I don’t like clear cuts. As a forestry technician, I’ve done my time in cut-over forests, and have witnessed the immediate aftermath of industrial logging. Anyone who cares about intact ecosystems can’t help but be disturbed by the stumps and remains of mature trees, the torn soil and sunburned forest floor plants exposed by the removal of the canopy. Abandoned pieces of steel cable are left behind, and used oil filters from the massive equipment, and plastic bottles from the logger’s lunches. These vast “harvested” acreages may be replanted with preferred species such as Douglas-fir, or left to regenerate on their own—forest practice laws of the past were not especially strict. It has been a couple decades now since the heyday of clear cutting, and trees have come back to soften the harsh lines across the landscape and cover the bare slopes. In fact, if you didn’t know what you were looking at, you might not realize that these mountains had received such heavy-handed treatment.
Thirty, forty, and fifty year old tree plantations resemble young forests but lack the complexity of an unmanaged landscape. Natural processes continue, and plant and animal communities use the habitat that is available to them. Rain and snow fall, wind blows, summer dries the soil. Needles and other plant detritus gather on the ground and replenish the soil. I know this, see it happening. But I am a landscape snob, and will choose wild roadless country if I have a choice.
My snobbery became evident to me when I ventured out after being housebound with illness for several weeks. Without the energy or stamina for the backcountry, I was content to drive on the road that loggers had built up to the top of Amabilis Mountain. I was thrilled to see any trees and find myself above the insidious frozen fog that filled the lowland valleys. And since it was December, I knew I was lucky to be able to travel up the mountain as far as I did, the truck’s tires crunching through a thin crust of snow.
I was on the hunt for a Christmas tree, another subject of my snobbery. Over the years, I have come to prefer a true fir for its shape and scent. And for memory. I suspect that my image of the ideal Christmas tree came not from real life (we always had Doug-fir saplings from the back forty till Mom bought an imitation tree), but from this storybook illustration of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale The Fir Tree:
Illustrations influenced me much more than I knew at the time. My imagination scarcely knew boundaries, and once I learned to read I avidly devoured books and stories. Most children’s books were illustrated then, and I absorbed the pictures as much as the words. I was visual and artistically inclined. This was the art that was available to me.
So I long for a true fir in the house if I can get one. And noble fir is the first choice. It is grown in the Pacific Northwest as a high-end Christmas tree, and its price is a good indication of its desirability. I have purchased noble firs in the past, but the more I learn about my surroundings, the more I enjoy the hunt for a wild one.
Noble fir is native to the Northwest, and has a small range. It grows between 2500 and 5000 feet in elevation from Stevens Pass in the Cascades to near Crater Lake in Oregon. It hybridizes with its close relative, Shasta red fir in southern Oregon and northern California. It also occurs in the Willapa Hills of southwest Washington. Stephen Arno writes in Northwest Trees (Mountaineers Books, 2007) that noble fir occurs along and west of the Cascade crest, but not east. I know for a fact that it grows several miles east of Snoqualmie Pass, and provide photographic evidence above. (The ones with bluish foliage and straight pale trunks are nobles.)
The Scottish naturalist David Douglas first described noble fir in the late 1820s, and named it Abies nobilis, admiring it greatly for its elegance of form. When it was discovered that another explorer had named a fir noble, this one’s name was changed to Abies procera, meaning “extending to great height.” Of the forty species of Abies in the world, noble fir grows the tallest, up to 280 feet. Unlike other firs, noble is shade-intolerant, preferring to start life in open places and sunlight. Such as clear cuts.
As I ascended Amabilis Mountain I saw Douglas-firs, western hemlocks, western red cedars, and the ubiquitous Pacific silver fir, Abies amabilis (lovely fir). I drove through old clearcuts and small stands of untouched forest. There was snow and ice on the road as I climbed, and I engaged the four wheel drive. Soon I saw a few bluish uniformly whorled firs growing on cutbanks and the edge of the canopy. Then I emerged into bright sunlight and a big clear cut. Young noble firs reached for the sky next to Douglas-firs doing the same. These trees were forty or fifty feet tall, and probably forty years old, meaning that the old growth would have been cut in the late 1970s. I might be a snob about clear cuts, but I was truly impressed by the growth and vigor of these trees.
I parked and got out, my boots crunching in the snow. Because it is nearly winter solstice, the angle of the sun made for deep shade under the trees. I wandered in the dimness looking up into branches. The trees were too tall for Christmas trees, and the saplings in the shade were too scrawny. I headed back toward the road and sun, where I found clumps of noble firs grown from seeds borne on the wind. These were the right height and almost bushy enough. I chose one, thanked it, and soon had it sawn down.
Perhaps it is snobbery and vanity to kill a tree just so I can bring it in the house for a couple weeks. Perhaps it is a pagan custom that makes winter a little more tolerable. Especially this year as I’ve been so ill and cooped inside. Perhaps I don’t need to justify or explain. What I have been doing is running the word amabilis through my mind. Amabilis Mountain, silver fir, amiable. Amabilis really means lovable, the Latin root amare. Love.
I do love this world—the mountains and trees and flowers and animals, rivers, deserts, oceans. I also love the broken and shattered parts, the parts that haven’t been treated well. I have seen for myself that sometimes the world can fix itself if left alone, and maybe gently helped. Humanity is harder to love. Parts of it are also broken and shattered and not treated well. Maybe that is what I need to remember, what I have learned from the mountains and trees—that humanity is lovable, even when torn up and left for dead. Something always wants to grow back and just needs time, rain and sun. Maybe a little help. Maybe love is never a waste of time.