A ‘nature girl’ remembers a dying lumber town

  • Louise Wagenknecht with her first steelhead, May1961

    From 'White Poplar, Black Locust'
  • Part of the Hilt townsite today

    From <I>White Poplar, Black Locust</I>
  • The author's stepfather, in the logging woods near Wren,Oregon

    From <I>White Poplar, Black Locust</I>
  • Louise Wagenkneckt


I never got over Hilt. It is as real to me now, when it no longer exists, as it was when I was 3 years old, or 6, or 12. I see it, sometimes, with an aching intensity that will not go away, so that the little valley beside Cottonwood Creek comes back to me in dreams and memories, and lives, all of it: mountains, and streets, and 85 brown houses, and a lumber mill, shimmering in the summer heat across the railroad tracks.

I tell myself that Hilt was just another town, just a small part of a Western industry that ate its seed corn and died. This changes nothing. Hilt is still my home, though I lived there only 11 years, though I left it almost 40 years ago, though it has been gone from the map since 1974.

The valley remains, though the streets are vanished under grass, lost except to eyes that still remember where they ran. The valley remains, though the houses that covered the low ridges between Watertank Hill and Cottonwood Creek are gone. I remember the length of every unpaved street, the width of every board sidewalk, the colors of dirt in every alley. I feel the clinging gumbo soil of the open field beyond Adobe Street beneath my feet and smell the scent of wet juniper on the little hills beyond the ballpark, where yellow violets bloomed in the brief wet springs.

I remember how beautiful it was, this little world where every day we looked up at mountains covered with second-growth pine and fir, coming back from the fires and logging of the early 20th century. In my childhood, laden logging trucks still groaned down the long grade into the mill, bringing logs from somewhere beyond our skyline. The teepee burners glowed by night and smoked by day, and we smelled the sharp tang of bark burning, and in the mornings the little Shay engine pulled flatcars of lumber out from the mill and onto the Southern Pacific tracks. And we thought it would never end. We were children, after all.

By midsummer, Hilt Creek was a dying series of stagnant pools, but in the first warm days of April, it was still a stream, and long strands of black toad eggs, strung together by lengths of transparent jelly, appeared along its banks. Clinging to rushes beneath the overhanging banks, blobs of Pacific tree frog eggs floated. Western toads clasped each other in catatonic affection in the shallows; gravid female tree frogs hopped through the wet grass, pursued by much smaller males.

The meadow became a cacophony of peeping and croaking, which grew silent as I passed up the creek, then resumed behind me. I caught the singers, picked them up, let them go again. I scooped up their eggs and tadpoles in coffee cans and took them home and attempted to raise them, with varying degrees of success. The best way was to empty them into an old dishpan sunk in the mud below the faucet on the east side of the house. Algae colonized the sides; the toad eggs became little black commas, then tadpoles with quickly flicking tails, growing larger, and finally sprouting legs in August. Their mouths widened and their eyes popped up, until finally one morning they sat on the big rock in the middle of the pan, absorbing their own tails. The tree frog tadpoles turned green, the toads a mottled brown, before they climbed out and hopped away into the iris beds.

In Grandmother’s yard, I had always followed insects and spiders through the grass and peered into birds’ nests and into the golden eyes of the big toad who lived a sedentary life under the water tap on the side of the house, but now all nature began to exert a powerful fascination for me. I had always known there were ants, but now when I stood out in right field in the schoolyard, they were interesting, and I squatted down to look at them scurrying in and out of their holes. One day, another outfielder yelled, “Hey, Nature Girl!” as a ball was finally hit in my direction, and the name stuck.

In the summers, Daddy took us — sometimes all of us, sometimes just Elizabeth and me — into the endless maze of ridges and canyons, mostly belonging to the Beaver Creek drainage, where the logging took place. We saw giant loaders parked on the landings; we saw the spar trees on the high-lead side, draped with cables, a jumble of logs at their feet waiting to be lifted onto the trucks on Monday morning. We saw the big D-8 and D-9 Cats parked like resting dinosaurs on the flatter logging sites, “the Cat side.” We looked up and up at ponderosa pines and Douglas firs, over 250 feet tall, and listened while the afternoon breezes grew to a roar in their branches, and the swaying of their tops turned us dizzy as we craned back our heads and watched.

