First Contact: Menagerie Mythos

by Erich Reeder

Giant Redwood trees in forestA little more than twenty years ago I was sitting at a sidewalk café on a sunny afternoon in Washington D.C., when an older balding man in a suit approached and suddenly asked with an ugly snarl, “What’re you, a goddamn tree hugger?”  I was surprised and don’t remember my exact response, but it was probably short and the man went away.  My brother, who was off getting us a couple of drinks, returned and I repeated to him what had just happened.  “Don’t worry about it,” he advised. “This town’s full of frustrated political jerks now that a Democrat’s in office and they’ve all got to find new jobs.  He probably just didn’t like your shirt, that’s all.”  
        Looking down I saw the two images on the shirt I was wearing: one depicting the extinction of the dinosaurs by the chance hit of a great asteroid, the other depicting the ongoing extinction of the current world’s species by human activities in the form of a great smokestack billowing out black clouds.  My brother was probably right of course, but still the man’s outburst seemed strange to me.  It wasn’t what he said or how he said it, but where he said it.  Here we were, sitting in the Nation’s capitol, in the midst of that vast land of concrete and steel, asphalt and glass, patches of grass and mountains of trash that makes up the conglomerated megalopolis of the East Coast cities, and here he throws out this term “tree hugger.”  To my brother and I, that expression took us back to Oregon, our native state, where we’d spent summers backpacking into some of the last remaining native ancient forests of North America, and where it was a derogatory term used by the timber industry to define and slur those people who felt it was worthy to protect what was left of the great forest and who, yes, were known to hug a tree every now and then out of unabashed love.  A tree hugger in D.C., now that was another thing altogether, after all what was there left of the primeval natural world to throw one’s arms around?
    It occurred to me then and later, that the great majority of American citizens, largely urbanites, are personally unfamiliar with the magnificent forests of the Pacific Northwest, and thus when it comes to issues concerning those forests, they’re seen as the media portrays them — as a simplified struggle between two opposing factions of people, “environmentalists” versus “industry” — and so the forests themselves and all that depend upon them get lost in the debate.  This is unfortunate. Because it is in fact the great forests and the extraordinary life they nurture, and what they have to offer us and those to come, that is what we really should be talking about.  And the real question — whether or not the native ancient forests still left have some other value beyond dollars and cents — cannot be answered during Happy Hour in the teeming asphalt jungle of an East Coast city and remains an abstract argument until one actually visits them, preferably alone and with an open heart and mind, and sees firsthand what they’re all about.  Then I think the answer will come of itself.

The first time I entered an old growth forest I was ripe for one.  I was living in a city in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and it seemed to me it had been gray and damp forever.  I’d also recently broken up with a girl who’d gone back to her old boyfriend, and everything was kind of bleak and depressing.  The man-made world and all of its runaway distractions offered little solace to me with its skin of hard pavements, its polluting traffic, its obsessions, its corrupt governments, its armies and wars, its time-clocks and cops, its garish advertisements and self-important commerce, its walk-don’t-walk rules, its cowardly crime and violence, its media, its competition, its clamor and noise, its deceit and pettiness.  I was sick and tired too of being a part of it all, of caring, of trying to find a way and missing.  I didn’t know what I needed, but I knew I needed something else.  It was then that my friend the poet Ken Day told me, “You need to get up to the Menagerie, that’s what you need to do, and stop moping around this puppet show.” He said it was a place where few people ever went, with a trail leading through an ancient forest that had escaped the saws of modern man. “Just go see for yourself, then you’ll know what I’m talking about.”  He scribbled down some directions on a scrap of paper and I put it in my pocket and we talked of other things and soon I forgot all about it.  A few days later though, I came across that scrap of paper again and remembering what he’d said decided without another thought to go see what he was talking about.
There were sheets of rain passing all through the Willamette Valley that day as I pointed my old car east, following the Santiam River up towards its headwaters in the mountains.  The wide-open grey skies of the valley shrank as I drove up into the foothills until just a narrow jagged slash of sky remained above the sharp-rising walls of the forested canyon.  The river below, swollen by the recent spring rains and melting snow, cascaded down a rushing white through a steep gorge green and lush with moss and fern, slowed here and there in pools cold and clear, swirled and spun and fell on-crashing through logjams and great smooth boulders only to pool again and again in its ageless way down to the valley floor.  From there it would merge with other creeks and rivers draining west out of the Cascade Mountains, all of them adding their waters to the Willamette River and then later to the mighty Columbia to finally return once again to the Pacific Ocean some 300 river miles away.  The rain fell and as the skies had closed in above me a sense of mystery and solitude had grown, as well as a tinge of apprehension.  I hurried on.  It was already close to mid-day, with only a few hours of light left, and I was looking for a place I’d never been before.  Around a curve in the road I spied a small wooden sign marking the trailhead, pulled over and parked by a tumbling creek, got out, and walked into the forest.
