Forest Under Story
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Forest Under Story

Creative Inquiry in an Old-Growth Forest

Nathaniel Brodie, Charles Goodrich, Frederick J. Swanson, Nathaniel Brodie, Charles Goodrich, Frederick J. Swanson

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eBook - ePub

Forest Under Story

Creative Inquiry in an Old-Growth Forest

Nathaniel Brodie, Charles Goodrich, Frederick J. Swanson, Nathaniel Brodie, Charles Goodrich, Frederick J. Swanson

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About This Book

Two kinds of long-term research are taking place at the H. J. Andrews Experimental Forest, a renowned research facility in the temperate rain forest of the Oregon Cascades. Here, scientists investigate the ecosystem's trees, wildlife, water, and nutrients with an eye toward understanding change over varying timescales up to two hundred years or more. And writers from both literary and scientific backgrounds spend time in the forest investigating the ecological and human complexities of this remarkable and deeply studied place. This anthology—which includes work by some of the nation's most accomplished writers, including Sandra Alcosser, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Jane Hirshfield, Linda Hogan, Freeman House, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Kathleen Dean Moore, Robert Michael Pyle, Pattiann Rogers, and Scott Russell Sanders—grows out of the work of the Long-Term Ecological Reflections program and showcases the insights of the program's thoughtful and important encounters among writers, scientists, and place. These vivid essays, poems, and field notes convey a landscape of moss-draped trees, patchwork clear-cuts, stream-swept gravel bars, and hillsides scoured by fire, and also bring forward the ambiguities and paradoxes of conflicting human values and their implications for the ecosystem. Forest Under Story offers an illuminating and multifaceted way of understanding the ecology and significance of old-growth forests, and points the way toward a new kind of collaboration between the sciences and the humanities to better know and learn from special places.

