Forward

A different perspective on walking in the woods…

 

Upon reading my materials and observations on Oregon’s coastal range the question frequently arises as to what distinguishes my perspectives on this landscape from that of others? I can’t say I really thought much about this while I was busily wearing out my hiking boots. But perhaps my thirst for exploring our trackless wilderness is a bit out of the ordinary, or else I would have encountered more like-minded spirits.

 

But my proclivity for getting lost in the woods is not something new. I grew up deep in the Bavarian Alps surrounded by precipitous peaks. In the winter the mountains blocked the sun for much of the day, and the avalanches roared into the valley whenever we had a heavy snowfall. Mountains loomed large in my youth, as the home of mysterious folk-lore spirits, as an inviting network of precarious cliff clinging goat trails, an unending inventory of musty caves to be explored, and a playground of lofty eyries from which to view the worJT on fenceld beyond my valley. Constantly warned off these perilous slopes by my cautious parents, I was not to be deterred from crawling up the most precarious faces and poking into every crevasse to tease out the myriad secrets these crags had to offer. In my passionate teen years I was given to reciting 19th century romantic verse from the top of mountain peaks. Somehow the thrill of the claiming for myself these secret places deep in the forest or high up on the forbidden rock faces was a romantic urge that never quite left me…

 

Having grown up amongst Europe’s Celtic runes, the roman roads and Laubau 1the gothic churches, history’s long sweep was omnipresent. So I was always a bit baffled by the reverence my friends and relatives from America felt in the face of this antiquity. But when I came to Oregon and beheld for the first time the vast and empty spaces of eastern Oregon, I felt that same awe. And every time I walk deep in the Oregon coastal forests, I am reminded of how little time has past since this land was completely primeval.

 

Where European civilization emerged from the woods and marshes well over 2000 years ago, here in the Pacific Northwest man has only just emerged from the domination of our colossal rain forests. Standing deep in the Oregon’s coastal forests, amongst the noble Western Cedars, beneath the huge Sitka Spruce giants and the ubiquitous Douglas fir I feel as if I am transported into a gothic cathedral of unearthly dimensions and design. These are literally the densest forests on earth, and their dark loamy environment fed by nutrient rich high latitude ocean weather simply reeks with life. In the dark and close confines of Oregon’s coastal forest life as we know it ceases and the rules are reversed. Hundreds of people have been lost in these forests, never to reappear. Planes go down into the forest canopy and it closes around the wreckage forever hiding the remains. CWT 1Even DB Cooper and all his loot was swallowed alive. Apply your sensible Boy Scout wisdom about following water to safety and it will most assuredly lead you to your doom. No, civilization does not penetrate these deep groves of antiquity. When I am in the deep forests and utterly alone, it’s exhilarating to slip back thousands of years to when our predecessors were resident in these forests and were inexorably subject to this overwhelming environment.

 

My father was an ex-US diplomat who made a living writing books about diplomacy, novels about spies and articles about hunting and fishing throughout Europe and Asia. He and my mother managed two hunting reserves in Bavaria and in Austria. That meant we spent almost every dawn and dusk in the woods observing the movement of the deer, roebucks and chamois – learning their territories, tallying the game and planning how to cull the herds during the fall hunting season. In the summer we maintained our hunting cabins, as much of the reserve was too high and remote to reach by car, and in the winter we skied up to the feeding stations to dispense the hay. In my early teens I was taught to track, spot and identify animals with a fair degree of accuracy – since we kept a running inventory of all the game based on individual sightings- and I was an essential part of that summer-long effort. In the Alps hunting co-exists alongside high altitude cattle management, selective logging, mushroom gathering, tourism and border patrolling, so I was constantly talking with the upland farmers, the foresters, the old women who stalked the chanterelles, and the border patrol to learn more about the movement of our herds. In Bavaria there was a symbiotic relationship between all these parties and we learned from each other even as we crossed paths high up in the range. Since logging was done selectively the impact to the wildlife was minimal, our control of the game population protected the farmers’ crops, and our mountain trails served the mushroom scavengers and foresters to climb the steep slopes. Thus I came to consider the forest from many angles and to appreciate the interwoven network that sustained this delicate ecosystem.

 

Perhaps the most poignant lesson I learned about this symbiotic relationship and the meaning of stewardship occurred one summer when I was 10 years old and had brought back some firecrackers from the US. With the intensity only a 10 year old can muster I laid siege to a giant ant pile behind the neighboring farmer’s barn. When my pyrotechnics exploded scattering a full third of the heap, the farmer’s wife appeared and red me the riot act for my wanton destruction of this ant pile. It seems that the family bible, handed down from generation to generation, had reported faithfully on this insect colony that had sprung up alongside the new farm when it was founded in 1060 AD!

