As I ascended the old logging road, deep in the Kilchis river canyon, my eyes felt pulled to a ridge jutting away from the main path some three hundred feet above the river. The blinding spring sunshine fled through the trees, soaking into the earth, as a faint steam rose from the well-saturated flanks of the canyon. Small birds cried tiny songs from the thicket of salmonberry, sword ferns, and Oregon grape; I returned their calls, hoping for an exchange. Even after responding, I still could not see them hiding in their brushy quarters, so I carried on.
I wound my way between branches and sticks as I followed the ridge out along the edge- wondering where I was going. Thorns snagged my clothing and scraped at my bare arms, but a path was worn into the carpet of moss here. I followed it.
As I stepped into a clearing, I felt the wave of spring sunshine roll over my body. Here on the highest parts of the hillside, warmth had returned to the earth as the water drained away. The soil beneath my feet was dry, and a wave of softness and gentle heat released from it; like the palm of a hand, opening.
I sighed. Inhaling deeply, I turned my face to the sun. To be warm again in the sunshine, after so many weeks of winter, delighted me. I had forgotten this feeling. It was the lifting of a burden long carried.
Tiny green nibs burst forth from the ends of every branch, coiled ferns had begun to press from the ground, slowly shoving their way through the rich carpet of soil, preparing to unfurl. The forest floor was littered with the broken branches of every sort of tree, after a long winter of ice storms and wet, heavy snow in the temperate coastal forests. Unable to support the ice that had encased their already deeply-saturated limbs, they snapped readily, cascading into one another, creating avalanches of branches, broken limbs and uprooted trees. The fresh breaks of their trunks and stems were bright and visible against the backdrop of slimy, wet, darkened wood. Sword ferns were battered and flattened to the earth. Stands of alder and birch were thrashed. Sitka spruce, a tree fond of making dramatic plays, was easily toppled; smashing through the understory, taking down everything in its path.
At the center of the clearing stood a massive, decaying stump. A remnant of the forest that once spread across these mountains 100 years ago. No stands of ancient trees remain, except tucked into steep, treacherous valleys, buried deep in the folds of the landscape, kept safe and secreted away by places too remote, rugged, and wild to tame, even now.
Sometimes I try to imagine myself walking among the giants of the primeval coastal forests, but I only know headstones in a forest cemetery. The massive stumps of the ancient forest stand silent on the flanks of the slopes, caped in lichen and moss, salal and huckleberry. Their decomposing wood is sponge-like and earthy red, cloaked in the light green blue cast of tiny lichens that hold their place, like a skin.
A crumpled, emerald blanket once unfurling across the coast range, now the mountains are a patchwork of clear cuts. Planted, managed forests, dusty logging roads snaking endlessly through monotonous woods, occasionally broken up by random dead ends, yellow gates, trash strewn quarries and pullouts used for target practice, illegal dumping and bonfires.
Unchanged though, are the peaks and valleys, springs and canyons, mossy seeps and towering cedars. Elk and deer, black bear and cougar, steelhead and songbirds still find their homes here. Moisture coats every surface, oozes out of every opening, saturates ever fiber, soaks deep into the soil. Reddish clay hillsides are sloughing away as water carves the land; slow, persistent, efficient and unrelenting.
I approach the decaying stump, who once was a tree towering over a roadless virgin forest in this ordinary yet remarkable corner of the woods. Closing my eyes, I imagine myself in the untouched forests again, lichens draping from limbs of unimaginable size, enormous cedars and firs creating a cathedral-like canopy, encasing the forest in shadow and shade.
The smell of rich soil and decaying leaves, the feeling of humidity on my skin, the sounds of little birds, branches swaying, grasses shifting, water trickling under foot, always following gravity downhill. The aroma of ferns, the sound of sticks crunching beneath your feet, the way the wind sounds moving through the crowns of big trees, the sound of ravens and crows, patrolling above. The wettest wet. The softest ground.
There will be no returning to the ancient forests again. In the search for equilibrium, we seek to undo and return to, but some things will be lost forever and cannot be undone. You can’t learn the secrets of the land while still entrenched in the extractive nature of your relationship with it.
If you came only to take from these places, they won’t sing to you, you won’t learn from them, you won’t meet the ancient elders of the forest; still standing sentinel in the halls of the river canyons and on the ridges towering above.
The ghosts of giants are all around us, watching the waning of wild places continue into another century; guardians of another time and place, one you can never know. When the last of the old giants are gone, what will be lost in the forest?
Only finding new memories, only finding new balance and appreciating the moments we carve for ourselves alone can guide us back to the knowledge we lost when we thought we knew better than the trees.