The Ground at My FeetAnn Stinson
I sit on a recently felled Douglas Fir and look around. It is early evening and the loggers, hard at work on the harvest since dawn, are gone for the day. Floaty gnats inhabit the slanting light.
A sword fern frond reaches out and touches my notebook. It merges with Oregon Grape, Salal, fir branches, cedar boughs and chunks of bark. The soil is dark and soft and airy. I touch it. I make three dark stripes on each of my cheeks. The soil is drier than I expect; my stripes are smudges.
I want to roll around in the newly exposed dirt and hear what it has to say. It smells rich and full of secrets. Everything has been opened up. Stories await my hearing. Does the soil know my brother’s voice? Does the land remember his love? This forest was my growing ground from ten to eighteen, and now, years later, home again. How can I better hear what it has to say to me?
From my seat on the log, I observe a large old snag in the middle of the cut. We’ve left it as a perch for hawks and crows. The broken branches stand black against slow moving clouds backlit by the setting sun. In this gloaming, I listen to the trees.
At the edge of the cut lies Gemini Grove, six acres of majestic 100-year-old trees my sister-in-law Lou Jean and I have set aside. We go there for walks and contemplation, and the Grove shelters critters that like deep shade. It is also home to my brother Steve’s tree, where we go to remember him.
As the harvest enters the third week, Lou Jean and I walk the wetland trail in the Grove. In the low spots, water stands at six inches. Last year’s alder leaves line the bottom, and new lovage nudges through the surface. A long strand of green gray moss floats over my blue rubber boots. Later I look up the moss. Common name: Witches Hair Lichen; Latin: Alectoria sarmentosa. Lou Jean likes to gather and place it around the ceramic woodswoman holding some of Steve’s ashes. She likes him to be warm.
We have hired a father and son team, Peter Sr. and Peter Jr. to do the logging. From the trail we can hear the grind and thump of their machines and then can see them beyond our 50- foot boundary. This logging has daylighted our trail, bringing sun into pockets of fern and old growth stumps sunken in deep shade for decades. Peter Sr.’s saw whines over the clearcut as we enter into a darker section of the Grove. A tree falls and shakes the ground.
Peter is hand-falling. These trees are too big for the modern-day cut-to-length processors most of the industry uses. I’m glad. This method is more personal, a more gracious relationship between faller and tree.
As Peter Sr. falls them, Peter Jr. walks down each tree with a chainsaw, cutting the branches close to the trunk. Next he climbs into a processor, a huge bright orange Doosan that cuts the tree into logs lengths. With another Doosan, a loader, he’ll pick up the logs and place them on their truck.
The cedar is milled at Reichert Shake and Fencing, a family-owned mill just a mile and a half away. Other local mills process fir into two by fours, plywood, telephone poles.
Some of our Douglas Fir goes to Korea to be used in temples. These logs must be taller than 36 feet and larger than 32 inches top diameter. I wish all our trees went to such treasured purposes.
Douglas Fir logs with the fewest defects are exported to Japan for home-building while rougher logs we export to China where some are used to construct concrete forms. At least the imprint of the knotty wood grain stays embedded in the concrete, an echo of forest life from across the Pacific. I imagine traveling to Asia to see and touch the wood in its new home.
A sampling of defects used to grade export Douglas Fir.
AS: Age Stain
BT: Beaver Tail
CF: Cat Face
EK: Excessive Knots
F: Fluted or Flared Butt
FC: Freeze Crack
HC: Heart Check
OH: Off-Center Heart
PR: Pitch Ring
SB: Snow Break
SK: Spike Knot
WS: Wind Shake
Another defect, known as “a school marm” is the fork in a treetop log. The current spec sheet for a Longview sawmill reads, “buck out school marms back to a single heart; no forked tops.” As a former school teacher, I take offense at this even as I laugh.
We can sell the bucked-out school marms and other rough wood for pulp to make paper. We will keep leftover parts of the trees for firewood. Woodworking friends come to look at the burls, yew and other “hobby wood.”
I discover that some wood from Pacific Northwest forests is used for coffins in rural China. The invitation to the monthly Lewis County Farm Forestry Association meeting announces an upcoming talk by the owner of Millwood, a company in Olympia that ships oversized trees for this purpose. I tell Dad we have to go. He gathers his 30-year-old Society of American Foresters clipboard and puts on his city clothes. I check to make sure the t-shirt he wears under his button down isn’t frayed.
We drive to the Lewis County Courthouse and walk into the basement room where we have sat many times for talks about thinning, road building, planting alder, herbicide use, and surveying land boundaries. Dad is “the godfather” here; he and Steve both served as president of the association.
