There are two ways to see the interior of a thousand-year-old Douglas fir. One is to mill it, where it will smell of fresh, powder-burned wood and will be hot to the touch from the band saw. The cut will be straight, an artistry of mechanics, something a shadow will fall flat against. The other is to walk into the Olympic Mountains in Washington, where wind has chosen the largest fir and ruptured it near its base. It will have collapsed into a wreckage of slivers and knots.
It will leave splinters in your fingers.
The heart of the tree will be red as salmon.
Podlesny emerges from the fir, sawdust in his hair, blades of
sunlight against his shirt. He tells me how it happened, the
kinetic energy, the explosion, the force of one tree taking down
another in the wind. He submits his arms to the sky when he talks.
In his story is a driven rain, streams of water cascading from the
canopy. His words carry the weight of the
"Look up into the crowns," he says. "You
can imagine the wrestling match they had, trees leveraging against
each other as they fell."
This Douglas fir had
stood with 3 tons of water in its bulk, so when it fell, it burst
open. It is a sculpture of cataclysm. A four-door sedan would fit
into the erupted remains of its trunk. The wood smells sweet where
it has split, and is damp to the touch.
come into the forest with packs, skirting the Elwha River to the
center of Olympic National Park. We plan to leave the trail after
25 miles and push into Godkin Creek. The creek is an emptiness on
the map where we will scramble across waterfalls and chip steps in
snow to a corniced peak. Podlesny belongs to this land. He's walked
all over these mountains, connecting summits to valleys, tracing a
pattern across the entire range.
We cross creeks
that carry the scents of snow and mountains down from a higher
place. We sleep in the moss. Clouds, the voice of the nearby ocean,
roam up and down valleys.
But, as I said, this is
not the only way to see inside a Douglas
Fast track to a
Jim Podlesny, millworker, 41 years old. He
was hired by Rayonier Inc. in Port Angeles, Washington, the year
wood pulp hit its worldwide peak price.
years, one month and ten days later, he lost his job when the mill
closed. There were cries of foul play against the company, against
environmentalists, the spotted owl and anyone within earshot.
Anguish was spray-painted on the inside of the mill like angry
He was among the last dozen to work at
the mill after the first 350 were laid off. Immediately he began
scavenging compounds on the company
Raccoons and cormorants had moved into
the structures after only a week. He thumbed through mechanics'
logs and took black-and-white photos of the interior, of older
machinery that dated to 1928. He climbed 300 feet up the recovery
tower and took pictures of the mill below. From the twilight
housing of sulfate digesters and bleaching tanks, he pocketed valve
parts and hunks of metal that he could use at home. Or pieces that
simply caught his eye.
The pulp mill history of
Port Angeles is a series of mergers, closings and receiverships
dating to the early 1900s. Mills opened and closed, slowed by
environmental regulations, sped by clear-cut
Under one name or another, Rayonier had
been a pillar of the town since 1927. The company supplied 10
percent of the town's revenue, dumped $60,000 into scholarships
each year, and another $40 million into the general economy. Six
hundred jobs, not actually on the company payroll, were directly
related to the mill, a symbiosis as complex as nitrogen-fixing
bacteria at the roots of a 200-foot cedar. The town and the mill
had melted together.
Then the supply of wood
abated. The price of pulp plummeted. Some locals said it had
nothing to do with the spotted owl and the Endangered Species Act.
There just weren't enough big trees anymore.
shortage was no surprise. In the 1970s, the government made the
unprecedented move of opening federal land to clear-cutting. It was
a way of flushing fresh cash through the economy, booming the
Northwest. The result was simple to predict: Once the forest is
clear-cut, second-growth timber will not make near the profits.
Rayonier Inc. knew this. Official predictions of it were published
10 years earlier.
When a Northwest coastal forest
starts from leveled ground, the biomass of greenery hits a peak
after 50 years. Wood, however, continues expansion for another 600
years. If you cut it before 600 years, you're only getting scraps.
The thing to do was to move to Port Angeles, make as much money as
possible off old-growth harvest, then brace for the inevitable
crash. But a lot of children were born in that time, mortgages
acquired, V-8 extra-cab trucks purchased, loans
When forests thinned, when certain regions
were closed to timber harvest due to declining spotted owl
populations, the industry faltered. Rayonier went from using 242
million board-feet in 1985 to 13.6 million a decade
Podlesny kept careful notes, each comment
and date and rumor that worked through the ranks. He witnessed
every step of the process because it was not merely pulp and jobs
and forest. It was history.