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Part One
RESEARCH
AND
REVELATION
The Long Haul
ROBERT MICHAEL PYLE
In the dim deepwood of massive and moss-bound trees, the three tenors of the Northwest forest give voice: varied thrush’s raspy note, like whistling through spit; golden-crowned kinglets’ high tinkle, the sound older ears lose first; and winter wren, pucks with pennywhistles on an endless tape loop. A fourth, pileated woodpecker, is silent for now, having already totemed all the big old snags.
I’ve arrived at a place known as the Log Decomposition Plot. The mossy turnoff is paved in evergreen violets, then comes a trench and berm to keep vehicles out, but the bulldozed tank-trap has grown to resemble a native outcrop, covered in sword fern, salal, and moss. Fresh windthrow renders the trail almost impassable at times: a suitable gateway to a place where, when a tree falls in the forest, a lot of people hear it—and then take a close look at what happens next. When I get to the laid-out logs and the sawed-off tree-rounds that fallers call cookies, I know I’ve arrived at the place where druids of forest research make offerings to Rot.
Whole watersheds of old-growth western hemlocks and Douglas-firs that grace the Andrews are simply shocking compared to the second- and third-growth evergreens of my home hills. The Decomposition Plot, devoted to studies of nutrient cycling and forest refreshment, lies in one such ancient stand. It’s easy to tell when I’m inside the research zone by the yellow, red, and blue tags on wire stems sprouting from the moss. One pink cluster pokes like old trilliums from a mossy mound that once was a tree. A red bunch limns the ground where a onetime log has finally given up the ghost. Metal tags label the cut butt-ends of many logs that lie about higgledy piggledy, as gravity and the wind might have arranged them had researchers not dropped them first. Bright flags beribbon trees, shrubs, small boles, and limbs, and duct tape shores up the ends of some logs: is someone investigating the degradation rate of duct tape as well as wood fiber? White plastic pipes, buckets, jugs, and other bits lie here and there, each significant to some experiment or other. In early spring, no one is here for me to ask.
Some would see all these artifacts as litter, marring their wilderness experience. You can also see them as inflorescences, like that mysterious white plastic funnel sprouting next to a nodding trillium. Take away the pink ribbon around that hemlock over there, pick up all the aluminum and plastic, and this old-growth forest would still work just like any other. Researchers cut fresh cookies for a starting point, then measure their decay forever after—or as long as they can. But let all the straight cuts rot away and you’ve got an untidy place going about the important business of trading in the old for the new, an ecosystem definitely in it for the long haul.
For the most part, most of us take the short-term view, most of the time. What gratifies right now, or soon at the latest, is always more compelling than what might satisfy years from now, let alone nourish the generations. When business opts for short-term profits instead of long-term husbandry, both forest and human communities suffer. The short view is what turned most of the Northwest’s giant forests into doghair conifer plantations cut on short rotation for pulp. To peer much further down the line requires not only empathy for those who follow, but also faith in the future—even if you won’t be there to see it for yourself. Such an ethic underlies all of the long-term studies here on the Andrews, whether concerned with old-growth ecology, hydrology, riparian restoration, forest development and mortality, carbon dynamics, invertebrate diversity, or climate change and its effects.
Meanwhile, here in the Decomp Plot, nuthatches toot in monolithic columns of Douglas-fir; a robin chitters in a clearing. Dappled light falls on forests of the moss called Hylocomium splendens, hammocks of shiny twinflower leaves, and fleshy Lobaria lichens lying about like tossed-up ocean foam. The path is a maze of Irish byways for voles. Douglas squirrels leave their middens of Douglas-fir cone bracts all about like a prodigal’s spent treasures, and round leaves of evergreen violets and wild ginger spatter the path like green coins. If they were gold, I doubt they’d distract the unseen leprechauns who come here to gather the data of decline. Gold doesn’t decompose, and this place is all about the documentation of rot. It goes on all around me: something fairly large just fell from a nearby old-growth giant.
Maybe that’s the problem with the long view: it speaks of our own inevitable demise. We’re not much into self-recycling. Even in death, we take heroic steps to forestall rot by boxing our leavings in expensive, hermetic containers. After all, to anticipate the future—a future without us—is asking quite a lot. But life and regeneration are the name of the game on this mortal plane, every bit as much as corruption. The winter wren’s song, after all, is no morbid message. Old vine maples hoop and droop under their epiphytic shawls, but the unfurling leaves of the young ones are the brightest items in the forest (even brighter than the red plastic tags). Every downed and decaying cylinder of cellulose makes yards of nitrogen-rich surface area for hopeful baby hemlocks, lichens, liverworts, and entire empires of moss to take hold on and begin making forest anew.
If we care about what’s to come, it makes sense to send delegates to the forests of the present to find out how things truly are, report back, and check in again year after year. The conundrum of the diminishing baseline says that if we have no clear idea of what went before, we are more likely to accept things as we find them, no matter how degraded they may be. Memory is short, the collective memory even shorter. But with baseline in hand, we can appreciate change for what it is. Recognizing loss, we may even act to prevent future loss.
Just as the scientists gather data, any open-eyed observer could go on documenting details without end in such a place: the declination of that row of saplings bent over one deadfall by another; the way that one sword fern catches the sun to suggest a helmet; how the polypore conks launch out from cut ends as soon as they can after their vertical hosts go horizontal, their mycelia reorienting ninety degrees to the zenith. There is no end to particulars as long as the forest goes on and there is someone to record them. The moss grows, the raven barks, the trees go to soil—first hemlocks, then firs, finally cedar. All the while, the decomp team is there, watching how the cookies crumble. Maybe looking to the future is a way of hoping there will still be something to see when we get there. Maybe it’s the only way to make sure of it.
The Web
ALISON HAWTHORNE DEMING
(with lines from Claude Lévi-Strauss)
Is it possible there is a certain
kind of beauty as large as the trees
that survive the five-hundred-year fire,
the fifty-year flood, trees we can’t
comprehend even standing
beside them with outstretched arms
to gauge their span,
a certain kind of beauty
so strong, so deeply concealed
in relationship—black truffle
to red-backed vole to spotted owl
to Douglas-fir, bats and gnats,
beetles and moss, flying squirrel
and the high-rise of a snag,
each needing and feeding the other—
a conversation so quiet
the human world can vanish into it.
A beauty moves in such a place
like snowmelt sieving through
the fungal mats that underlie and
interlace the giant firs, tunneling
under streams where cutthroat fry
live a meter deep in gravel,
fluming downstream over rocks
that have a hold on place
lasting longer than most nations,
sluicing under deadfall spanners
that rise and float to let floodwaters pass,
a beauty that fills the space of the forest
with music that can erupt as
varied thrush or warbler, calypso
orchid or stream violet, forest
a conversation not an argument,
a beauty gathering such clarity and force
it breaks the mind’s fearful hold on its
little moment steeping it in a more dense
intelligibility, within which centuries
and distances answer each other
and speak at last with one and the same voice.
Scope
Ten Small Essays
JOHN R. CAMPBELL
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.
2. BRIC-A-BRAC
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, gauges 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.
image
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 toward 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 redcedar.
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 tru...

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