Rich Nelson from Millwood presents slides showing how wood gets from Tacoma to inland China. The wood he buys is big and rough and has many of the defects Weyerhaeuser will not take. Logs over 33 inches in diameter, spike knots, spangle, all these are acceptable for Millwood.
Provinces on the coast of China have outlawed burials; city dwellers must cremate their deceased. But in the countryside, families still want a coffin for a “soil funeral.” Coffin design varies by region, but all require five thick boards about 24 inches wide. Many families prefer each board to be made from one tree; it helps the soul stay in the coffin.
I am pleased families want the otherwise rejected wood—material deemed unsuitable for plywood or two by fours—for the final resting place of their loved ones. The truth in myth trumps extreme rationality.
One morning the rain ebbs and flows, slows and pounds on the metal roof above me; I lie listening. When it’s just a whisper, I can hear the hum of Peter’s saw, and the thump of his single-bit ax. I walk out to the logging site in the early afternoon with my notebook. On an old-growth stump sprouting huckleberry in its second life, I see Peter’s coffee mug that reads, “sawdust is man glitter.” The Canada Geese call, harsh and exciting. The Crowned Kinglets chirp. When I am writing, I notice more, I ask more questions. Peter asks, “Are you writing a book?” Father and son both want to show me things.
I take a video of Peter falling a tree on the bluff: an old open-grown fir tree called a hooter because its branches are good for birds. We are leaving the hooter next to it. He is almost finished, but he waves me over and instructs me to climb up in the loader and knock the tree down.
It is cold and pissing rain. I use Peter’s knee and a pile of branches to get onto the loader’s tracks, then up the metal ladder. Young Peter tells me which joysticks move the shovel in the right direction. A few swings knock the tree to the ground. With the grapple, I move it to a clear place for easy delimbing. I am nervous, excited, out of my element. Totally new, these movements are large, not subtle. Expansive. Room for breath and thought and limit testing.
We will plant this year’s cut next spring. By March, fir, cedar, and pine seedlings will be growing at 9 feet intervals across twelve acres of land. We will start a new forest. Dad has been calculating the number of seedlings we’ll need. 1970s calculator, a yellow legal pad, and a sharp pencil are his tools. We’ve decided to plant Western White Pine, Western Red Cedar and Douglas Fir. The cedar and pine are resistant to laminated root rot, present in the soil and exacerbated by climate change. Douglas Fir is not, but we will plant it in the ashes of burn piles in hopes that some will survive.
The trees grow, clean water flows, and deer, grouse, elk, and bear make the forest their home. The shade cools the salmon streams, and the growing branches act as carbon absorbers, soaking up light from the sun and carbon dioxide from the air to make sugars for their energy. No fertilizer, just one application of herbicide in 80 years of a stand’s life. Dad’s pickup has two bumper stickers: Wood is Good and Family Forests are a Salmon’s Best Friend.
In the months that made up the year after my brother died, I memorized poems. I repeated them aloud as I put one foot in front of the other on forest trails. Words written down and folded to fit into my fleece pocket. Rain splattered, muddy, they live in the back of my notebook now—and in my breath and the back nooks of my mind—to be brought out when I need to ease restlessness. Mary Oliver and Emily Dickinson have become my internal friends.
“After a great pain a formal feeling comes.” (ED)
“I wanted to thank the mockingbird for the vigor of his song.”(MO)
“Tell the truth, but tell it slant.” (ED)
“The world offers itself to your imagination.” (MO)
Dickinson’s work still resonates—I’m not sure whether it stays because of its darkness, or despite it, but there’s a certain slant of light that oppresses like the heft of cathedral tunes . . . When my mind is racing, my pillow overly warm, I can summon the rhythms of these words and breathe them down to my toes. Arriving at the last stanza,
When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, 'tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –
I am in the shadows as they hold their breath, and see the slant of light come and go, leaving its distant mark. This mark is on Steve’s face as I lie beside him and Lou Jean the night he’s died. I touch his cheek, tentatively. I lay down next to her as she snuggles him. She’s put his wedding ring on a chain around her neck. His grimacing, moaning and grasping—so hard to witness—has subsided to a look of softness, distant, but merciful.
Emily’s crisp rhythms allow me access into the room of death, and they create a structured entry and a way back out. The repeated soft “ths” soothe me, and create a cocoon in which I can slumber. It’s a fertile space, dark and warm and powerful.
On the day that marks a year, I drive with Lou Jean and my husband Tom to each parcel of Cowlitz Ridge Tree Farm. We are in Lou Jean’s black truck. From the rearview mirror hangs an eagle feather, a gift from a Hopi healer, one of the many healers on Steve’s determined quest to rid his body of cancer. Next to my feet is a small shopping bag, “Taxco Sterling.” Originally, it held “pretty shiny things” for Lou Jean from Steve’s family forest advocacy trips to Washington DC. Now it holds some of Steve’s ashes.
