For Matthew Battles, an ancient tree prompts a question: who decides the fate of the forest?

Walking Road 302 in the Willamette National Forest in early summer, a dirt track, still gated and shut for the season. Up the road a trailhead emerges, blazed with a router-lettered sign: EXPERIMENTAL WATERSHED TRAIL. The map shows the trail rising through a sinuosity of switchbacks before contouring around the shoulder of the ridge to cross four headwater streams, which converge to flow out of the understory into Lookout Creek below. The switchbacks ascend the face of the slope with coiled energy through gardens of fairy slipper, whole Jurassic Parks of sword ferns bursting like fireworks. Everywhere, flakes and fragments of Lobaria lichen litter the moss. Trunks of giant Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) buttress the overstory, a colonnade hazy with mid-height hemlocks and slender red cedars. This is old growth in its glory, and the switchbacks climb the ridge past cathedral heights of midlevel canopy.

The trails like to tell stories; they encourage comfort, conduct the walker along in an easy cadence, a green-and-shadow strobing that blurs into forest. Trodden down and worn smooth, patted to firm soil punctuated by the boot-worn knuckles of roots, trails are scaled to our feet, shaped to our loping, bipedal transits. To go off-trail in the old growth, by contrast, is to enter another realm. Beyond the furling margins of a trail, our sense of scale is disrupted—the forest floor is a jumble, a living cloud: moss overlying latticed logs, the bodies of roots bottomless beneath the littered blanket of green. Shreds of nitrogen-fixing Lobaria lichen rest on the moist duff like forgotten handkerchiefs. Every surface photosynthesizes.

Although it seems frozen, the forest is in motion, even turmoil—every arc and angle speaks of gravity, strain, tension. The time scale of this drama unfolds remote from our own sense of lived time. At eye level, the base of an ancient Douglas-fir seems a ruin of shrapnel bark, scales and flakes and fragments, all seemingly piled for the pyre, a frozen explosion of bark-borne woody becoming. The bark’s fissures run deeper than fingers can find, shadowed cracks hung with filamentous hyphae and the catenary bunting of spiderwebs. More than two of my arm spans in circumference, the trunk’s cooperage seems ponderous, shambolic; peering upward, I see the shaggy pile of the tree refined into an arcing pillar, a swoop of wood, a mast of living tree whose first limbs erupt a hundred feet above my open mouth and staring eyes. Up above, the epiphyte-tufted limbs whorl into a canopy, a furred and chambered world; although the Lobaria lies in shreds around my feet, it’s out of sight high above. And the whole bole and bough of it stands in a swooping lean, out of line with any conceivable center of gravity; the very floor of the forest is tugged and levered upward, the sphagnum stretched taut as a tent, where the tree leans away from it. This tree is looking to lie down.

At eye level, the base of an ancient Douglas-fir seems a ruin of shrapnel bark, scales and flakes and fragments.

There is a life for the tree, and a life for the log. And these two states intermingle. Much of any standing tree, after all, is already dead matter—the heartwood, sealed with lignin, is by most accepted definitions inert. The tree treasures its death within itself, relies on it; the living tree is a habit worn by the dead, a cloak of vital tissue, ragged in spots, but nonetheless contiguous and communicate with itself and the world beyond.

Now, the trail levels out to contour the ridge through thickets of vine maple and wickerworks of bare and new-budding branches, over openings carpeted with last year’s leaf litter now faded to the color of old newsprint, sunlight falling through gaps in the canopy. Push through a thicket of vine maple—reedy, bending clusters of green boughs, converging in thick sunstruck tangles wherever the canopy has broken open—and come to a tight bend. Here the trail contours hard by a looming wall: the cut end of a great log, perhaps five feet in diameter, and smooth, the wood weathered to gray, its annual rings standing out in crosscut relief.

Having no appointment to keep, and ready for a rest, start counting the rings, outward from the heart. Working out from the sapling center, a count of one hundred barely gets halfway to the bark. At this point in its life, the tree started laying on wood in thin layers. Reaching two hundred, there is still a long way to go to the outermost. The layers diminish in width, now thinner even than the thumbnail that gauges them. The living, growing tree—which at the time it was cut might have contained 15,000 lbs of lumber-grade wood—in any given year would have been comprised mostly of a gossamer integument, this liquid layer of cells, this vital habit enrobing the heartwood. 299, 300, 301, though the count might have missed a ring here or there; 308, 309, 310 to the breaking bark.

As a provision of the Treaty of Utrecht, signed in 1713, France ceded the maritime provinces and the lands around Hudson’s Bay to Great Britain. In the Carolinas, English colonial militias aided by their Cherokee allies defeated the Tuscarora and seized much of their territory. Though the peoples who lived here already felt their presence in trade, displacement, and disease, this land, here—the Cascades range, the Pacific coast south to Baja—the northern Rockies, and the great plains stretching east beyond the Missouri River—had yet to be permanently claimed by any European colonial power. The U.S. Constitution would not be ratified for three quarters of a century. The Congress that it brought into being would create the Forest Service nearly two hundred years later, in 1905. The science of old growth was born here half a century later. And now, in this uncertain future beyond the cut, we finally begin to ask: is it not strange for governments to presume control over landscapes and organisms, beings, whose lifespans are greater than their own?

Matthew Battles is the editor of Arnoldia.

From “free” to “friend”…

Established in 1911 as the Bulletin of Popular Information, Arnoldia has long been a definitive forum for conversations about temperate woody plants and their landscapes. In 2022, we rolled out a new vision for the magazine as a vigorous forum for tales of plant exploration, behind-the-scenes glimpses of botanical research, and deep dives into the history of gardens, landscapes, and science. The new Arnoldia includes poetry, visual art, and literary essays, following the human imagination wherever it entangles with trees.

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