Adaptation and Disorientation

My wife bought the land we live on in the 1970s, while she was still in college. The land lies on an eastward slope in the heavily forested hills near Bellingham, Washington. They were logging here in the early part of the 1900s, some of those operations Darius Kinsey loved to photograph.I know they used horses, steam donkeys, trains and trucks to remove the ancient cedars. On our property you can find old stumps with springboard slots hacked into them. The loggers placed springboards several feet up on the trees to avoid heavy sap that would clog up the blades of their two-man crosscut saws.  With ten acres of land, we have a natural preserve that keeps its history wrapped in forest duff.

Not too long after we got married, I began an intense project of trail development. My wife had never really used the land we lived on, but as I crashed through the brush I found enchanting natural attractions. I found those springboard stumps, carpets of wild ginger, fields of ferns, tented clubhouses at the bases of mature fir trees. Even the fallen timber offered enchantment: shelf fungus, tiny mushrooms, cubic rot, lightning strike evidence.

I grew up in the desert of Eastern Washington. Lots of people don’t even realize that such a thing exists in the Evergreen State, but my childhood, cursed with dust, inexorable heat, and merciless sunshine sometimes tortured me. As I labored on my father’s farm, cleaning silt out of the bottom of irrigation ditches, picking up alfalfa bales and stacking them for storage or on trucks, I knew the distant peaks of the Cascades offered somewhere cool, comfortable, unreachable.

I was well adapted to life in that desert, but I always wondered just why we lived there. My grandfather (see the earlier post, Immigrants) came from Sweden, and you can’t find a much more different environment from Eastern Washington than Sweden. I dreamed of cloudy days, I sought relief from heat and sunshine. Yet I was intrigued with the things the desert offered. I remember describing the desert once as “an honest landscape.” Whatever was done to the land, whatever happened to it, the evidence remained to be seen for years and years.

My father, who also grew up within a mile or so of where I grew up, explained a huge blank place on the face of Saddle Mountain when I was a child. It was evidence of a military training aircraft that had crashed during the Second World War. As I played on the playground at Lutacaga Elementary School I could see that stain on the mountain, something with the shape of Alaska. I recalled my father telling the family as we returned from church: “There wasn’t enough left of the pilot to gather into a mixing bowl.”

The desert offered other evidence, too. A favorite family hike was onto the Crab Creek bottoms, where my grandfather’s homestead leaned away from the wind, baked gray in the sun. We delighted in searching the scraps left from my father’s childhood: a broken gear from a Model T Ford, bits of glass purpled by the intense light, the leather soles of somebody’s shoes, curled up into stiff leaves and scorched black. Once we found the remnants of a coconut, blackened by the sun.

Or we might climb to the summit of Saddle Mountain, up beyond the old brick generator building at Taunton on the Milwaukee Road (if you know the right brick, you can still find the penciled graffiti of soldiers waiting for the train in 1943). We would climb the steep hillside (left behind by the collapse of the mountain in that Ice Age flood), using animal trails as a staircase. The animals hated climbing straight uphill, so they followed the contours of the hillside in parallel tracks across the walls of the strange valley we called The Ampitheater. Those tracks provided a convenient staircase as we scaled the mountain.

Above, beyond the scrambled talus and the thick sagebrush slopes, we would come to the smooth brow of the mountain. Where the slopes had dropped away into the Ice Age flood there remained a stony face, with ledges and crannies. Exposed sandstone amidst the prevalent basalt had provided a billboard for generations of hikers. Here we would find initials and names carved into the soft sandstone, sometimes scoured by the wind into an illegible slurry. My father’s name was there, and the names of some of this brothers, from the year 1923. We tried to add our names or a timeless symbol: Ron carved a huge Peace sign there during the Vietnam War.

I once took a solo hike towards the homestead, following first the modern gravel road built for the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge. But soon I tired of the bland gravel, and I cut right, into the sagebrush. A few feet farther east I came into the ditch of an old wagon road. My father had once described how a wagon trail was shaped like the letter U, with no center hump, because many wagons were drawn by a single horse that walked in the middle of the trail. Knowledge like that can ruin countless Westerns! I followed the wagon trail for some distance, then cut further east into the untracked wildness of a sagebrush landscape. But I found a track there. This time it was the slender depression of an ancient foot trail, the remains of the passage of generations of Native Americans as they headed north from the White Bluffs on the Columbia River.