We smelled, for the first time, the tang of thousands of growing conifers and the soft wet smells of the disturbed forest soil, the turpenes of oozing sap on fresh stumps. We looked out over just-finished logging shows that seemed like the aftermath of a hurricane — the slash six feet deep on the ground and, standing amid the carnage, a few damaged “seed trees,” as they were called in the tongue-in-cheek parlance of those wide-open logging days. Fruit Growers Supply Co., the logging company which owned Hilt, was just beginning the second round of timber high-grading on its own lands. The Douglas firs and true firs and incense cedars left behind at the first go-around now fell, responding to the booming building business in California.

Fruit Growers’ Cats dragged logs down the creeks — “Nature’s skid trails,” Daddy called them wryly. It damaged the creeks, he admitted, but it was the fastest way to get the logs out, and the Company could do what it wanted on its own lands.

Driving home in the twilight, past the double ranks of great trees, black against the darkening sky, I felt very small and humble, and useless. How could I — or Elizabeth, or even Mother — be of any importance to Daddy, when he could come here every day? Why would he want to live in a house among dry foothills, when all this waited for him, where the trees spoke to the sky? We lived the lives of ants, never seeing all this; he lived a grander life, doing important and daring things, things that took skill and courage. He hiked alone through places roadless since time began and, with compass and clinometer to guide him, hung the colored flagging that would lead the way for the road builders and then the loggers. He watched the logs come out of the woods, and when he came back to Hilt at night he told us about the deer and bear and hawks he had seen.

In the fall, Daddy would bring home a buck and hang it up by its antlers in the woodshed. We watched as he delicately removed the skin with his knife, slicing carefully through bubbly connective tissue, never nicking the hide. Between hide and meat, the bloodshot tissue from the wounds spread, and he traced the path of the bullet from the small, blackened entry wound to the massive exit wound, where chunks of rib or shoulder blade often shattered into shrapnel. He pried the mushroomed bullet out of the flesh and examined it, showing it to us, to let us know what a bullet could do. Sometimes, if the buck had been gut-shot before the fatal heart or lung or neck shot, Dad spent a long time with a damp cloth, wiping the splatter of liver or rumen off the walls of the rib cage. Finally, he pulled a cotton deerbag up over the carcass and tied the strings securely under the buck’s jaw, to keep flies away.

The deer hung for three days — longer if the weather was cold. Before he left for work, Daddy draped the carcass with several heavy wool blankets, to keep it cool. At night, he took them off, allowing the carcass to breathe. Sometimes I went out into the woodshed in the dark and slapped the stiffened body gently, wondering at the hard, hollow sound of it. The head stared up at the rafters, dried tongue protruding, the hairy ears hard as rock.

In the 1990s, the Klamath National Forest began gathering data and writing ecological studies on the forest’s major watersheds. I sent for them and read them, and as I waded through the turgid bureaucratic prose, the gray winter landscape of eastern Idaho fell away, and I felt my own country come alive for me again and began to understand what had happened to Hilt and to all of us.

When its lands in the Beaver Creek drainage played out, Hilt disappeared as a town. The young trees growing on the old skid trails, and coming slowly up through the brush in the old burns, would never see the inside of the old sawmill. Long before they would make a two-by-four, the mill would be closed. Yet many in Hilt never saw it coming.

We had all been tied to the land and the fish and the frogs and the trees, without really knowing what that meant. That something was wrong in our ravenous consumption of trees and building of roads had long been camouflaged by the very continuity of life in Hilt. The logging trucks rumbled into the mill, and the lumber came out, and there was no end to it. Smoke rose from a hundred stovepipes and from the mill burner and hung low in the valley in the winter mornings. We thought it was forever, because it was all we had ever known.

As I read through the thick Forest Service studies, I felt a cold sadness in my stomach as I translated the jargon. We’ve cut all but a remnant of the old growth. Putting out all fires wasn’t a good idea. Our roads destroyed fisheries, and our big clear-cuts wiped out birds and animals we didn’t even know existed. We can’t get out the cut, and now we’re broke. For the Forest Service had thought that its timber program was forever, too, and only now, when it was too late for all the lumber mills that had survived Hilt, was it speaking the truth that a few Forest Service people had always known and had been smart enough not to talk about.

Louise Wagenknecht lives in Leadore, Idaho, where she raises sheep and works for the U.S. Forest Service.

This essay is excerpted from her new book, White Poplar, Black Locust, published by the University of Nebraska Press.

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