I’ll never forget it.  The entrance was a close tunnel of thickly woven vine maples, enormous moss-draped big-leaf maples and tall ferns all in their new green of spring.  The rain was still coming down, but under the forest canopy there was only a fine gentle mist falling.  The earth beneath my feet was spongy with moisture and the decay of fallen leaves, and a great spotted banana slug, six-inches long and thick as my thumb, slimed its way across the path.  Stepping over it and coming out of that living tunnel, I climbed as the trail began to wind its way up and suddenly I found myself in an entirely different forest with an entirely different atmosphere.  The vast silence and stillness of the place made me stop in my tracks, but it was the overwhelming sense of space and time that I remember best.  It was as if I had stepped across some invisible threshold into a lost world.  Tall Douglas-fir trees pushed the ceiling up over 200 feet, and the light that came down through their branches with the mist was diffused and glorious, illuminating everything equally in a soft light.  Flowers growing at base of RedwoodThe great furrowed trunks of the firs swept up straight and majestic, spaced widely about the forest like mighty columns. At their feet grew twenty-foot tall rhododendrons, their large clusters of flowers in full bloom creating a multi-dimensional layer of pale pink above a sea of waist-high ferns.  Small berry vines interlaced the path at my feet, while others grew up in arching canes, their trumpet-shaped blossoms a sharp magenta against the bright green of their leaves.  Here and there as I walked along, the white three-cornered star of the trillium flower caught and threw back a pure and radiant light.  Some strangely shaped orange and yellow flowers, columbines, lived there too, hanging from their long stalks like tiny, intricate Japanese lanterns above a lush bed of clover-like wood sorrel, their heart-shaped leaves beading droplets from the fine mist.  There was no reason to hurry now.  My friend had told me the trail led to a peak some 2,200 feet up from the trailhead and that’s what I’d been shooting for, but in that incredible primeval garden of the mountain rainforest, I was in such a state of growing wonder that all thoughts of hurrying anywhere vanished.
As I continued up the trail, I began to notice more and more, each new observation a delight.  Various forms of moss covered the rocks and ground beside the path, thriving on the moisture, each with its own interesting pattern of growth; some like miniature ferns, others with small telescoping star-like designs, and still others as smooth and soft as the plushest velvet.  Each clump and patch of the moss possessed various hues of the most intense and luxuriant greens interwoven with intricate highlights of gold, crimson and purple.  Far above and on a much greater scale, western hemlocks, their droopy tops dripping, stood about the forest in little groups, their moss and lichen covered branches spread out in layered splays tipped with bright green sparks of new needles.  Large noble firs, more solitary, grew here and there among the Douglas-firs, their symmetrical crowns rivaling those of their cousins.  A couple of slick black ravens soared among the treetops, appearing and disappearing from the mist, their croaking calls muffled by the absorbing hush of the forest.  Little streams came gurgling down from above and crossed the trail forming small pools where grasses, berry vines, yellow violets, and delicate, black-stemmed maidenhair ferns grew among the wet rocks.  Further up the trail, the mist turned to actual clouds that hung suspended in the air among the upper branches of the tall trees.  Crossing a ridge and looping around and up the other side, the trail became rocky and the earth took on a reddish hue, the trees were smaller and let in more light, the flowers and most of the ferns disappeared, the underbrush stiffened, a few pines grew here and there, and a slight wind began to blow.  I noticed that my hair and shirt were wet through from the falling mist, but with the effort of the climb the coolness only added to the splendid feeling of it all.
