Sweet Spot

Sometimes Fieldwork and Homework intersect. Yesterday while hiking south on the PCT with the saw over my shoulder, I screeched to a halt. “Lookit that!” I exclaimed.

It was the mother lode of a huckleberry patch I’ve been hoping to stumble upon. The sweet spot. They were big, and there were lots. We sampled, and whatever else I was going to do today got put on the back burner. This morning Pam and I and her big brown dog Stuart headed out in my truck. We bumpety-bumped out through Clearcut National Monument and parked where the road crosses the Pacific Crest Trail. We picked while the dog bulldozed his way through bushes looking for sticks.

There must be a hunter-gatherer switch in the human brain. Huckleberries flip mine on. I become intently focused on finding and picking, and will stretch further for a big juicy one. I love the feel of the bucket filling up. My fingers turn purple. I am content to wander for hours, searching and finding. It’s hard to make myself stop. I would pick until dark if the rational part of my brain was weaker. It’s helpful to have another person along to remind me to go home.

The clearcut where we picked is returning to noble fir. They have a good crop of cones this year. I have never noticed them as much. True firs bear upright cones in their top branches, and these are bigger than my fist. Almost too heavy. I would love to get my hands on one to observe closely. David Douglas discovered and named the species Abies procera in the early 1800s. It is highly specialized, and occurs in cool moist habitats from southern Oregon to Stevens Pass in Washington. Small populations have been found in the Willapa Hills, but otherwise it only grows along the crest of the Cascades. It is intolerant of shade, and requires periodic disturbances to regenerate. The clearcuts of the 70s and 80s created plenty of disturbed ground and noble firs have seeded in. They are truly beautiful at every stage of life, from perfectly proportional sapling to venerable towering maturity. Today, the autumn light revealed them as not green, but aqua blue.

I remember my outrage twenty years ago, when I first went to this ravaged landscape to work on the Crest Trail. Square mile clearcuts were filled with stumps and slash and thistles. It was raw-looking, as if some giant cartographer had taken an exacto knife and sliced out big chunks of ancient forest. All of this geometry imposed on ridges and valleys, with roads snaking in and out. Even the next generation of trees was planted in straight lines.

Today I saw that these lines are softening as the seedlings grow into saplings. As they grow taller, their limbs meet, and the hillsides appear furry with evergreens. Along some ridges there is still the rough texture of old growth, with snags and gnarly tops and trees of different heights. And squares of the smoother texture of young trees. Splashes of scarlet where the vine maple responds to September. Clearcuts create wonderful habitat for sun-loving huckleberries. But nature doesn’t hold still. Where I picked berries today will change as the young trees grow and create shade. The stumps will rot into the soil, and be forgotten. There will be no money to maintain roads, and they too will be forgotten and eventually be healed scars. Climate change is an uncertainty, but I imagine rain will still sweep out of the west from the Pacific and fall on these slopes. The forest abides, in some shape or other.

And I will make jam tomorrow.

Time Out

When I saw the blue sky yesterday, I knew there would be no staying indoors. I’m taking the week off to catch up with myself, and remember that I have an existence away from my job. It feels like a retreat. And a treat to go to the woods with no timelines or tools.

The excuse was huckleberries. It’s late to be finding any. The crop was not plentiful this year, and I never made the time to really look. I heard about this spot and hiked up to it. Rain, time, and animals have taken their toll–I had to make quite an effort to pick a quart. It wasn’t hard to sit down and gaze at the mountains. I call this place The Horns. The trail passes through a glacier-gouged gap and descends into a meadow-filled basin. The air was still. Cumulus clouds were moving slowly from the southeast. Occasionally I heard the whiff-whiff-whiff of raven wings above me, or a solitary croak. Watching out, as usual. Pretty sure I was the only human in the entire drainage.

I opened a brand new travel sketchbook of watercolor paper, Arches cold press. The first color touched to it was a juicy brushload of cerulean and cobalt blues, which was pulled around by another brushload of water. Left white for the clouds. Then how to make the color of the rocks? As I looked and painted, the clouds moved and the sun emerged. The shadows deepened, the light brightened, and some of the colors lit up like neon. Mountain hemlocks edged with gold, huckleberry brush dripping orange in the gullies…

One of the great blessings of painting is that my mind shuts up while I am doing it. To paint is to feel relief from the yammering of daily thoughts, and just be with the landscape, the tools, and what is unfolding beneath my hands. It’s an active kind of meditation.

Haven’t decided whether I will paint on this a little more.