When he speaks of the
pulp mill his words are steam and darkness and steel digesters with
great welded rivets. People sweating, hauling, cursing; people with
short, powerful nicknames, and sons of sons of sons who have always
worked in the hiss and the groan of
There were, of course, those in the
community who were ecstatic to witness the closure. The mill's
effluent bore toxins of epic proportions. Sulfates and oil and a
brew of nasties spilled into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Sulfur
dioxide and ammonia escaped into the atmosphere at regular
intervals, altering the color of houses in certain parts of
The EPA has volumes of violations from Port
Angeles alone, naming Rayonier as the heaviest single polluter in
the state the year it closed.
entered the bleaching area or the room where hot caustic was
handled, his lungs went tight. But even as he describes stainless
steel so corroded by acids it looks like brass from a sunken ship,
his fingers stretch out and clutch at something, at the shape and
the age of the material, at its purpose and how the metal wore
against the onslaught of toxins. He'd lived in the underside of
civilization, in the smoke and
A cathedral of
Here, the underside of wilderness. We have
come off trail and steps are taken in half-light, down in the
fallen timber and webs of salal brush. Packs are removed, pushed
ahead. Handholds are trusted, abandoned, roots used as ladder
rungs. This is the steep-sided valley of Godkin Creek. Waterfalls
dance between a hundred fallen cedars.
looks like calculus folded over itself a thousand times, equations
of devil's club and liverworts and fat bog moss and red-stemmed
There is an orchid called fairy
slipper, Calypso bulbosa. Podlesny finds one of the small lavender
flowers growing solo behind a log. The dip and roundness of its
corm and its hood have the grace of Roman archways. Haida women
once ate these buttery corms in hopes of enhancing their breasts.
Considering the evolution of all plants and animals it is probably
one of the most architecturally advanced pieces of reproduction
It is here alone, its lip facing
the log as if the remainder of the world is of no
Godkin Creek has a tight bottleneck,
then opens to a flat valley just before the final stone headwall.
We come down on this flatness, balancing on logs hung over the
creek. If you take the inner wilderness of Olympic National Park
and hold it in your hand, your fingers will be the rivers, the
Queets, Hoh, Sol Duc, Quilcene and Skokomish. The lines crossing
your palm will be the Elwha and the Quinalt rivers. The very center
is a piece of land tucked into a hole, shadowed by mountain
We've come to that
This forest is a cathedral of red cedars
and Douglas fir. For every acre, 100 tons of water are suspended
off the ground in trees. Seven hundred tons of wood per
There is no sign of mountains beyond the
darkness of trees. Spiderwebs are cast like drift nets. Moisture
oozes from every hole and a fistful of squeezed club moss runs
water down the arm, lacing around as if it were blood. Most
nutrients in the forest are bound into the trees and are not
returned until the trees fall. A 30-ton conifer will hold 2 tons of
nitrogen and 3 tons of calcium. Once fallen to the ground and
saturated with moisture, large logs will take five or six hundred
years to disintegrate, all the while doling out nutrients to the
I am climbing through all of this life,
trying to keep up with Podlesny, searching for motions through
trees in order to stay on his route.
He is a
destination hiker, so familiar with long stretches of walking that
he does not tire until 12 cumbersome miles have passed. At 17, he
hiked the entire Appalachian Trail in five months, he says. Later,
he tinkered with the trail again, this time for nine months. In one
swoop he hiked from Mexico to Canada on the Continental Divide,
then added another 2,318 miles on the Pacific Crest
He is sparing in his rest stops, conscious
always of mileage and the losing and gaining of
We set camp in the darkness near the creek.
Five cow elk lumber downstream, crossing one at a time. When we see
them, we both freeze, holding whatever posture we've got. My knees
are tucked uncomfortably. Podlesny's hand is caught reaching for
the stove. Midway across, the elk scent something unfamiliar. Heads
turn. Ears perk. Their uncertainty is obvious in the way they
exchange glances with eyes alert, seeing who will react first. They
shift with suspicion and slowly retreat. That is when Podlesny and
I again breathe.
People who watched these forests become
lunar landscapes and who protested the dumping of toxic mill waste
tried to boycott Rayonier. But the product was not something you
The mill produced raw cellulose,
forced from wood chips in a 280 degrees Fahrenheit bath of sulfur
and ammonia. The pulp comes out in the form of thick paper and is
sold to unrelated companies; they dissolve and mold it into oil
filters, toothbrush handles, rayon fabric, chewing gum, kitchen
sponges, eyeglass frames, pudding thickeners, film and handy
To boycott Rayonier one would have to
abandon most amenities of civilization, stripping naked to
disappear into the wilderness.
Jim Podlesny hikes
in $2 garage sale boots and with a used $15 pack, a fair enough
boycott. But he does not own these as a conscious statement. He
understands products and resources and the extraordinary value of
every manufactured item.
He grew up in Lancaster
County, Pa., a region of Depression-era machinery and low-end
There he spun toilet paper onto
mandrels and cut it into rolls, manufactured mousetraps, paper
towels and hairdryers. He hoisted pig ladles of molten iron at the
Lancaster Malleable Iron Company.
