Ode To A Tree

In the 1980s my father decided to build a log house. We’d just moved from farmland to the woods and with no money, we decided to make a house the hard way.

The first tree was a tall, straight Douglas fir. I didn’t know that at the time. It was just a big evergreen. Dad was experienced and cautious so it took a long time to cut the notch and make sure the tree fell in the right direction. I was bored, holding my field guide to North American trees. Looking around, I realized I also needed a field guide to native plants. My father eventually said that I needed a field guide to field guides. Because stepping into those woods opened a whole new world.



My first task was to lean way back, craning to watch the far-away top of the tree for tiny tremors that said the tree was thinking about giving up. When I saw those minute movements become more defined, turning into swaying, becoming a distinctive lean, I was to warn dad so he could get out of the way.

Except that he had a chainsaw running and ear protection on. I remember jumping up and down, waving the field guide, screaming, ‘it’s going!’. He heard in time to get away.

When it hit the ground, the fall was the sound of thunder rolling up through the canyons, bouncing off the ridge, echoing back. It was the avalanche explosion deep into the ground that hit the soles of your feet and slammed upward through your spine. And that was just the initial impact. The tree bounced upward over six feet high, coming down to earth again with the thunder and echoes and impacts.

The air was full of the sharp smell of crushed needles, torn bark, sap, and flattened salal, ferns, and Oregon grape.

spring 10 002

Japanese Cedar

While dad took a break to smoke his pipe, I climbed onto the trunk. With a tape measure, I walked the length of the tree, hanging on to and weaving among upright branches. There was a whole micro-universe in those branches. Bird nests and spiders and squirrel holes and woodpecker marks. Moss that made the trunk slippery. Licorice root in its symbiotic relationship with moss and wood, and adding its anise scent to the air. Lichens that hung like gray beards.

spring 10 004

Silver-back Fir

In a small notebook I recorded the length of the tree. I measured the width of the butt end. And I flipped through the field guide until I found the name.

That first one. A Douglas fir. With the limbs cut off and the tree bucked into lengths, we got three long, straight logs.

With the old truck and a winch, the logs were laboriously pulled out of the woods where I then had to peel them. I quickly learned to do that immediately after felling. If the tree sat even a day, the bark dried and tightened and then you had to chip it off.

But fresh, the bark slid off in long strips, exposing a layer similar to snot, which is why the bark came off so easily. As I worked, that inner layer changed color. Reddened.

trees 003

Fir, cedar, alder, big leaf maple, vine maple, spruce

That first tree taught me to see my surroundings, to identify the differences in needles and bark and foliage. To name what I touched. To watch for those first small tremors. To mourn.

We cut a lot of trees for that log house, that never came to be.


That bottom log was the first one. Dad with dreams.

And then I started planting trees. Fir and cedar and oak and sequoia and shore pine. I moved on from evergreens to plant filbert and hazelnut and prune trees, sourwood and cascara, willow and dogwood. To will them to grow tall and strong.

property 035

The first sequoia many years ago

Back in those woods, there are now trees reaching thirty feet tall. Northern flickers and woodpeckers bore holes for bugs. Brown creepers run up and down their trunks chirping their autumn songs. Moss catches on. Roots sink deep into ground. Branches reach for the sky.

I wonder if, in their long, slow, dreaming seasons, they forgive.

icicle creek 022

The Screaming Woman

Have you ever been in the forest, in the mountains, alone, at night? No street light a block down giving a muted halo. No LED lights from sound systems scattered like stars around the room. No reflected red light from an alarm clock. No cell phone with a handy bright screen or flashlight feature. No porch light or welcoming glow from a lamp.


It’s not just dark, it’s Stygian.

On the night I’m going to tell you about, there was no moon. The mountains, the ridge line, and the trees blocked out all but a tiny square of sky.

I wasn’t a city girl back then, having grown up in a farming town. But at the same time I definitely wasn’t a mountain girl either. And yet circumstances placed me in the Pacific Northwest mountains. Alone. Well, except for a dog who was equally out of her element.

In the middle of that very dark night, I woke to a woman screaming. What else can you do when someone is in desperate need of help, but grab a flashlight and go? I took the dog with me, who shook as bad as I did. I reminded her that she was half German Shepherd, but she didn’t believe me.

My imagination was vividly awake. A car accident on the road? Was some woman out there in the woods, lost and afraid?

I followed the wavering flashlight beam down the long, narrow driveway with nothing but trees crowding in. Trees that anything could hide behind. I listened so hard that my breath was held captive. I searched until the cold night leached under my skin and numbed my nerves.

I don’t remember how long I stumbled around before giving up and returning to the pile of blankets still retaining a warm pocket. The screaming had ended. I went to bed fully expecting to find a body in the morning.

By the way, this was before cell phones and where I was, there was also no electricity, let alone land lines. And in all honesty it never crossed my mind to drive out to the road and find a pay phone.


What I do remember is this.

The next morning was bright and sunny and clear and crisp. Early summer in the mountains. I drove to the nearby tiny town to open a post office box in the back corner of the general store. Outside the store three elderly men lined up on a wooden bench, watching life. I could hear one as I got out of the car.

‘Did you hear the cougar last night?’

Me, tentatively: ‘What’s a cougar sound like?’

‘Just like a woman screaming.’

I’ll end with this thought. I walked around in that dark night with a flashlight trying to save a cougar.

Anticipating the End

I love the tingly sense that the end of a story is near. You can see it out there on the horizon, so close, but not ready to be touched just yet. You know it’s creeping in, but you can’t look at it directly or it will dissipate like fog, gone forever.

And since it’s Christmas Eve I’ll use that analogy – it’s like being a little kid again, sitting near the tree with its lights and decorations, grasping that nutcracker and thinking, tonight the magic will happen and he will turn into a prince.

Hands hovering, fingers near the keyboard, or lightly holding the pen, breath almost held, knowing the words are almost here, almost free.

Of course the downside of that anticipation is the fact that soon, the gifts will all be open. The end of the story will be written and all that’s left to anticipate is the long slog of revising and the business end of getting the book out there.

But for right now, the story is still just mine, still magical, still unknown.

And oh so close.

Potential piece of cover for book #3, Ghost Roads

Potential piece of cover for book #3, Ghost Roads