Notes from the forest (some trees)

6. Some trees

Above all other trees, T has reverence for conifers, which is bound up with his history. Youthful days working as a tree faller, and hiking in the wildernesses in the western United States nurtured this tree passion. It is an interesting idea to me that someone who had cut down trees for a living can love them, and be excited to find great ones standing untouched, kings in lonely mountain glades. But I’m starting to get a feeling for his philosophy: tree or wood, it is a continuation of existence.

This is a good place for trees. I like sitting at my desk, or on the porch, watching the forest, my gaze climbing up along the straight trunks of the conifers, then dropping down to see the sunlight playing on the ferns, and the waving fronds of foxgloves, with their pink speckled trumpets. The sound of the wind soughing through the needles is very soothing, like slow tides on a far beach. Occasionally there is the gentle dripping of rain as it filters through the canopy. This forest is full of soft sounds.

Douglass Fir, nigh on 200 feet

It was timber that brought white settlers to this area first, braving the cold and difficult conditions to make camps and build mills. The dominant forests west of the Cascades are conifer forests: Douglas fir, western hemlock, grand fir, western white pine, western red cedar.

On Camano, one of the earliest mills sent lumber to Shanghai in about 1860. Douglas fir was perfect for spars and building, and fragrant cedar was much favoured for furniture and housing (as it was by the native peoples who were here first, but they did not log the forests extensively). For the European settlers, forests meant money: San Francisco and Seattle were built of Northwest timber in their rapid expansions during the gold rushes.

Ladies on a cedar stump circa 1860
(Stanwood Area Historical Society)

This area was logged selectively from the mid-19th century, for Douglas fir and then for Western red cedar. It was covered by old growth forest: massive trees four and five hundred years old, hundreds of feet high and yielding many thousands of tons of timber. In the teens and twenties loggers combed the south end of Camano and took out the biggest trees; on our property there are at least a dozen stumps of such giants, gently rotting away. On some, you can still see the steps the loggers cut: at ground level the girth of the bole was too great for their saws so they had to climb up. I have seen similar holes cut in old Mountain Ash stumps around Apollo Bay.

100 year old fir on left, 300 year old fir stump on right

When choosing the cabin site, T wanted the house to feel nestled in the forest, surrounded by soaring trees. He cleared many of the spindly and frail alders – called “trash trees” by woodsmen, and marked out a place. It is surrounded by magnificent conifers.

Right in front of the porch there is a giant Douglas fir, growing from the remains of a stump of a cedar hewn a century ago. It is close enough that small birds can hop from it onto the roof without effort. This tree has had question marks next to it for all of the history of the cabin: was just too close? It dropped fir needles on the roof, necessitating extra cleaning – was it too much bother? And it obstructed views of the house – so close, and just off centre. Didn’t it look out of place?

Our guardian fir

What did I think?

I thought it should go. It offended my sense of balance, when looking at the front of the house. But I came to love its beautiful straight trunk, so strong and firm, and the lacy appearance of the fir needles, on long trailing branches over the apex of the house. When I sit at my desk and gaze at it in a breeze, I can just see it moving, swaying slightly – it seems impossible that this great solid staff could move, but it does, like a whisper of thought.

Sometime in the two years since our last visit, it lost a top: it had had two tops, and has thrown one down – the one that had been leaning over the roof in a bothersome way, dropping needles. The top was like a tree in itself, 40 foot long, straight as a Lodgepole pine. It is lying next to the house now, supported by its broken branches. Because it is off the ground, it has not rotted, and thus becomes a gift of useful wood. It didn’t damage the cabin at all when it fell, despite being so close. So we dubbed this tree the Guardian fir, and I like to think that it stands protectively over the house.

Lacy fronds over the roof

T tells me that conifers never fall over, but they can be smitten by acts of God (as the Guardian fir apparently was). We have a book called called, “Champion trees of Washington State”, which has many stories of giants being struck by lightning or broken off in storms.  However, we are much more afraid of the Big-Leaf maples, the major non-coniferous forest tree in the region. There are dozens on the property, and very handsome trees they are, with big open leaves that turn lime-green in the sunlight, creating a wonderful dappled light. They flutter with the lightest of breezes, a friendly, communicative sound. Very spreading trees, with long, bendy, drooping branches, trailing down to the ground in some places.

But they drop limbs and old heavy trunks when they get tired of them, and are susceptible to strong winds. The Mother-In-Law’s cabin (our doll’s-house-like ancillary cabin) stands under a couple of mature maples. The huge trees create a magical effect: the little cabin becomes a fairytale cottage deep in the woods, but any branch falling from 50 feet or more would crush it like a beetle. Stare up at them for a while and the danger seems to expand before your eyes.

Ominous Maples

T’s logging friend from Montana is due to visit soon, so with his expert help, we may try to take the most dangerous trees out. It’s hard to imagine the area without the multilayered green of the maple canopy though. It may seem like breaking the spell – I’m not sure I’ll like it.

I’ve been watching the sunlight move around, thinking of gardening. A garden in the rain forest? I’m not sure. More delicate cottage plants may not be appropriate although I’d love to plant some.

T’s idea of gardening in the last 25 years has consisted only of planting more conifers during his short summer visits, and hoping they’ll survive by themselves. In recent times, the cabin has only been visited for a few days each year: a sapling planted on one of those visits must take its chances in the mature forest, seek the moisture and light it needs as best it can, and hope that deer don’t find it tasty.

He first planted western red cedars to replace those logged in the early days – he collected tiny saplings 25 years ago from his uncle’s property nearby, and scattered them about. Now many are 30 feet tall and very handsome. He was also brought in some foreigners: Norway Spruce, Noble fir, Japanese Cryptomeria, Incense Cedar, Deodar Cedar, Sitka spruce.

Sitka spruce

The Sitka spruce is a dominant forest species in maritime Alaska and Canada and is one of a special club: It is among only five trees that reach heights more than 350 feet. Our Sitka spruce would probably like it to be colder, but they do grow here, slender and tall, but perhaps a little slowly. They have spindly pale twigs and white trunks that make me think of prissy princesses among the plainer, more virulent green of the Doug firs and the western red cedars.

Others of the skyscraper tree club are here too; the only one really at home is the Douglas fir. They are doing fine, racing into the sky, with straight and true trunks. T also planted a few of the Californian redwoods, both Coastal and Giant. Deer like to rub against them here, exposing their rosy wood, but they do all right. You can see much bigger specimens in Seattle, but Camano is in the Olympic Mountains’ rain shadow, so it is not quite so damp and misty, as they might like. But still, it is cold temperate rain forest.

Baby giant redwood

The final tree in the 350-foot club is also a denizen of cold temperate rainforests, and the only non-conifer. It is of course the Mountain Ash, Australia’s giant eucalyptus. T hasn’t a specimen here, but he has visited them, and admired them in their natural habitat, in the Otway ranges in Victoria. I wonder why these tall trees like such cold wet places? Perhaps because they are rather inhospitable, and not crowded by lesser plants – gives a silent giant room to stretch out, over time and space.

Under the canopy of these lofty trees, the forest floor is sparsely populated by a few species: there are berry bushes (huckle, salmon, black), slender nettles, some native grasses, and ferns. The ferns do particularly well here, growing large and thick. They like to colonise fallen logs – I imagine them moving slowly by themselves when nobody is here, like triffids, climbing up onto mounds and stumps, to squat possessively.  A fantastic image, but in the deep forest, imaginations run a bit wild. It has always been so: that’s where the best fairy tales come from.

Vigorous ferns

 

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