Good Wood

Sojourn in the cedars

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Like many greenhorn trail crew leaders before me, I did not endeavor to undertake my inaugural worksite encounter with an ancient grove of super-sized Western red cedars without briefing myself thoroughly on the signature structural and spiritual characteristics those shaggy-topped “transformer” evergreens have long been known to possess.

I soon surmised just how powerfully useful and life-affirming our most deeply revered and culturally valuable endemic conifers actually are.  

Tree-hugging the scaly-rough columnar girth of a 200-foot fir or a hemlock is one thing. But if it’s the elegantly fluted, garage-sized trunk of a shinglewood arborvitae that you’re aiming to wrap your grubby meathooks around, then you better be ready to dance.

We were hard at work clearing rock slides, rebuilding washouts, reaming out clogged culverts and generally sprucing up a heavily eroded Forest Service pack trail that accessed the Marmot Pass area in Olympic National Park through a remote river canyon somewhere in the so-called “rain shadow” side of the peninsula when the aforementioned formative phenomena began to occur on a regular and ever-intensifying basis. 

The first ancient giant we encountered quickly became impossible to regard as anything less than one of the finest, most human-friendly trees any of us ever had the good fortune to rest, relax and cook multiple variations of SRE (Spam, Minute Rice and Egg Beaters) under. 

But all those sheltering branches and boughs weren’t reserved just for me alone. All 12 of us (everyone on the crew) somehow managed to pitch our tents below the naturally weatherproof canopy of that thing. Not only did it help protect us from increasingly inclement skies, but it also smelled downright aromatic in there.

While luxuriating among those cozy communal confines along the river in all that rarefied, cedar-scented open air, we were soon appreciative to find ourselves buffeted against unseasonably heavy rain showers mixed with intermittent sleet and the occasional raucous outburst of pea-sized hail. I suffered nary a single discernible raindrop on my tent, while the weather station in Quilcene measured more than five inches of precipitation that week.

The second ancient giant we encountered—the one that really got the tree magic going—was actually dead as a post and moldering slowly away on the a mountainside about a mile up the valley from our camp. We didn’t need it for shelter, but we did end up utilizing its heartwood for building materials and spent the better part of three days splitting up planks for a bridge we were repairing.  

Not coincidentally, for three consecutive nights during this exhumation project several participating crew members and I found ourselves visited by a series of powerfully vivid and uncannily interconnected dreams—dreams in which our living spirits were pulled out of our bodies, absorbed directly into the roots of a giant cedar tree and promptly spat out into the river, where we were free to dart and swim at impossibly fast speeds down through the forest and into the sea. 

Although we didn’t share these dreams with each other until after we’d moved on to another trail project in the North Cascades many weeks later, it turns out no fewer than seven of us had experienced (or somehow been pulled into) that same exact dream. Tree magic, indeed.

National Arbor Day is Fri., April 25. To find out more about the tree-planting, tree-loving holiday, go to http://www.arborday.org

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