stunningly complex, but they don’t overwhelm me so much as absorb me, easily, into their textures. So to be absorbed, which to me was for too many years a matter of thought and identity, now becomes an honor. I am received.
The host that receives me is no person, of course, and no personified god. It’s a host in this sense only: the forest actualizes multitudes, and allows me to walk among them.
Let me mention the two finest pleasures I’ve had in my time at the Andrews. First, an absence. Second, an anointment.
Towards the end of the old-growth trail, I encounter sporadic patches of snow. Where snow has bridged a stream: animal tracks, indistinct. Where the imprints have thinned the snow, the melt is slightly accelerated, I suppose. The tracks are deepened and blurred.
Bobcat, maybe, by the size of them. Are those four clawless toes? (Cats retract their claws while walking.) Soft edges make it hard to tell. Wait: is that a rounded heel-mark? If so, it could be red fox. Or, for all I know, both animals could have come this way. Suddenly, pleasantly, identification is no longer imperative.
And look: one of the tracks has become a negative shape, revealing the earth beneath. Within the shape of the track I glimpse the edge of a fern frond, and moss, and needles. I marvel at this emblem, where animal, plant, and precipitation are merged. Where the animal’s absence is not only a presence, but a potent, momentary image.
Later, strolling near the Andrews headquarters, I admire the Pacific silver firs. The bark is patchy, from gray to gray-white, and knobby, adorned with tiny blisters. These little oblong bulges: I remember reading of “resin vesicles” in the bark of young firs. With my thumbnail I slice a blister away, and yes--it’s filled with a dram of liquid resin, which spills onto my hand.
This is not sap, oppressively sticky. It’s more a tacky oil. The fragrance is beyond description. It edges memory: I’m in my wife’s art studio, talking with her while she cleans her brushes with turpentine. I’m tasting a certain liqueur. The correspondences aren’t exact, but associative. Christmas trees, of course. But something more: soap? Or grape on the very margins of the scent?
With a washing motion, I rub the resin into my palms. I want to feel the air on my skin. I want the resin to mix with my own body oils. I bring my open hands to my face.