 

I was surprised to find that in Oregon there existed an almost adversarial relationship between all these parties, each vying to harvest one part of the ecosystem, with little regard to the impact for others and without any comprehensive sense of stewardship for the overall health of the habitat over the coming decades and centuries. For me the forest cannot be seen in isolation or even from one perspective at a time; it is inextricably linked to the communities around it, the ecology inside, the geology underneath and subject to the weather wafting through it.

 

Stop and listen the next time you are deep in the woods – to the multilayered saga being told all around you. Hear the grandiose themes of geological transformation, the infinitely complex life and death dance that sustain fish, fowl, fur and flower. While you are knee deep in the crunchy spring snow, can you sense the microcosmic drama of 16,000 invertebrates living under beneath your every footstep? This is a world that runs itself, no batteries needed. It is both off the grid, and it is the only grid. Like a blind man groping around the edges of an unfamiliar object, I come here to feel the limits of our influence and to understand the real shape of things to come.

2 Responses to Forward

  1. howarthe says:

    Jim,
    I, too, love getting lost in the woods. It calms me. I used to play in small wooded areas when I was a child in Michigan. They were only wood lots, not the full-grown forests we have around here in Oregon. My question is about my ten-year-old daughter. She is afraid of the forest. She sees lions and tigers and bears lurking behind every tree. It makes me sad. We’ve been exploring the Crown Zellerbach Trail between Scappoose and Vernonia. We’ve been camping in the state parks. Every time she asks me which animals live nearby and weather or not they are big enough to eat her. I’m not sure what to tell her exactly. The pamphlets at Ft Stevens state park admitted that cougar and black bear roam the entire state, but I have the sense that the danger level is very low. How would you calm my daughter’s fears?
    ~Erin
    Scappoose, Oregon

    • Jim says:

      Erin:

      First a couple of fact to set the stage, though kids are not much impressed by facts:
      1. There has never been a fatal cougar attack in the recorded history of Oregon – and that includes pioneer days when the kids walked alone through the woods to school and cougars were as abundant as Douglas Squirrels.
      2. Cougars are very afraid of humans, and for good reason: we tend to kill them without even asking whether they’re friendly or not.
      3. Oregon has no brown bears and therefore no Grizzlies – neither of which you would want to invite to your picnic.
      4. Oregon has lots of small black bears that are about the size of a Newfoundland dog – and look remarkably similar.
      5. Black bears are even more scared of us than we of them. Black bears suffer from anxiety that nasty humans will hurt them or steal their cubs.
      6. Bears like to eat Salmonberries and sometimes they get so engrossed in their munching that they don’t hear us coming.
      7. Stay out of their way when they bolt for the bushes; they’re terrified we might hurt them.
      8. Bear like to waddle up logging roads and they leaves tracks that are big and round as they shuffle up the dusty roads. Watch for these tracks and make noise when walking though big patches of ripe salmonberries; they’ll sneak away to avoid you.

      I have hiked all through the coast range, in all seasons, but have rarely seen bears or cougars. I have never and will never carry a gun. Guns are more dangerous to us than the bears. I mainly try to stay alert and listen to what’s happening in the woods around me – are there elk crashing through the underbrush, or deer daintily grazing at the edge of a meadow? Listen to the birds; they’re busybodies that announce any newcomers, including you. Look at the trail or road to see the tracks of who’s been walking there ahead of you. When entering a clearing peak carefully up and down the slope to see if you can spot the animals – they mean you no harm.

      Animals are your friends, and the woods is their home. Be happy when you can see them playing there with their friends.

      The biggest danger in Oregon’s woods is getting lost, so always stick close to your parents, and make sure they know how to get back to the highway. But animals are not something to be afraid of – they’re a sign that the forest is healthy and that lots of fawns, bear cubs and other baby animals can grown up there enjoying the beautiful forests. If you’re quiet and watchful, you too can enjoy what they call home and bring back wonderful memories of babbling brooks, slippery salamanders (wash your hands after handling them), and majestic eagles soaring high on the warm air currents.

      And then, of course, there’s the wonderful berries to eat: the huckleberries, the thimble berries, the blue berries, the wild raspberries, and even the salad berries. Get you parents to teach you which ones to eat – they’re delicious – the animals think so too!

      Jim

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