It’s embarrassing to admit it now, but when I was a kid one summer, growing up in rural Oregon, my sisters and I pretended we were Indians. We came up with a name for our tribe and our own rituals. (We were the “Mokikiwa” and we worshipped water; this involved rituals with the hose and sprinkler.) It’s absurd now to think about our ignorance coming out in weird ways like that. I also remember pretending that we were Jews hiding from Nazis and I wonder how we could’ve ever comprehended the enormity of what we were play-acting at. But I do know that that summer was an important and pivotal moment in my childhood. Our Indian phase only lasted for a few months when I was eight or nine, but it sticks with me because it was the first time I can remember starting to connect the past with the present in a concrete way.
We lived on five acres of forest. Beyond our lawn, over the hedge of blackberries, the forest began with Doug firs and cedars and an understory of vine maple, sword ferns and huckleberry. Just as the forest floor swept down the ravine to the creek, there stood a huge blackened stump. It was tall, about six to seven feet, and the outer crust of bark was charcoaled and black. The bark twisted in a clockwise pattern around the trunk, as if the tree had turned as it grew, following the sun or the shifting ground. The fire damage to its bark must have kept other plants from growing on the stump, because it was unlike the other stumps on our property; I later learned they were called mother logs. The other stumps were visibly soft and molten looking, were crisscrossed with termite paths, covered in moss and mushrooms, often with Oregon grape or a huckleberry growing from its crown. They were sodden and rotting. Not hard and geometric like the blackened stump.
Nothing grew on the blackened stump. It was bigger around than any of the living trees around it. It took two of us girls to wrap it with our arms. During our Indian phase we took chunks of the charcoal and drew stripes on our faces. I remember thinking that the tree was ancient, that it had probably been around when “real” Indians lived on our land. I also remember thinking with some amount of wistful grief that the size of the blackened stump was the size that our trees were meant to be, that our forest was pitifully young.
When I got older, I learned about what our government did to the Native peoples who lived here. I learned about the murder and genocide that happened in Oregon after white settlers discovered gold. (The Rogue River is named after a racial slur against the three tribes that lived in the valley. They were called “Rogues” by the French trappers and the name stuck.) But despite the huge decrease in their population, when people say that we destroyed Indian culture it can be deeply disrespectful to Native Americans and their still-vibrant culture. Denying their existence is just that – denial. It is easier to deal with tragedy if we relegate it to the past.
It’s like when people say: my dad beat me and I turned out okay. And I want to ask: but did you? Did you turn out okay?
Often it’s too painful to really answer that question.
I recently visited the “ancient forest,” a patch of old growth in Oxbow Park near the service road and the Sandy River. I hadn’t visited since I was a sixth grader in outdoor school. A few years after our Indian phase, I attended the local public school. At that time every sixth grader in Multnomah County was required to attend an outdoor school. I went to Camp Collins. I remember doing well at plant identification. And I remember the old growth forest. I was awed by it.
Visiting as an adult though, I was underwhelmed. I had remembered the trees as being huge, I had remembered the huge mother logs, and the pine needles on the ground. I remember scurrying over hills and hummocks.
The forest was vibrant and lush during my recent visit. The explosion of green was overwhelming. But the trees weren’t big. They were just a bit bigger than the ones on our old property in Corbett. And this forest had obviously been logged. Huge shorn stumps were everywhere. Yes, the understory was mature and there seemed to be a lot of diversity in the types of plants that were growing. But this was nothing like the redwoods, this was nothing like those old black and white photos of loggers standing on cutting platfroms wedged into the side of a giant cedar; the stumps told the truth of what this forest used to be like.
When I got home I looked up “old growth definition” on the Internet. I discovered that a forest only has to be a hundred and twenty years old to be deemed old growth. So basically, if the forest hadn’t been logged since the late 19th century, it could be called old growth or “ancient.” This shocked me. One hundred and twenty years is nothing in terms of a tree’s lifespan. (Of course this depends on the species of tree, but many conifers live much longer than that, up to five hundred plus years.)
One hundred and twenty years ago, in 1896, the x-ray was invented, Oscar Wilde’s play “Salome” premiered in Paris, Europe’s colonization of Africa was well underway, the first automobile was driven in Detroit, gold was discovered in Alaska, Martha Hughes Cannon of Utah was elected the first female senator, and the first car crash happened – a motorist hit a bicyclist in New York City. If any of these events were truly ancient, we would have problems discerning their working parts…what a senator is, what an automobile is, how an xray works. But these are everyday concepts. Nothing ancient here.
So it’s certainly ridiculous to call a forest only one hundred and twenty years ancient. The pyramids are ancient. If the cedars of Lebanon still existed, they too would be ancient. But not the “ancient” forest I visited that day in Oxbow Park.
This realization filled me with a mix of emotions. I was disgusted. I felt a trick had been pulled on me. Here was a culture who held up this forest on a silver platter and said to its children: this is our finest specimen, this is a representation of a forest untouched by civilization. Except that was a lie as big as an actually-ancient cedar.
And then it made me sad. It filled me with grief. We all know that the trees we see in parks and in people’s front yards aren’t necessarily native or “natural.” But the truth is there is nearly nowhere on the west coast where we can see an ancient forest. Why? Cause we fucking cut them all down.
I asked around to people that know about trees and they have told me there is a stand here, a grove here, a single tree there. But, an entire ecosystem of ancient old growth on America’s west coast? It basically doesn’t exist. Ninety six percent of California’s redwoods have been logged. And I’m sure the same can be said for Oregon and Washington’s forests. How can I be so sure? Where can you see enormous trees like the ones in those old books about loggers? Basically nowhere. There are a few scattered specimens here and there. But there used to be thousands of acres of these enormous, Jurassic-seeming trees. They’re all gone now. In other words, our idea of a “normal” forest is incorrect, it’s not normal at all. It’s a traumatized forest. It’s a collection of beta species.
And so, our idea of old growth is in fact, a modern invention. The year when the last truly ancient forest was destroyed, that was the year the “old growth” forest was invented.
What do we do with these half-truths that our culture feeds us? How to we metabolize the grief?
I went to Tryon Creek Park on Monday and spent an hour or so wandering through the beautiful forest there, taking pictures of what I used to call mother logs. Now I can see they are ghost trees, the shorn remainders of what used to be. I felt so sad, overwhelmed with a pain inside of my chest and a lump in my throat.
On my way back to my car, I spotted a large black bird in a tree near the parking lot. It was a raven! I had never seen one before and I was shocked at how large it was, as large as a hawk, at least three times as big as a crow. The raven swung from a branch for a few moments with its large beak hanging open, until it saw me walk toward it with my phone and it flew away. I was so excited to see this raven.
There is still joy out there in the forest. I’d been sad, I’d made my mind up about things. Yet even if the forest was pitifully young, even if there were countless trees in the park being choked by English ivy and the traffic noise from Terwilliger was always within earshot, there were still secrets. There were still pockets of life waiting to blossom forth regardless of our human knowledge. It's not a silver lining. The raven isn't the moral. But it was a breath and a balm.
When I think about our city changing, I think about the dismissal that I often encounter: that everything has changed not just the housing market – and that is the way of civilization, that people shouldn’t be upset about change, that we should just hurry up and accept it. This reaction doesn’t really help matters much. If anything it makes long-time Portlanders more bitter, more resolved to gripe and hate the newcomers.
Now is the time to acknowledge our grief. It’s time to walk in the woods and weep.