The fur traders quickly learned how to travel in Eastern Washington in the early 1800s (Look for the journal of Ross Cox, an employee of the Hudsons Bay Company, for proof). In those days, if you were headed south, you built or bought a canoe and floated on the Columbia. But when you were northbound, you bought horses and set off across the desert  towards the next known water. Where I grew up, that water was Crab Creek. Trails led from the northernmost bend on the Columbia, near White Bluffs, to the Crab Creek crossing pictured in one of my first posts. You ignored the trails at risk of life. Many explorers discovered that, but only a few lived to report it.

Following those three routes, the gravel road, the wagon trail and the Native American trace, forced me to consider how each the trails responded to identical demands the landscape required of people. We adapted to those demands by following the quickest route from water to water.

Having discovered that Indian trails were evident, I began searching the hills for more of them. It wasn’t long before I found the way Native Americans had scaled the steep face of Saddle Mountain, how they angled up the face of the old slide area, how they reached the top and went, arrow-straight, towards Coyote Rapids on the Columbia. But once, when I decided to descend from those sandstone billboards by a different route, I discovered something strange. There was a trail, which by all evidence seemed like a Native American trace, that led away from the cliffs toward an unusual crevasse in the side of the mountain. This was a crack where two sheaves of lava pillars had separated from each other during the massive slide. You could descend into the crack and pass through the deep crevasse, then ascend to the surface at the further end.  The trail I followed led directly there from the summit of the mountain, but was nowhere to be found below the crevasse. The crevasse was a destination for those travelers. There is no doubt that this was a sacred spot for the Indians. I imagine it signified a sort of passage into the living rock of the earth and re-emergence into this world as a changed person. But who am I to say?

I wander from my present tale. Here, in the midst of the woods, the only evidence I have ever discovered of earlier people has been faint-the springboard slots in decaying stumps, a few discarded springs or other debris I found as I carved out a trail through a brushy field. Oh, and there is the ghost of an outhouse behind the new pole barn we put up a few years ago. This land, unlike the desert, throws up a screen of brush and timber, seeking to disguise the passing of previous generations. Unless somebody passed through with a bulldozer or built a house, the land throws down a blanket of leaves and seeds so that the evidence is lost within a few years.

I find that disorienting. When I first moved in, I was perpetually confused about the direction. My wife didn’t build her house according to the compass. Our home faces southeast. The sun seems to rise too far to the north in the summertime. The forest contributes in another way, too. When the clouds break so you can actually see the light of day, the trees are likely to get between you and the sun. While the desert provides vast sightlines, in the woods your view is limited by the edges of the clearing you happen to be in, unless you find an open peak to stand on.

This is not to complain about the woods I live in. In fact, having a limited line of sight is beneficial. It forces me to look more closely at what is close about me. Not distracted by vast landscapes, I see the miniature vistas of moss, flowing branches of cedar and broadleaf maple, the intimate geology of sandstone, slate and shale. And when I descend to the dock, I find life under the water: gilled snails, bass fingerlings, macroinvertebrates. There is no denying the richness of life in this environment. The rocks themselves speak of the life of previous ages. Our sandstone is littered with the stilled images of ancient forest floors: maple leaves, metasequoia twigs, reeds, canes. My son discovered the mudstone impression of an entire tree trunk, cast in rock millions of years after the living tree came crashing down.

It is the trace of humans that I seldom find. Surely people were here before us, but they left little to be observed that the forests have not swallowed up. It is like hiking in a fog: look over your shoulder to see where you have been, and you encounter impenetrable mist. It is not that people avoided this place. Historically, the woods that grew here were hard to penetrate. Travel tended to be by canoe, not on foot, so trails were seldom worn into the earth like they were in the desert. There are places along Crab Creek where the soil glitters with flint chips left behind where warriors and hunters camped.  The Native American people who lived west of the mountains cast aside their discarded bones and shells, buried their dead with artifacts and acted in almost every way like their relatives east of the Cascades. But the forest engulfs these things swiftly. Many of the trails I created have returned to the wild in the course of only a year or two.

I know places along Crab Creek where I have discovered arrowheads and left them to lie there (it is, after all, against the law to remove them from public lands). I have stumbled upon the carved earthen oval of a longhouse site, close by smaller circles that must have been huts or shelters of some sort. The honest desert tells its tales clearly, if you care to read its clues. But here in the woods I have to struggle to read the history of humankind.

In another ten thousand years perhaps this valley I live in, which was carved by mile-deep glaciers, will once again be subsumed beneath a frozen waste. All traces of my own life will be pulverized. The natural world prevails, overwhelms the stories of humankind. Perhaps that is as it should be. In the meantime, I avoid disorientation by adapting to a closer view of what surrounds me.

All content, including photographs, music and graphics
Copyright 2009, Mark E. Danielson
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