Then, as the trail followed the ridge up I began to hear what sounded like someone slowly beating on a drum.  Thoomp, thoomp-thoomp-thoomp-thoomp.  What the hell, I thought, imagining some hippie survivalist camped out there tapping on a conga drum.  Thoomp, thoomp-thoomp-thoomp-thoomp-thoomp.  I stopped and looked to my left, trying to locate where it was coming from, but then it too stopped.  As I started to walk again, it started up as well and then was joined in by another drum to my right.  Thoomp, thoomp-thoomp-thoomp-thoomp-thoomp.  Thoomp, thoomp-thoomp-thoomp-thoomp-thoomp.  Again I stopped to listen and again there was silence.  Thoroughly puzzled and in a heightened state of awareness, straining my ears, I began to slowly and carefully continue up the path.  Suddenly a flurry of noise and motion exploded on either side of me, startling me into a panicked crouch.  I caught two dark shapes whirring quickly off through the forest and felt my heart beating hard in my chest.  I stood back up and began to breathe again and then I began to laugh.  Damn grouse!  So that’s what they sounded like.  I waited there another moment, feeling both foolish and exhilarated, while once again silence and stillness returned to the forest.
Shortly afterward, the path led down and into a dark cavernous grove of hemlocks that all but blocked out the light.  As my eyes adjusted, I realized that from here the path shot uphill in a series of switchbacks.  I looked at my watch.  I’d been in the forest for two hours now and the sun would be setting in little more than another.  I knew that going down would be much faster though and the thought of exploring further into the heart of that wild place and perhaps getting to the top spurred me on.
Up and up and up the trail went and I began to get anxious about the amount of light left.  Stopping to catch my breath, I’d look at my watch and give myself another fifteen minutes, then another ten, then another five and absolutely no more.  Then another three.  Just before I stopped pushing it beyond what I already had, I was there, atop the ridge, with two great pinnacles of solid rock rising into the close gray sky before me.  I turned off the path and climbed a small hill beside the rocks for a better view and sat down in the drizzling rain.  They stood monolithic, huge blocks of stone, remnants of a long past volcanic event, wrapped in a living sea of blowing mist-clouds, water dripping off their mossy flanks, sculptured orange-skinned madrones arching up gracefully at their feet, rhododendrons abloom among ferns beside them and the shining crowns of firs and hemlocks reaching up from far below.  I sat in the falling mist, the scene reminding me briefly of some ancient Chinese painting and then, thinking of nothing, nothing at all, a powerful sense of the timeless natural beauty that I was now in began to awaken within me the most profound feelings of awe — an awe not just of the beauty before my eyes but of what was behind it — of a living, breathing, dynamic universe with a time, space, and wisdom so vast and deep as to be unknowable, yet was neither cold nor distant but was here and there everywhere, within and without, alive as surely as I was alive, real as rain and familiar as home.
Soon afterwards, running back down from my perch by the pinnacles, the steepness, narrowness, and slickness of the trail made controlling my momentum and balance hazardous, but the light was dimming and there was no other way.  Occasionally I would stop to catch my breath and let my legs rest for a few seconds and the hush of the darkening forest would set in again.  It was absolute.  I imagined a mountain lion there watching me, hidden and ready to spring, his predatory instincts perhaps triggered by my running.  The hairs on the back of my neck stiffened to think of it.  Then I began to laugh aloud, thinking of the simplicity of it all, how in the city everyone carried around their lives as if they were made of fragile porcelain, long life a lifelong aim, the fear of death an underlying constant but death itself an abstraction.  Out here, beyond the man-made world and its self-obsessions, death was real, and as essential a part of life as birth, everything in a great regenerating cycle from the oldest stone to the tallest tree to the smallest insect or colorful patch of moss.  Me included.  No philosophies or grand elegies needed.  This feeling did not make dying seem more attractive, just the fear of it small, clutching, and ultimately ridiculous.  That I was alive at that time, with everything in the forest, even and especially with a mountain lion that might want to make a meal of me, that was the great miracle.  So despite the growing darkness, I couldn’t help laughing and hooting while running, or rather jumping in big flying leaps down the trail.
The path dived and turned through the forest, through the mist, until finally I was back in the wild rhododendron garden and knew I had time to walk the rest of the way.  The sharp, rich scent of firs and wet, fertile earth filled the cool air and I breathed it in deeply.  My sense of coming upon a lost world gave way to the much more real and powerful sensation of being within, and a part of, a living world, rare and vital, that continued to thrive patiently through windstorms and snowstorms, flooding rains and droughts, fires, pests, and even man’s misguided ambitions, all the days of all the seasons.
With muted hoarse crawk-crawks a pair of ravens broke the stillness of the darkened forest and flew off to find their roosts for the night, and I followed their lead down the trail and back out through the moss-tunneled exit to the road.  I’d been in the ancient forest for only a scant few hours, and though I knew I was the same man, more or less, and that it was the same world, more or less, I knew then too that nothing would ever be the same for me again.

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