Monday, February 25, 2008

Beauty and the Beasts

In the woods of the Pacific Northwest, one can expect to see most anything. Meth labs, salal poachers (who sell the evergreen to floral shops), fiddlehead pluckers (for stir fry), bear, cougar, tanks (another post), and one of my favorites: illegal loggers.

While working as a wildlife technician in the Puget Lowlands, collecting data on birds for a University of Washington professor, I saw it all. In particular, I recall the day I came upon an illegal logging site. To frame things a little, the research project I was part of took place in the seemingly endless expanse of woods on the Fort Lewis Military Base. Because it was federal land, and the woods for that matter were specifically being managed for a green wood certification study, I knew that any loggers encountered out there would have to be trespassing.

I came upon a downed cedar, at least 2 feet in diameter, probably 70+ years old. It was more than 60 feet high, now lying on the ground in a profound statement of premature death. Bright orange and smelling of a hope chest, I could tell it was recently cut. The stump stared up at me, weeping, open, painful its freshness. Let me be clear on this: I'm all for selective cutting, and I do believe there is a middle ground where a healthy timber economy can be commensurate with sustainable forestry. But this... this was illegal, it was wrong, and it was screwing up the selective cutting of the woods which I was working my hind end off to study the ecology of. On behalf of the science, I took it personally.

So I whipped out my royal blue sharpee and decided to leave a message for the loggers, who would undoubtedly be back to cut up the rest of their kill. The message I left on the fresh, orange cut of the trunk read:

{drawn human eye}

The blue shone so brilliantly against its decapitated background! The eye was drawn large, open, and the round pupil looked right at you. Let the superstitious hillbilly bastards get a taste of the witchettyness of these woods! It wasn't much, but I felt better. I was putting my marker away and lamenting that I'd regret not seeing their faces when -- it would figure -- I heard the sound of a struggling truck engine. Working alone for long days in the woods with no cell, no way of communicating with the outside world, and a long way from any main roads, is a disconcerting thing only when you hear a vehicle coming your way through the remoteness.


I grabbed my pack and clipboard, and dashed as far as I could into the 6-ft tall fern. There is nothing "quick" about moving through the thick underbrush of the Pacific Northwest. It is mean stuff. I managed to get a good 40 meters away when the multi-colored, rusted Chevy pulled up. Out hopped a big-bellied, stained-shirted fellow toting a canned beverage (not likely Coca Cola), and his look-alike buddy from the other side. They lowered the tailgate and drug out two menacing chainsaws. I never thought about it until that moment, but I realized they could be anyone, do anything, and I could be in a lot of trouble. They kept their voices low, and stood with their saws dangling at their sides as they examined my blue sharpee message. Take that. I thought I heard a chuckle, followed by a glance (nervous glance, I'd like to think) at the surrounding woods. They both turned to face the hill I was crouched on. Double crap, they probably knew it was fresh ink.

I couldn't help it, I probably could've waited until their saws started, but instead began a slow creep up the hill through the brush. The swashing and slapping against me of salal and hazelnut, of oregon grape and ocean spray, of three species of blackberry wrapped about my ankles as I kicked it off me, made it impossible to move stealthily. One of the sawer-men started in my direction up the hill, his buddy shouting after him to encourage him on.

Screw it, I thought, and made no pretense at stealth. Tearing through the brush was deafening, I couldn't hear my pursuer over even my own heavy breath, and I dared not take my eyes off the terrain ahead -- numerous hidden logs, branches, and dips lay in wait. I finally came to a stop, exhausted and out of breath, with long chunks of fern caught in my pack. Surely the out-of-shape sawer-man could be nowhere close. I crouched low and waited. His faded red baseball cap was barely visible through the tops of the ferns downhill; he was long behind, having quit before the veg. got thick and the hill too steep. Ninny, I thought. He didn't even have a pack to carry. He headed back down the hill, removing his cap to wipe his sweaty brow. The excitement in his voice was clear as he remarked on the "chase" to his buddy: must have been a "big bear". Excuse me?! Ah, well. Serves me right. But if I had the chance to do it over again, I'd have drawn eyes on the stump, too.

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