How Well Do We See?

I’m about to ask you to submit to the most feared activity in this great land of ours. We’ve all been through it and remember how innocently it can catch us off guard. It happens with the speed of a Black-footed ferret in prairie dog town, and holds you captive until it has sated its lust for your unbridled attention. I’m asking you to share a verbal “slide show” with me. It’s my family’s “Summer Vacation” to the Colombia River gorge near Portland, Oregon. I will wait an extra minute before beginning this sentence to give seasoned slide show veterans time to run! Not to worry Clark, Randy Quaid’s not on this bus!

After this trip, if the situation arose, I would move to Oregon tomorrow. We Virginian’s have endured hot, humid weather this summer, as have my new friends in Oregon as well. I know this because during my first conversation with an indigenous Oregonian, (that’s what you can call them) I learned no one had been outside for two weeks prior to our arrival, due to a rare but recent feud with humidity “melt down”. They said it is usually as humid in Oregon as it is not humid in Virginia. I think as age and humidity increase, one’s ability to cope, decreases. Thankfully, the weather in Oregon changed for the drier as flight 592 touched down in Portland, bringing 70 degrees with zero humidity. It was spectacular!

It’s always a thrill to be in a new part of the world for the first time. The Colombia River was no exception. Everything about it was a natural delight. Our domicile was on the Colombia where we spent our nights on water’s edge, listening to the sounds of people and nature through the darkness. There is a drive that leads you in a circle from Portland east to Bonneville Dam, one of 13 man made features along the river where you can cross and head back to your evening’s lair. The drive is nothing less than an exquisite cacophony of visual syrup that would tantalize even the sweetest tooth of a David Attenborough, E. O. Wilson or John Muir. But then… what else could one expect from the very trail once blazed by Lewis and Clark. Along with the natural features of the land, the people with whom we stayed have studied Lewis and Clark with great vigor making their interpretation of that journey, delightfully provocative, and insightful. Even after all this, Mt. St. Helen’s, Mt. Hood, the rivers, waterfalls, and streaking Peregrine falcons, I had not yet seen that which I had been summoned west to witness. The best was yet to come, waiting for me, around the next corner. 

I wear two hats professionally. I am an Interpretive Naturalist by way of college and an Arborist by virtue of my blue collar and sweat of my trade. I have an incurable desire to be around trees and birds, believe people receive indescribable benefits in the presence of trees especially those that are old, huge, decayed, broken, lightning struck, hollow, covered with fungi, half dead and never alone due to the myriad birds and creatures constantly reconnoitering for that perfect little condo or morsel of glucose rich phloem. Yes I get misty over majestic old trees, and my 4000 mile travel, across America was about to pay off with a vista only revealed earlier to me in National Geographic.

At the end of our day, on our mountainous return there stood a lone sign along the highway that I quickly interpreted as saying, “Champion something or other”, with an arrow pointing left. I hollered, “Bonnie, turn left”, which she did, along with all the cars behind us. We entered a tiny parking lot which after inspection became nothing short of the grandest cathedral ever created. We were not amongst the redwood or in the presence of the giant sequoias; instead, we were in the middle of the largest spruce / hemlock forest I had ever seen. Some of these hemlocks had cavities at their base in which 3 people could stand and all had to have been 150 feet tall, (my best estimate). All of these trees were present for one reason, to stand guard around the largest, documented, Sitka spruce in the United States. Let’s put this in perspective. The largest tree I have ever seen was a tulip poplar in Virginia. It has a 30 foot circumference. That’s a full circle around the entire trunk. That’s big by any easterner’s standards. Now let’s measure the spruce. If you were to lay a tape measure with 0 at the goal line of a football field, the same length of the tree’s circumference, it would cover 1/5 the length of the entire field. Can you do the math? Goal line to goal line, an American football field is 300 feet, or as we couch potato’s refer to it, 100 yards. 1/5 of 300 feet is 60 feet. The circumference of this spruce is 60 feet. I cannot describe what being in this tree’s presence was like. The buttressing trunk flare where it entered the ground seemed like an entire community of its own. There was evidence of many lightning strikes over the years echoing that it had duly earned some notches in its bark, but such is the life of an old tree. This one was very old; in fact its birth date was sometime around the year 1253AD. It Makes me think for a moment about trees and humans. When a person reaches the age of 100 we put them on the 6:00 news and talk about how wise they are and how we should listen to them because they have learned so much. We consider these people, noble, honorable and wise. We hold them up and say they are special. They have earned our respect. Through a process called core sampling, foresters know this spruce is 750 years old, that’s 14 times older than me, and is bigger and heavier that all the rest of the trees in the forest and the surrounding trees are no young pups. Should we revere this tree? Should we hold this tree up and call it special? Has this tree earned the right to live out its entire life and become a big pile of rich, organic earth someday? I think so, and I don’t think I was the only person that day who thought so.

Around this tree the park has built a board walk upon which people can walk comfortably and get close to its trunk, but not to close. Some humans have a curious relationship with trees and their pocket knives. Fortunately, our tree has escaped any testosterone laden adolescence’s scribble concerning his starry eyed bride to be. Keeping foot traffic off the tree’s root zone was also a prudent decision. What is it about this ancient giant’s haggard existence that stimulates me enough to beg your attention, and ask you how well we see?

Trees, especially ancient, majestic ones affect me in an emotional or ethereal way. I believe trees cause people to do things not ordinarily done during the normal course of a day. I have seen people chain and lock themselves to trees or lie in front of large tracked vehicles during a construction project, placing them in harms way for the sake of a particular tree. I know a place where a famous media personality, whose name you would know instantly, goes before and after difficult broadcasts. It is a public garden where he finds solitude amongst trees and plants. He says it refreshes him during times that are, at times, difficult to ponder. Trees give people special feelings that only they can cherish in their own way. This giant spruce gave me one of those experiences, one I have asked you to share.

As we stood on the deck surrounding the tree, others came by to admire this honorable giant. It was funny how quiet everyone was, I felt as though I was sitting in church or standing in a library. I could hear people whispering how old it looked and how massive its trunk had become. Everyone smiled or just looked in wonder, except one fellow and his friend. As I looked to my right I noticed these two, man and woman, and how close he was trying to get to the trunk. To do so he took what I thought was his walking stick and prodded the tree curiously but ever so gently, then moved around the trunk and repeated the affair. During this time the other person talked to him explaining what it looked like where he poked and other details about the tree. He would look up and down, side to side but never in one place for too long. His walking stick was about five feet long, bright white in color with a brilliant red tip. As I backed away to the railing he began to speak to his friend very softly but loud enough that I could hear. He told her it was the most beautiful tree he had ever seen and he saw its beauty and ethereal presence in a way that I never will, with no eyes at all. I was moved to tears as I am now, recounting the moment. As he spoke he wore a grin from ear to ear. He was enjoying his experience as much as I and would remember it as long as anyone that had ever seen the tree.

I guess the morals for this story are endless, so I will only belabor one quickly. I sometimes get mad at myself when I think the whole world revolves around me or that what I am doing is so important. I sometimes get angry with myself when I forget the Golden Rule or fail to wonder how it may be to walk that mile in someone else’s shoes or look at the situation from another person’s perspective. I’d like to thank my blind friend, and I wish I had, for reminding me that this is a beautiful, wonderful world filled with different people, all trying to do the same thing. We’re all trying to see the big trees, in our own particular way. That day on a deck in Oregon, it took someone with a special gift to help me see a tree, a little clearer. Thanks, wherever you are.

P.S. Next trip, The REDWOODS! See you there!

Copyright 2005 by Peter Deahl. All rights reserved.

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