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for people who care about the West

In praise of ancient tree stumps

 

There used to be big trees here. Now, we have stumps.

Weathered, rotting, mossy and huge, at least 20 are scattered across my family's 14-acre farm in Snoqualmie, Wash. -- hunched in the cow field and hidden in the tangles of blackberry and brushy woods. We don't talk too much about them. Stumps are as much a part of this town as the rain. New trees sprout from them. Kids make forts in them. People steer around them with their lawnmowers. One of our neighbors leans old cross-cut saws against his stumps, but whether out of pride, irony or obliviousness to irony, I don't know.

We don't speak about the stumps, but they speak for themselves. Without a word, they relate a simple history of this place: Once upon a time, there were great trees here, and so there was logging and so there was a town. Behind that simplicity lies other, harder questions: How and why did all that happen, and to benefit whom? And at what cost?

Snoqualmie is a post-logging town; our old-growth forests are gone. This is not to say that either logging or the town have vanished, just that they no longer have much to do with each other. With the big trees cut, the mill closed a few years back. Second-growth logs still come out of the woods in a steady stream, but they are trucked away and milled elsewhere. Most people, including my family, work outside of town.

On their way out of town, the workers get their morning coffee beside a mural of vintage logging trucks, commissioned about the time the mill closed. Down the street is one of Snoqualmie's tourist attractions: a giant lacquered log on cast-iron milling equipment, enshrined under its own roof. Even on its side, the log towers, high as a small house. Sepia interpretive signs suggest that the log was cut long before we knew better. Only the fine print tells the truth: it was cut in the 1980s. Snoqualmie attempts to memorialize its history, making it misty and romantic.  But stumps bear witness to the complicated continuity of the story.

On our farm, we have a stump we call the Story Stump. It is hollow and charred, and when I run day camps, 10 children and I can crowd into it for stories. Once Coyote was going somewhere. He was walking through a forest. … Then Coyote got trapped inside a hollow tree, sniffing -- like the kids who listen to me are sniffing -- the scent of heart-rot and damp punk, and feeling the creak of the tree. It is easy, inside the stump, to imagine the old tree and forest, that world as it was.

But across the valley on Snoqualmie Ridge, it feels unreal. The Ridge is a master-planned town-from-nothing on the hill above Snoqualmie. Before the Ridge, Snoqualmie was a sleepy town of 1,500, growing by about 11 people a year. My family bought our farm just as the first stage of the Ridge went in, as I was leaving for college. Over the last 13 years, as I came back to the farm each summer to run my day camps, I watched the Ridge balloon Snoqualmie's population to over 10,000. It is hard, in those bald and shiny neighborhoods, to feel what used to be there. Even the air has changed.

I should say that the Ridge is a friendly place with great mountain views. Within commuting range of Microsoft, it has drawn educated people from across the globe to create a walkable, affluent community in a formerly depressed logging town. People like it there.

I should also say that when I drive through the Ridge, past the fenced ponds, bland lawns, and not-yet-cut patches of woods marked with signs saying FUTURE PARK, I am filled with a desperate desolation. I want to roll down my window and yell, "WHERE ARE YOUR TREES?" I know that won't help. I know I am being hypocritical: I, too, am a newcomer, even though I live on an old farm. I, too, spend much of my life on the highway and the Internet. And the old-timers in town haven't necessarily done right by the place, either.

It's just that the whole Ridge seems to suffer from some kind of environmental amnesia. Not only does it not have trees, it doesn't have stumps. There is nothing to remind the inhabitants of their history. Nature -- including stumps -- is relegated to nature trails. The neighborhoods are clean and separate. No one has to mow around any stumps in those lawns.

One little girl from the Ridge told me that long ago there was nothing but "dirt and rocks and woodchips." This was based on observation: In her neighborhood, before there are houses, that's what there is. With this view of history, there is nothing lost, nothing to grieve, no guilt, and no ghosts. A neighborhood grows from nothing. It's another simple story.

Still, I prefer stumps. Knowing what used to be here, even if I have to grieve its loss, helps me imagine a future that is more lush and magnificent than dirt and rocks and woodchips –– and more honest than the simple stories we tell of the past.

Becca Hall is working on writing her second novel and publishing her first one, both set in the Seattle area.