(Pacific Crest Trail, August, 2015)
Starting out, the plants are two–Douglas Fir and blueberries. The ancient trees loom. They have dominion. But the blueberries proliferate, and they are flavor. Their bushes vary in size and color, as do the berries. The ones with red leaves growing close to the ground seem always to give a tart jolt, while the slightly taller ones hold the round blushing blues you’d expect on a label. Others are tall with shiny black skins and a thin sweetness. Not just taste and sweetness, they also give moisture. One year, hiking from Vanderventer Shelter on the Appalachian Trail to Damascus Virginia, Bennett and I found ourselves in the middle of a 33 mile day with almost no water. The path was covered with blackberries which carried us down the mountain.
As the miles unfold on the PCT, the foliage differentiates. I now find Western Red Cedar, Western Hemlock (a welcome sight after witnessing the die-off of eastern Appalachian hemlocks), Lodgepole Pine. There must be more I will see when my eyes and feet focus. I kept imagining balsam fir because the smell is penetrating, reminding me of the stories about tuberculosis sanitaria in the south Georgia Long-Leaf pine forests trying to exploit the healing power of the chemicals drifting through those evergreen stands. The Long-Leaf disappeared beneath the axe and turpentine bucket years ago, but here in the Cascades, apart from fire and chainsaws, these big trees just stand–hundreds of years. We came across one sawed log which was marked with a sharpie as 658 years–a testament to human insignificance.
At the burn-overs, the duality shifts. The silver-grey burnt trees shed all needles and bark, each species becoming synonymous. The blueberries are replaced in the first year with fireweed, in the second with what looks like coppiced beech. At lower elevations a few maples might mix in, but up high, the beech seem the only broadleaf to take hold, at least until the the evergreens re-establish their dominance.
Down close to the ground, tiny hemlock sprouts compete with club mosses. Both plants look like miniatures of the giants around them, but the club mosses, for all their tiny imposing stature, will never break for the sky, and must be content with the spots of light that filter through the canopy. Occasionally a tall yew or maybe a larch drift down short needles with the sound of rain as they cushion the path with litter. Near Canada a new bush appears looking very much like a wild American boxwood. The combination of yew and box take me back to the front yard of the house where I grew up, a domesticated version of the wild that confronts daily the walker of these Cascades paths.
But what arrests is reverence. The trees make quiet spaces through sheer brooding presence. A tall smooth-barked pine (Lodgepole?) grows straight, tall, fast, and the thin lower branches lose their needles and slowly drift into a semicircle, like arms lowered with hands about to clasp. Those branches are covered with an epiphyte a brighter green than what in the American south is called Spanish moss. When it dies, it turns black and looks like a bear’s fur on the ground, but in the air, it is a shaggy spectre, delineating a path, pointing on.
T. Hugh Crawford