We drive east on Highway 12. Limby fir and sprawling big-leaf-maple line the road. Past the blueberry and tulip farms, up the hill to “Mossyrock,” the largest of the timber parcels Steve loved. Lou Jean suggests we spread some ashes in the twelve-year-old alder stand planted in an old sloping field. The slope allows rain to slowly feed the alder roots. The sunlight passes through their oval leaves and patterns her tie-dyed t-shirt. Lou Jean reads a few lines of Wendell Berry, one of Steve’s favorite authors:
|And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.|
Elk have roughened the bark of the slender alder stems with their rubbing. I uncurl my fingers and my handful of ash sifts down over the previous autumn’s crumbling leaves. My palm, now empty, is still covered in a gray gritty dust. What do I do with it? To wipe it on my jeans seems crude, disrespectful. I just keep my hand open and still, not wanting to disturb the dust’s pattern along my lifeline.
Down the grassy road back to the truck, we walk through firs that Steve planted thirty years ago. It’s easy walking; lower branches have fallen away; the upper branches shade out underbrush. Only the sounds of ravens, hawks and squirrels break the silence. As I lock the red gate painted last September with Dad, I pick a trailing blackberry. It stains my fingertips still coated in Steve’s ashes. I lick them and make a fingerprint at the top of the first page of my spiral notebook. I am taking notes. I need this day to stay with me forever. I must own this day and share with those who feel the hole of Steve’s death.
We head back west on Highway 12, windows down, hot air blowing our hair. Up Jackson Highway to “Callison,” the last place Steve supervised a harvest of fir, hemlock, and cedar. Tom reads Berry’s words:
“learn to be at home”
float in the air with thistle fluff. I take another handful of ashes to the cedar log where Dad, Lou Jean, and I, earlier this year, ate smoked oysters and saltines, resting from our work of slash burning, boundary marking, and tubing newly planted cedar. I sprinkle my ashes around the log so Steve can join us next time. Though I want them to stay visible, the ashes disappear into the dusty gravel and browned grass.
Callison is also the site of a yearly bounty of chanterelles hiding under waist high Salal. “Steve always found the most,” says Lou Jean. We soon locate one of Steve’s favorite mushroom picking spots. I read Berry’s words:
“journey of one inch,”
and they mix with the ashes. Here, the dust from my ashy palm stays visible on the green pointy leaves of Oregon Grape and Salal. After Lou Jean spreads her handful she shows me, in her open palm, a small screw. She says, “It’s a part of Steve. From his broken ankle. I found the plate earlier.”
Steve’s death is a raw wound in wet ground after a 100-year old cedar falls in a windstorm: broken roots, exposed rocks, soil that has not seen the sun for decades. But a year has passed, and in the hole from the wind-thrown tree, there is new growth—stronger bonds between those gathering round. The new growth is not a consolation. It just is. And this growth is nothing like the tree, but without the destruction, it wouldn’t be there. We will tend the tender shoots.
Simple Berry Buckle: butter, eggs, sugar, lemon, flour and berries. Picking the berries is the best part—Steve died with blackberry scratches on his hands.
And the vines still grow, trailing blackberries low to the ground. New vines stretch along the edge of a clearcut now filling with four-year-old pine, fir and cedar, and foxglove, mullein, and daisies. It was Steve’s favorite spot and is still full of fruit; next year the shade from the growing trees might not let in enough sunlight. The berries’ dark purple juices stain my fingers.
My favorite trove this summer is a broken-down cedar log, decaying for 50-60 years, its red flesh webbed with vines, each bearing five or six plump berries. A Pileated woodpecker drums nearby, a hummingbird whirs in the fireweed. I’m so determined to pick a berry hiding under a salal leaf, I get nettles on my chin. Steve feels so near I can almost hear him chuckling.
An hour of picking and my container is full. I walk back home in my hickory shirt and Carhartts, my arms and legs unpierced by the thorns. The berry juices paint the batter red. The oven that baked Steve’s last pie plumps and goldens the cake. Our fractured but mending family digs through cream to the warm buckle and finds Steve’s berries from the young forest.
Ann Stinson grew up on the Cowlitz Ridge Tree Farm near Toledo, Washington. She holds a BA in English from Western Washington University and an MA in East Asian Studies from Columbia University. She splits her time between Portland, where she lives with her husband, and Toledo, where she works on the tree farm. Her first book, The Ground at My Feet: Sustaining a Family and a Forest, will be published by Oregon State University Press in Fall 2021.
Originally published in Moss: Volume Six.