Listening to the Forest

On our way back in from the hike we stopped at a small overlook. Below us was Taylor Creek and to the right and left it’s canyon. The moon was coming up on the distant side and the sun was setting on the close side. This little place was just next to the sign, Leaving Siskiyou National Forest. I imagined some trail worker finishing for the day and pausing just where we were. Inspired, he or she put in place plans for this little set of stone steps and barrier with a bench so that others could end a day here.

Driving back into town is always unsettling for me. It’s an uncomfortable crunch of the grandeur and expansion of wilderness and the oblivion-paced tightness of human spaces. Regardless of the forest or the town, my mind always wonders (as does my heart) how the wilderness serves the town here, and if the people reciprocate and respond. I want to know—is there a symbiotic relationship?

On this trip, Jason and I are driving back in to Grant’s Pass, Oregon, the hub of the Rogue River recreation area. This is a small town, one of those predicated on the one-way North and the one-way South main streets, taking people straight through. The smaller roads leading out of town are the routes to wilderness landscapes. Grant’s Pass is a pretty typical rural Oregon town, each being a place that sprung up around some sort of resource extraction activity. In the case of Grant’s Pass, it was on the route of Hudson Bay Company trappers, became a sugar beet plantation town, then a logging town. Logging has dropped off, so tourism is the official main hopeful industry.

In our two days, we stayed at a mid-range hotel geared toward vacationers; we visited a local-style bar, ate sushi, had cheap Mexican food, and hiked. And we made a couple of stops at Safeway. In this way, we got a lay of the land in terms of community. It’s pretty depressed there, economically. The economy-shed is one of retail services, recreation companies, vineyards and fiber works, public lands employees, and small farms. It is not a rich place, and most governance is based on economic growth rather than on environmental concerns.

While at the local bar, I overheard a woman talking about “all those countries we bomb anyway–they all have dirt streets.” She went on to explain how, on a trip to Morrocco (was I ever surprised to hear this admission uttered), her husband was offered a certain number of goats for her because she had blonde hair. The conversation died in the next two sentences when the woman next to her accused her of not being blonde, and she replied, “hair dye.” Immediately, I was struck by the reality that this is the way of most conversations in our society. Facile, fleeting, ill-informed. Anything beyond that is a bother, or too becomes too heated for polite conversation.

The next day we hiked along the Rogue, a beautiful river that provides all kinds of ecosystems services and recreational opportunities. The town relies on the economic inputs from the recreation, but I wondered, how much of the community dialog centers on the ecological health of the Rogue? Has the community or the Forest Service tried to create new continuity of place since the Northwest Forest Plan mandated the sharp decrease in forest harvests? Do the out-of-work locals understand, on some hush-hush level, that the forests are better off now? Do loggers love forests the way I do? These are the questions that I ask in my head as I walk along the river.

The image of the stone view point made me realize it’s the small inspirations put into action that add up to the big message. Similarly, the overheard conversation in the bar made me realize it’s the small comments, often ill-informed, that add up to the big message.

That little resting spot over Taylor Creek exemplifies the need to take a moment at the end of each day, as one crosses the border from one experience and reality to the next. As I looked out at the view, I thought of the meanings of what was before me, and how far such beauty and vastness extends across the state, and I thought of how scenery such as this can be used to make points about the natural world and human use of it. I think others will be, and have been, drawn to that place to take in the same information.

The trick then becomes how to use that inspiration to better the town while protecting the natural areas around it. How can Grant’s Pass, or any such Oregon rural town, come together, whether they be the local bar, the grocery store, the park bench, the town hall, to make use of the varied systems of knowledge of that place. There is rich human and natural history to be mined and put to use as the state grows forward and finds the need to confront and resolve such conflicts as the die-off of trapping and logging.

I drove back to Portland along I-5, watching the tree types and the land forms change, county by county. I watched the population build in number, city by city as I moved from rural to metropolitan. I know this crisis of economy v. the environment—meaning a resource extraction industry v. preservation of natural resources—defines Oregon. The next day, The Oregonian ran a story entitled, “Governor calls for broader view in managing timber.” It seems our state leader is looking to create collaboration out of the derisiveness that characterizes business as usual in all this mess of people v. trees. His is an expansive view.

Kinesthesia under the trees

If I don’t move, I can’t think, and last week I had a lot of thinking to do. So I went for a hike along the Wilson River. There’s a new trail there, built three or four years ago, and it parallels Highway 6 along the river. The portion of the trail Joshie and I hiked ran from King’s Mountain trail head to Elk Campground. It was one of those spring Oregon days, sunny in places, open skies in others, and just a bit drippy in general.

I had to walk to think through the volume of reading assigned for my Environmental Leadership class. Last week, I never even got to the work for Professional Writing and Advocacy, but that’s another story, as they say. As well, I needed to spend some more time with my new digital camera; it has too many buttons for someone who usually shoots a Holga, and has only ever had one automatic camera in 20 years of photographic work.

When I walk in the woods I am calm. Life is rhythmic, and it makes sense. I never walk in the woods without thinking of my father. He took me there time and again when I was a little girl. In fact, one of my earliest childhood memories was of being taken out of bed late at night, wrapped in a blanket, and taken to sit on the porch with him, to listen to the coyotes howl. I still love that sound. I will never forget that night.

So, homework set aside, we tromped on. I’m in this Environmental Studies program you see, but not to be an -ism Environmentalismist. Anything with -ism in the name scares me. Yet, as I walk I ponder the landscape and ecology. The trail along the Wilson is in the Tillamook Forest, in the Tillamook Burn, which rages in the years 1933-1951. The regenerative growth is what constitutes the forest of today.

There is one little piece of forest structure that is important for all of us to understand–the structure of replacement stands. To back up a bit, this series of fires that we commonly call the Tillamook Burn happened during the old logging days here in Oregon. Then, practitioners of forest science thought that a forest could be cut or burned, simply replanted, and it would grow back, sort of just like human hair. Scientists, foresters, now know this is not the case. Stand replacement structure is much more diverse and complex. Old growth forests are not replaced by the exact same thing. This can be problematic, and in places that have been heavily logged or burned is quite problematic. But no in-depth science lecture here…rather, and acknowledgment of that system of change, and then some appreciation of the beauty of the place.

In the pictures here are two examples of what happens when old-growth forests regenerate–one, the stump that is grown over by huckleberry; two, the replacement stand of skinny trees that have not survived a recent wind storm.

And then there are pictures of things that remind me of hiking with my dad.

Mind clear, shoes and dog muddy, I drove back to Portland to tackle my homework.