Limekiln at Roche Harbor, San Juan Island, Washington
BY KIMBERLY MAYER
My dog looks at me from across the room.
Something is not right, she says with her brown eyes. Don’t know what, but I’m here to make it better.
We go outside to pick up fallen branches. Well, she meanders around and I pick up branches. Clearing the brush clears my head. Didn’t I once laugh when I read that one of the activities President George W. Bush most enjoyed at his ranch in Crawford, Texas was clearing brush? Anyway, live and learn.
A new purpose in life lately: enhancing the woods. I know of a man who does just that on his acreage on San Juan Island. A professor emeritus of physics at the University of Washington in Seattle, out on island he devotes himself to this, enhancing the woods. Married to a friend of mine, I have been hoping to meet him, talk to him, or simply trail him around. Our book group met there recently–he scattered, as husbands do—and when I turned onto their property I thought it a forested park.
The trees don’t know the Coronavirus. In North America trees have known The Dutch Elm Disease, Armillaria Root Rot, Anthracnose and Leaf Spot Diseases, Annosum Root Rot, Aspen Canker, Bacterial Wet Wood, Beech Bark Disease, Brown Spot in Longleaf Pine, Canker Rot, and Commandra Blister Rust, so their lives have not been without consternation. It isn’t easy being a tree. But trees today will live through the Coronavirus, just as many of them lived through the 1918 Spanish Flu global pandemic.
Our trees on island faced a fate worse than plague, the limestone mining industry. On islands rimmed with large deposits of high quality limestone on the shoreline, rock was quarried, blasted and shunted downhill to the kilns. And trees were felled to fuel the fires of the ovens. Converted to commercial quick lime primarily for the building industry, and sent off in barrels on fleets of ships, both sail and steam. All this was not without erosion, the gouging out of hillsides. Wetlands were filled. Shellfish flats buried.
Old growth Douglas fir was the fuel of choice. The voracious appetite of the ovens roared away for more than sixty years, from 1860 to the 1920’s, consuming nearly all our old growth trees, and with them, their stories. It must have been hell here. It took The Great Depression to shut down the massive limekiln industry in the San Juan Islands.
Roche Harbor, where I walk, had the largest lime works operation west of the Mississippi. The trees remember all that the earth in its dense biomass endured. The woods have memory. Today, there are only isolated old growth trees. Now as then, the Douglas fir is most abundant, just as most of the branches I am gathering are Douglas fir. Some trees remember, many are returning, and all we can do is stand beside them.