The Pacific Yew: Chasing a cancer cure with a chainsaw

  • A Pacific yew

    Joy Spurr photo
  • The Pacific yew's bark

    Joy Spurr

Above 4,000 feet it rained every day of the summer of 1993. On the Fourth of July, a long night of rain and wind gave way at dawn to a fine sleet that lay on the ground like snow, and didn't melt for nearly three days. We were somewhere east of Pierce, Idaho, on the Clearwater National Forest, and by July, we had been there over a month, working the yew-bark harvest out of a crowded communal pesthole of a camp on Lolo Creek.

Every morning at five the sawyers gathered in the rain and we loaded ourselves and our saw gear into a battered ex-Forest Service green truck - a "crummy' - and hurtled away in the dark up a maze of logging roads to the units where we were felling and bucking the yew trees. There were usually moose on the roads, and moose are unanimously convinced that the best way to escape a vehicle is to stay on the road where the running is easy. We would have to stop periodically and shut the truck off to give them a chance to settle down and drop off the shoulder. Once a young lion leapt in front of us at night, then sprang away into the blackness so fast that had I been driving alone I would have questioned whether I had seen it.

The units were marked with bands of blue paint or flagging around the big Doug or grand fir or western cedars. They ranged anywhere from 50 to several hundred acres, and were marked on our maps. We would get as close as possible in the crummy and then we packed saws and gas and food in the rest of the way. The job description was simple - line out across the unit about a hundred yards apart, cut down every yew tree thicker than your arm, buck it into firewood-sized pieces, then flag the pile with orange tape and move on. I wore a belt with gallon jugs of sawgas and chain oil attached, and a buttpack with rolls of flagging and tools for the saw, extra chains, a box of files, a couple of Milky Way bars, aspirins, a quart of water, a can of Coke.

Although there were a half-dozen sawyers, it was a solitary job. Once the earplugs went in and the saw started, the world shrank to a nimbus of exhaust and flying sawdust and the yew itself - its strange gnarled form, dramatic red bark, the dark, almost black-green of its needles. You looked up from the tree you had just finished, and started walking, or climbing, studying the forest for the next patch. I always began the day wearing protective glasses against the sharp twigs and the yew sawdust, which was a chemical irritant to the eyes, but after an hour or so the glasses were always knocked off, broken, smeared with oil from the chain, or simply impossible to see through in the rain. Vision was primary, both for maintaining good footing and for cutting and lopping the trees. Some of them were no larger than shrubs, others were big enough to catch you and twist you to death if you felled them just the wrong way.

Around nine o'clock, the peelers would appear. It was a shock, after being immersed in the sawing, earplugs in tight, to see these outlandish figures, clad in full rain gear, dragging grain sacks crammed with bark, drifting toward you through the pouring rain and misty gloom of the woods like a pack of zombies. There were 30 or more peelers, a mixture of wild woods hippies, outlaws in hiding, tough, shaven-headed street people recruited somehow from Missoula, Spokane, California, and a few college-student rock climbers looking to finance a swift return to Yosemite, the Tetons, or the Alaska Range. They were making about 90 cents a pound for the bark, which contains the cancer-curing taxol, and the best ones were peeling over a hundred pounds a day. (Peeling required a chisel or beehive tool, a stupendous tolerance for uncomfortable repetition, and for most, a big stash of dope.)

One afternoon, just before the sawyers' three o'clock quitting time, I topped a ridgeline and came upon the grandfather of all yews. We were somewhere in the Wietas country, working in a stand of old growth. It was a strange, fairy-tale place, cedars 10 feet thick, the forest floor as dark and bare as slate but spongy as a mattress with the accumulation of a thousand years of cast-off boughs and shed bark. A few stalks of false Solomon's seal shone luminescent in the ancient shade, but most of the life there existed without benefit of sunlight - patches of ghostly Indian pipe, the fleshy washed-out orange of coralroot, dull-red amanita mushrooms. The big yew was about 40 feet tall, a kind of lone middle-story to the towering cedars. An owl flushed from its branches when I walked up to it.

It was a massive tree, a broad base dividing into three distinct trunks that were each about 15 inches through at the junction, and yawed away from each other slightly as they grew upward. Its bark was a mixed color of rose and fresh liver, with a complicated etching of silvery molds and tufts of brilliant sea-green mosses. The roots were exposed for 10 feet around, and were gripped around a peculiar white boulder in an otherwise loam- and duff-covered forest floor. I knew that yews were one of the slowest-growing Western trees, and this one must have been witness to hundreds of years. In a way, I was afraid of it. I did not want to be responsible for knocking down that tree. A group of peelers emerged into sight far down the long slope. I reminded myself that I was being paid $120 a day to saw. I notched the tree, made my backcut, and let it tumble down the among the big cedars.

After the tree was bucked up and the peelers had descended on it like happy locusts, I pulled my earplugs, shouldered my saw, and set out for the crummy. After a while I crossed paths with another sawyer, a friend, like me a refugee from the Deep South, like me caught in the endless hand-to-mouth cycle of woodswork, treeplanting, logging, thinning timber, picking cones, sawing yew.

We had both come to the work for the love of the woods, and after failing to adjust to more structured jobs.

"You know," I said, "I think I just cut down some kind of big sacred altar."

"You mean, like a big old yew?"

"Yeah," I said, "I feel like I just got myself cursed for $15 bucks an hour."

We came down through the old growth, and all around were piles of peeled yew wood, startling white against the muted greens and browns of the woods. As far as you could see, piles and piles, scattered just like bones. "Just like bones," said my friend. We hit the toe of the slope and started looking for the faint trail that led to the road. There were piles of stripped yew everywhere. "Bones, bones, bones," he sang, "buffalo bones, grizzly bear bones, yew tree bones." He stopped singing. "It's like a big old sign that says, 'Whitey Was Here.' "

When we got to the crummy, we threw our gear in and stood around smoking, drinking Cokes, waiting on the other sawyers. A blue-and-white Chevy pickup pulled up behind us and a big man hailed us. "How much longer you guys got in here?" he asked. Neither my friend nor I knew for sure. "Well," the man said, "Tell your boss he needs to kick in the damn four-barrel on this job. We're bringing the line machine up tomorrow and want to start logging this unit before the weekend."

A belt of clouds swept in, and the rain started up again, hissing into the mass of the forest. I looked back up the hill we had come down, and thought of those big trees falling, the roar of saws and diesel engines in that cathedral of ancient timber. I thought of the sunlight, coming down harsh and unfiltered on those ghostly plants, on that ground that had been shaded for a millennium. I didn't want to be a part of that. On the other hand, I liked this part of the country, the $10 hotel rooms above the bar in Pierce, the fishing in the Clearwater River and up Kelly Creek. The yew bark harvest wasn't going to last forever. "Hey," I said to the man, "you need a good choker setter and landing man?"

Hal Herring writes from Corvallis, Montana.

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