Falling and Always Falling: Twin Peaks and the Clear-Cut Landscape Matt Briggs
Although the fictional town of Twin Peaks is meant to be understood as a kind of woodsy American West anyplace, the outdoor shots were taken in the Snoqualmie Valley, nestled in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains only fifty miles east of Seattle—the area where I grew up. Watching the show over the years, I’ve often made a game of identifying the real-world locations of individual shots. But the thrill of recognition almost always brings with it a sense of loss, since many of the locations featured in the show are now gone or irrevocably changed. Indeed, the world represented in Twin Peaks—a world of lumberjacks and small town life—has slowly disappeared over the years, covered up by the creeping suburbs of Seattle’s Eastside, the McMansion planned unit developments, gated compounds, and some of the world’s largest tech companies: Microsoft, Expedia, and Nintendo.
When I grew up in the Snoqualmie Valley in the 1970s through the mid-1980s, it was a place very similar to the one depicted on TV, a rural place where fathers worked at dairies, in the mill, or cut timber. Mothers worked in diners or stayed at home. There were creepy neighbors who, like the Twin Peaks character Leo Johnson, were often out on the road with their eighteen-wheelers. The Weyerhaeuser mill featured in the show’s opening credits closed around the time David Lynch filmed Twin Peaks, in 1989—and by the time the show aired in the early 1990s, there was a Nintendo plant and a real estate subdivision larger than the original city of Snoqualmie called “The Snoqualmie Ridge.” The melancholic electronic music that accompanies the opening credits feels almost elegiac to me, an expression of grief for the loss of the old valley. Twin Peaks is set in the wilderness, and yet it is primarily a defeated wilderness that has long been exploited by industry, a fact Lynch underscores by setting the outdoor locations amid the devastation caused by a century of logging. It’s fitting then that ten minutes into the Twin Peaks pilot episode, the body of a girl named Laura Palmer is discovered at the foot of a massive stump.
The first time we see Laura Palmer alive and moving is on a videocassette tape discovered by Dale Cooper, the FBI agent assigned to the case and a central figure in the show. I vividly remember this scene from the first time I watched the show, but what captured my attention was not the foreground, where we see Laura laughing and hugging her friend Donna, but the background, which I recognized as a clear-cut on a Weyerhaeuser logging road in the North Fork Valley, looking out toward the Northern face of Mount Si. The site is now home to the massive Snoqualmie Ridge development.
Weyerhaeuser was the first logging company to actively replant trees and has been celebrated for initiating the American Tree Farm movement. Drawing attention away from the fact that they made their money by cutting trees down, they emphasized that they were also a company that planted a lot of trees, and called themselves “a tree growing company.” Of course, this was blatant misrepresentation. The company had, by the 1970s, cut down a great deal of the forests between the Pacific Ocean and the high divide in the Cascade Range. They were indeed in the tree growing business, not out of any sense of altruism, but because if they didn’t regrow some trees, there wouldn’t be any left to cut down.
When the first European settlers traveled north from the Oregon Trail in the middle of the 18th century, they encountered vast, ancient forests composed of unthinkably large trees. At first, loggers cut down trees near rivers and sent the timber down the river to be collected in enormous rafts and floated to mills. In the late 19th century, loggers began to cut railroads into the mountains to carry the lumber away. Ruthlessly efficient, they would remove the tracks behind them once they had extracted what they came for.
By the early 20th century, Weyerhaeuser had switched from trains to trucks as the primary means of moving timber, allowing the company to expand even further to previously inaccessible locations. This also made life easier for the loggers themselves, enabling them to drive to their work sites, enroll their children in school, and live in communities near the mill, usually located in a place accessible by highway, railroad, and rivers. I grew up in one of these communities. My friend’s dads worked either for dairy farmers, at the mill, or as loggers; my dad was a bus driver.
The first time you see a clear-cut, you wonder what disaster has visited the woods. A clear-cut is not a neutral thing; it causes dismay. The entire forest has been removed. Even the stumps of the newly shorn trees are ripped from the ground and either burned or carted away. The forest floor becomes a jumble of branches, stray logs, and potholes filled with leaves and brackish water—scars left by the treads of tractors that expose stones and decaying roots. A blackened stretch of burned forest seems benign by comparison. All that remains in the clear-cut are the silvered stumps too massive to be removed.
In a 1965 issue of the logging industry magazine American Forests, a writer named William B. Morse remarked that “A West Coast clear-cut logging area looks like—well, say it, it looks like the devil.” The carnage of these sites also drew the focus of environmentalists and nature poets. In his 1974 poem, “Elegy for a Forest Clear-Cut by the Weyerhaeuser Company,” David Wagoner writes,
The chains and cables and steel teeth have left
Nothing of what you were:
I hold my hands over a stump and remember
A hundred and fifty feet above me branches
No longer holding sway. In the pitched battle
You fell and fell again and went on falling
And falling and always falling.
