King of the Firs
“Be like the Douglas Fir.”
My father and I were walking the two mile trail to Dog Lake. A hike so familiar, I knew every muddy rut and boulder along the way. It led over a couple of densely forested ridges to a dammed up creek which formed a beaver pond. No one knew exactly how it got named Dog Lake, but the popular theory was someone’s dog found it when they were exploring many years ago. It certainly wasn’t big enough to be considered a lake, but the fishing was excellent.
Several different species of trout called it home and we caught our supper there often. The fish weren’t the biggest, but each one was big enough to make a meal when eaten with a baked potato roasted in the coals of a campfire.
“Why should I be like that tree?” I was reading the little plaque on a steel pole driven into the ground at its roots.
“It’s a survivor.” Dad said.
“I can read that. It says it’s one of the old ones. One of the ones that lived through two forest fires and helped to spread the seed for the younger Douglas Firs in this forest.”
“Do you know why?”
I shook my head no, but I guessed, “Because it’s the biggest one?”
“Well, that’s partly right. The biggest Douglas Firs have very thick bark. A thick skin that protects them even if it gets charred and burned. Even if some of its tiny needles get singed and a few of its branches burn, its heart is protected.”
He pointed at a deep scar on the side of the tree where resin welled through it. A beam of sunshine lit it up and we could see the wall of bark containing the pale honey of a tree’s life blood. Dad climbed up on one of the arched roots and put his hand beside it to demonstrate. He could have sunk his hand into it right up to his wrist. He stood there for a few minutes, his hand on the craggy striated black outer shell of the trunk.
“Were you talking to the tree?” I sensed his communion with the ancient living monolith.
“I was, I was saying thank you for staying alive. I love the evergreens.”
“I know, we have lots of them in our yard.” One of them, the blue spruce that grew from a small twig I was given on Arbor day at school . The last time I saw it, many decades later, it towered over our old house almost eighty feet tall, swaying in the Chinook wind.
“If we kill the forests, we kill the lungs of the planet. Do you remember your science class? Photosynthesis? It’s why Mom has so many plants in our house, and why I plant new trees around it all the time.”
“I remember, we just studied it. Carbon dioxide in, oxygen out. Trees and plants make our atmosphere breathable and keep the balance so things don’t get too hot or cold.” I grinned at being able to pull the explanation out of my memory.
“But there’s more to it than a thick skin that can take being turned black in a forest fire.” He jumped down and we started walking again.
“What else?” I asked.
“Strong roots that run deep. After a fire, or if a branch tears off because of a storm, they keep the nutrients running through the tree to help it repair the injury and make strong scars.” He stopped a few yards down the trail to point up the side of the tree.
Two big burls boiled out of the trunk, their irregular shape roughly like that of an upside down bowl, although I’d never seen one quite the size of them.
“It takes energy and time to heal a wound of such depth. In times of drought, deep roots can reach ground water when other plants with shallower roots simply wilt and dry.”
“So if a tree were a person, patience and courage would be part of it’s core,” I said. I was eleven, and I caught the underlying lessons in what he was saying.
Dad’s blue grey eyes met mine, and I saw something unfathomable pass through them as he nodded and reached over to squeeze my shoulder. He ran his fingers through his beard, and I knew there was something about this moment that had touched him. He pulled me into his arms and gave me a hug, and I realized my face was against his chest. When had I grown this tall?
“Let’s go catch those fish,” he suggested.
“Yeah, let’s,” I agreed.
We continued on the path, our fishing poles in one hand, dodging the puddles the recent rain shower had left behind.