photo by Paul Mayer
BY KIMBERLY MAYER
A few years back when we were living in the city, I came down to the kitchen one morning, turned on KUOW, Seattle’s public radio, ground my beans and made coffee. These gestures always seemed to happen simultaneously. The program on air was in the middle of an interview with a writer who was on book tour, and I thought, I know that voice.
And I did. The crisp Australian cadence of her voice. Years ago we were neighbors north of San Diego. I’ll call her Harriet. I didn’t know her well—both of our families had a fair amount of land with avocado groves to manage, young children to raise, and were pretty busy–but on the few occasions that we did get together, her voice enchanted me. And here it was now, playing away in my kitchen.
That night I attended Harriet’s reading at Third Place Books in Lake Forest. And afterward, over lattes, caught up with the new life of my old neighbor. Both families had relocated. Her’s to Houston, while we obviously wound up in The Pacific Northwest.
Walking each other to the parking lot, I thought the evening had gone pleasantly enough until she gestured with a dismissive sweep of her arm at the dark green woods surrounding us.
“I don’t know how you can live here.,” she said. “If you’ve seen one pine tree, you’ve seen them all.”
And on that note, Harriet hopped in her vehicle and was gone.
I was stunned. My first thought was that they are not all pines, not by a long shot. It’s so much more complex than that. Richly complex.
The Old Growth Forests of The Pacific Northwest are essentially conifer forests, dominated by Douglas firs and Western hemlocks. Stretching from SE Alaska and SW British Columbia, through Western Washington and Western Oregon to the border of Northern California, and from the Pacific Ocean eastward to the crest of The Cascade Range. Sometimes referred to as Primary Forests, Virgin Forests, Primeval Forests, and my favorite, Ancient Woodlands (in Britain), an Old Growth Forest is defined by Wikipedia as a forest that has attained great age without significant disturbance, and thereby exhibits unique ecological features.
Walk through it with me, if you would, for we later left the city and moved north—onto San Juan Island. Into the wilderness, so to speak. We live in an Old Growth Forest at the foot of the sea, where Western red cedar thrives. Growing year round in our mild winters, these trees reach heights of 200 ft, and may be two or three centuries old. This is the tree with which I am most familiar now.
Mother Cedar. Distinguished by it’s fluted base and graceful, feathery branches. It’s fragrant, sweet smelling needles softly carpeting the forest floor and tracking into our home daily. The exterior of our home is shingled in cedar shakes, making it appear at one with the woods. A half dozen cedar Adirondack chairs sit upon a cedar deck, and another half dozen in a circle around an outdoor fire pit. We are all about cedar here. We probably smell like cedar.
An Old Growth Forest is comprised of large trees, standing dead trees (snags), and fallen trees. Water-repellent and rot-resistant, red cedar can last for hundreds of years on the forest floor. As such, logs and snags may foster more life after their death than they had before. Covered now with mushrooms and mosses, and nursing huckleberries, ferns, and salal. Over time, it may provide a substrate for seedling shrubs and trees.
Time is long here. While some trees reach upwards of 1,000 years of age, others are on their way back to decay. There is a mix of tree ages and of regeneration. An Old Growth Forest is a continuum.
An Old Growth Forest has remarkable resilience—to natural events. Recovering quickly from fires, windstorms, and disease, but not from human events such as clear-cut logging. At a time when the U.S. has lost 96% of its Old Growth Forests, what this Old Growth Forest Knows is immense.
That air you breathe, Houston. We put it there.