He tells me
about a paper mill from when he was young, how after his shift he
would walk back and stare at the retired machinery, these hulking
forms in dim corners, trying to decipher how they had
Efficiency. Timing. The production and
working parts of a country. When I ask, he tells me that he does
not need to reconcile wilderness and industry. They lead in and out
of each other. Rayonier finally closed only 10 days ago and now he
is in the forest. I ask him about toxins at Rayonier and about
ethics, how he could live with these on his
"The paycheck," he says. "Too much is bad
for the world, but a human has got to make a living." For Podlesny,
the mill is history. The molten iron and toilet paper are history.
You can close your eyes to industry but your life is made of it. He
tells me that it is the path society has chosen, living off
cellulose pulp and steel.
Who is more part of it,
the maker or the buyer? The man who works at the mill or the
backpacker who wears the product?
The final roll
of Rayonier pulp came to the end of production Feb. 28, 1997. As a
woman moved left, a man lowered the roll of paper pulp, another man
moved across with a knife.
Behind him the pulp
slivered open. Cut paper folded to the ground like cake batter.
This was grabbed by another. The motions were fluid, practiced
thousands of times. With his free hand, the man on the lever lit a
cigarette that had hung in his mouth for half an
"That is poetry," said Podlesny. "The way
they move, it's just poetry."
A millwright took
a pencil and wrote THE END across the last fresh, white
Seeing all the
There is a rhythm to the forest. It does
not come visible until you've lurched off trail for a few
The rhythm is in the standing and downed
trees, patterns of waterfalls and the shadows of newly uncurled
ferns. The topography at the back of Godkin comes mostly from
fallen trees. It is a convolution of crossed logs and great
uplifted roots nursing new trees. About a third of the forest floor
is covered in fallen trees, coming to nearly 65 tons per acre of
decomposing wood. A quarter of the biomass in the forest consists
With matchstick geometry, downed trees
heap across one another, leaving caverns and catwalks below. Thirty
feet off the ground it is a balancing act to step from one fallen
tree to the next. Podlesny steps from log to log beneath me. They
are old, young, hemlock, spruce, fir, rotted, healthy. He calls
these trees related, says they were gathered here by a single
Then he flails his arms, describing the
windstorm, how it corkscrewed the forest until trees broke. The
wind came from the north - Alaska - and he names the islands and
mountains in British Columbia it passed over before hitting this
coast and routing up Godkin.
He parades over the
lattice of carnage. "It was just one tree," he says as he moves.
"It grew better than the rest and sent its crown above the canopy,
where the maelstrom grabbed it and knocked it over, taking its
neighbors down with it. That's why you see these good, healthy
trees down. And then these other trees," he teeters through the
hollow of an old cedar, "came down under them. You see which one
was first, then second and third."
He has a
calculator for a mind. He sees the working parts of everything. He
can weed out any phenomenon and find its source, its
We climb 4,000 feet to the lip of one of
the interior mountains. Snow cornices curl off the summit like
wisps of smoke. Elements seem naked and simple compared to the
forest below. Glaciers and stones slide into each
Just below the summit of Crystal Peak, a
small maple leaf has landed on a cornice, ushered here by an old
wind. It has been here long enough to warm in the sun and has
melted its way six inches into the snow. Left behind is the
cookie-cutter pattern of a maple leaf at the top of the
Olympic National Park and regulations in
surrounding federal land are why this forest has not been cut.
Otherwise, some way would be found to get in here; new roads or
helicopters. Certainly, as the industry has suffered, eyes have
turned this direction - hungry eyes.
Podlesny lapses into talk of board-feet and good lumber as he walks
I look at the forest and try to see
air filters and cellophane wrapping and toothbrush handles. I
search in these trees for the labor of a community, the income of
families. But the ends of the spectrum are so far
I see instead fading light between a
thousand trees, the swift creek tumbling into obscurity. Another
solitary calypso orchid dappled in purple over a lush floor of club
moss. We will always have big, dark secrets, but none will be as
big or as dark as this.
It would come so sweetly
to say that there is reconciliation between industry and
wilderness, or to say that they are in perpetual contradiction. But
this is not the place for such simple language. At its foundation,
industry is organic. Look at the people in Port Angeles and tell me
that it is not. The environmental, ethical issues with logging and
pulp mills do not influence the integrity of their
If the lives of people are organic, then the
forest of Godkin Creek and all surrounding valleys is the interior
mechanism of everything living. It is the blood. The genetic
strands. Standing here in the forest, there is no doubt of
Where the wilderness and industry meet is
an act of nature, indisputable, raw, and as entangled as an island
of storm-toppled trees.
Childs is a naturalist and author who lives in Crawford, Colorado.
His latest books are Grand Canyon: Time Below the River (Arizona
Highways Books, fall 1999) and The Secret Knowledge of Water
(Sasquatch Press, April 2000).