Aside from aesthetic considerations, clear-cuts are also deeply destructive to the environment. They expose soil that erodes into creek beds. The creeks carry silt into rivers, diminishing their capacity and producing huge lowland floods, both during heavy autumn rains and when the snow pack melts in the spring. Growing up in the Snoqualmie Valley in the 1980s, I experienced “hundred year floods”—floods so severe and devastating that they theoretically come only once every 100 years—for three years in a row. Worse, the silt covers the gravel beds where salmon breed. And sure enough, most of the rivers in the lower Snoqualmie Valley have seen a precipitous decline in native salmon populations—largely to due to the destruction of their breeding beds from silt washed in from logging-related erosion.
While Weyerhaeuser does in fact plant some new trees, they are almost always trees of the same age and species, referred to as a monospecies, creating an environment that is completely unlike the ecosystem of an ordinary forest. This is called “second growth,” even if it is forest land that has been clear cut and regrown several times. The ranks of trees are the same size and packed so closely together that little light falls to the forest floor. Acidic evergreen needles hinder even the few plants that could survive the lack of light, resulting in very little species diversity. It is a creepy and unsettling experience to walk through the second growth, to take in its eerie silence and perpetual gloom.
And yet, having grown up in this area, I became accustomed to this kind of environment from a young age. Despite understanding the devastation of this process of clear cutting and regrowth, I find the fireweed, bracken fern, and foxglove that grow in the second growth forests beautiful (these are among the few species that can grow in spite of the restrictions of the environment). I like seeing the exposed edge of the forest at the end of the clear-cut where the wall of mature trees rises to the canopy. And I like being able to see the distant mountains and landscape surrounding the clear-cut. Clear-cuts are a marginal place between the privacy of the deep forest and the exposure of public access provided by logging roads and freeways. People often get up to no good in clear-cuts: high school students hold keggers, gun nuts might find an open spot to drink a case of Olympia and shoot empties. Occasionally while driving through a clear-cut, you can hear someone in the distance blowing something up.
Clear-cuts were also one of the places where the serial killers on Pacific Highway would bring their bodies. Gary Ridgeway, the Green River Killer, placed his bodies in accessible and semi-private places. One was at Exit 38 on Interstate 90 near Mount Si—not far from the clear-cut where Laura Palmer danced with Donna; standing there, you can see the naked peaks of the north face of Mount Si rising nearly a thousand feet from the valley floor. You can see clouds dropping drizzle, and above that a sun break.
A clear-cut converts the forest into a blank space. It reduces the land to its commercial utility: the forest has been vanquished in the name of commerce, and the space that once was forest now promises a possible future of human habitation and economic productivity. It is one step in the transition from the primeval forest that existed before human habitation to a new kind of ecosystem: the suburb. Entire new suburbs have sprung up in the areas between Seattle and Mount Rainier in land that had formerly held Weyerhaeuser timberland. And this suburban landscape, too, continues to transform, as residential land gives way to strip malls, convenience stores, parking lots, self-storage complexes, and billboards.
Before Weyerhaeuser began its clear-cutting, before any of this, a complex ecosystem known as the climax forest flourished in the Marine climate between the Pacific Ocean and the Cascade Mountains. The Douglas fir trees that grow in this region take hundreds of years to mature, and once mature, they can be hundreds of feet tall and yards around at their bases. Naturally fallen trees rot to form a dense forest floor covered in a thick bed of moss, and between the trees there is enough space that salmon berries, bracken fern, and sword fern grow in thickets. You cannot help but feel in a virgin forest that you’re in a location outside of time. The forest has been growing for thousands of years, and if left unexploited will grow for many thousands of years into the future.
In Twin Peaks, the transitional nature of the clear-cut is pervasive. The forest is beyond man’s domain—the realm of the subconscious and the locus of many of the show’s supernatural elements. In contrast, the clear-cut is man’s domain, the beginning of progress, and a rational space. By locating much of Twin Peaks in the clear-cuts of the Snoqualmie Valley, Lynch sets his story in a world transitioning from the primeval forest to the suburb and eventually death. Walking near my house south of Seattle the other day, I imagined how time might be experienced by someone who had lived as long as trees, and perhaps consumed food in the way that trees do, as a steady accumulation of sunlight and nutrients from dirt. For trees, days are minutes, and years are days. Around me, I could see what are sometimes called junk trees because of their lack of commercial value—the alder, maple, and cottonwoods. From the perspective of a Douglas fir, they would twist toward the sky and wither in the space of a few moments. Around me, the steady drumbeat of the ancient trees, the trees of the climax forest, Douglas fir, would gradually appear and mature. And it is this sense of smallness in the face of nature that creates the special brand of mysteriousness and supernatural suspense that Twin Peaks is known for. The fictional town is a location that reflects the tension between the fecundity of the ancient forests and the constant change of the new. The landscape of Twin Peaks represents loss inside of loss of loss.
Originally published in Moss: Volume One.