Friday, June 22, 2007

May the Forest Be With You

The Pacific Northwest is renowned for its temperate rain forests. Usually we associate rain forests with the tropics, and most rain forests are tropical in locale and nature. There are half-a dozen coastal strips meeting the requirements for temperate rain forests: wet, cool, acidic soils; copious networks of flowing water; relatively little disturbance by wildfire or insects; coniferous trees, primarily, with many ferns and mosses, in layered growth; large amounts of organic debris; LOTS of rain.

Olympic National Forest receives over 100 inches of rain each year, caught from the Pacific winds by the tall coastal mountains. You can't walk without stepping on many kinds of lifeforms growing on top of each other.

The forest is a green cathedral - a cliche, no doubt, but very true. As a nature lover, it is a wonderful experience to walk through the cool shady paths, looking at the fern and moss varieties beyond counting. If I didn't like birds so much, this would inspire me to become a "fernologist", or whatever you call someone who studies ferns and mosses. Some ferns grow stems like bushes, then branch out, while others stay close to the ground. You need a magnifying glass to really see the mosses distinctly. This primitive plant life was dominant on earth for millions of years, and still dominates the forests in my view.

As a photographer, however, the forest is frustrating because it is usually too dark to get good photos. It is hard to make the camera pick up the height and sheer mass of the trees. Either the trees are too tall, or too big around, or too crowded against other trees. Trees die from wind damage, most often, but they contribute more to the life of the forest after death than while they stood upright. A "nurse logs" supports the growth of ferns, mosses, and tree seedlings of all kinds. More importantly, when they fall, a space in the canopy is opened to let light in, allowing young plants to sprout and grow as they could not do successfully on the shaded forest floor. Some trees have roots growing in an arch above the ground. They started growing on a nurse log, and reached the ground as the nurse log rotted away.

The cascading forest streams are great photographic topics. Not only is there enough light, but you can make the water blur or stand out in stop action as it tumbles down the mountainside. Mosses and other plants growing on the tree trunks and branches hold water gathered from the air. Rufous hummingbirds feed directly from this stored water, since there aren't many blooming plants. What a thrill to find a salamander under a wet rock or a Banana Slug on the trail. After a wonder-filled, awe-inspiring day in the forest, we drove back to our lodgings outside the park. Unfortunately, most of this drive is through areas that have been heavily timbered. In Washington, this means clear cutting of the forest. In many areas, only piles of branches remain on the ground. The larger companies make an effort to replant as soon as possible, but the smaller tracts lay bare for years. Replanting helps some, but trees that are all the same age do not make a forest, even when they become 30 or 40 years old. The death and varying sizes and ages of the trees are essential to many life forms in the forest. As we drove past these areas, I still had to ask myself if I wanted to give up books and newspapers, paper towels and toilet paper and paper towels, and 2x4's for houses. Isn't there some other way to provide wood products without such devastation? I'm sure greater voices than mine have argued this for years, without much influence apparently.

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