Posted by Ken Campbell October 12, 2009 0 Comment 872 views

It wouldn’t be a National Forest without the wood. It’s worth remembering, in our headlong rush to be productive and efficient (two of the more odious yardsticks by which we might measure ourselves), that it is dangerous to destroy what we cannot create.

I was sitting by the campfire last night after the boy had gone to bed, watching the flames, listening to the snap and crackle of the burning fire wood mix with the gurgling white noise of the river. I brought the wood from home, scraps mostly, pieces of our old fence that I replaced earlier this year. I’ve been able to use a lot of the planks in other projects, but there were a significant number of them that were unsuitable for any application, other than fuel.

As the flames licked around the edges of one of the pieces I’d placed at the edge of the fire, the gray, dry wood curled from the intense heat. For a minute or two, before it succumbed to the inevitable, I watched the ancient grain buckle and bend, hanging on to it’s molecules for as long as possible, before being changed from a solid chunk of wood into something made of smoke and ash, without form or heft.

The fence had been there a long time before I tore it down, maybe 40 years, perhaps more. It had been cut from a log that had once been a tree, a living being growing straight and tall in the Northwest soil. All those seasons rising and maturing before it had been harvested, followed by decades of standing with its mates, nailed to a frame, enclosing the back yard that would eventually fall to me. And now, in a matter of minutes, it would disappear, gone forever in a brief shining moment.

If you believe all you read, you might think that logging is a thing of the past. Spotted owls, salmon recovery and all that. It’s not the case, of course, and a short trip down any gravel road in the Olympics will make that point. The trees we’re pulling out of there now are nothing like the ones that gave me that fence board though. Scrawny sticks, for the most part, hardly recognizable as kin to the giants that once grew in these parts. I’ve seen pictures of logging trucks that labored to carry a single section of a single tree, but that was then. Now, the toothpicks that make their way to market are much less in every way, and frankly, a little embarrassing.

I’m not throwing stones here. I enjoy working with wood and I know that it takes timber to make houses, to put up fences, or to have a camp fire. But there is a melancholy sobriety that comes with the knowledge that the slender 40-footers stacked for transport along the side of the Olympic back roads are the product of much labor on the part of foresters and scientists while the old ones, the gargantuan pillars that grew to 300 feet and higher, were something very different. Not planted by human hands, and something that we will never be able to duplicate.

The smoke curls up into the frigid night air, taking with it the proof of what came before, leaving no sign of its passing.

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