There are a few places that have really spoken to me. One was the rain forest in the Ho Valley, part of Olympic National Park. For a long time I wondered why that place, of all the places I’ve been, made me feel instantly as though I had been there forever. It is an amazing and majestic place—the heaviest mass of living matter, per acre, on the face of the Earth. The constant dampness is a perfect environment for mosses, and they grow on every surface…even power lines. Trees half the size elsewhere are gigantic because of the combination of moisture and masses of decaying plant material.
The topsoil, although rich, isn’t very deep, and provides a tenuous grip for the roots of the enormous trees. The roots do not need to pierce the rock to search either for water or food, as the decaying organic litter provides nourishment and the 200+ inches of rain that the Olympic Peninsula gathers from the damp Pacific winds every year more than takes care of irrigation. This is the world’s largest remaining temperate rain forest, and it is very, very wet.
The shallow-rooted but enormous trees, the loose topsoil, the decay of the underlying rock by the acidic combination of rainwater and oxidizing carbon from the detritus, and the terrific storms that pile onshore from the northern Pacific Ocean for a good part of the year combine to create an amazing tangle of uprooted timber. The floor of the rain forest interior is a continuous maze of fallen, decaying tree trunks, from 3 or 4 feet in diameter to ten or more, covered with moss, ferns and other vegetation.
Except for the newly exposed roots and their clinging masses of soil, all is verdant. Every imaginable shade of green is visible in any direction you look in the dim light filtering from above. Mosses cover everything. Ferns, dozens of varieties, grow out of the mosses. The few flowering plants that can tolerate the dimness of the forest interior overshadow the ferns. Epiphytes grow anywhere there is room to anchor to a surface. Trees grow out of fallen tree trunks, in lines known as “palisades”, sprouted from seeds that fell from above onto the vanquished giants. It is not unusual to see several balsam, each two or three feet in diameter, crowded together in a straight line stretching for a number of yards, their proximity creating the effect of a giant’s picket fence.
The smell defies description: decaying wood and needles; fresh rosin oozing from the firs and balsam; the distinct but ephemeral odor of fern; the occasional whiff of musk from the North American skunk, one of the animals that easily navigate the maze of the forest floor. Massive trees and their anacoustic coatings of mosses so deaden the normal rustling and slithering of forest life that the effect is more that of a cathedral than of a forest. Fifty yards from a roadway might well be fifty miles. The scale of things is so immense that one literally doesn’t see the forest for the trees. There is less a feeling of being in the woods than of being in some huge, strangely designed and oddly upholstered room.
Visual perception is also deadened at first. The pervasive greens seem simultaneously both colorful and monotonous to eyes accustomed to a greater variety of hues. This contributes to the cathedral feeling as well. There is the same sense of weight above that one experiences deep in a cavern—the sudden understanding that, in the true scale of the world, we are very small indeed.
The farm where I grew up, at the edge of the Florida wet prairies, was situated in an area of bay and sweet gum forests/swamps. Left to my own devices, carrying a machete in case of snakes, I wandered in the edges of those woods from the time I was six or so until we moved away when I was about eleven. Clearing of additional farmland was constant, and the trees, after being pulled or pushed over by large bulldozers, were piled haphazardly to dry so that they could be burned—slash and burn clearing on a mechanized scale.
I would clamber over the piles of tree trunks and make my way into the interior of the woods, exposed by the clearing and not yet overgrown by the briars and elderberry bushes. To a small boy, those piled-up tree trunks were immense; likewise the trees still standing behind them.
As I grew up, I would return occasionally to that area and marvel at how small the trees seemed to my adult eyes. Not until the Ho, years later, did I once again experience that primeval feeling of being a small animal in a big forest.
But, aren’t we all?
Parenthesis, 2007 — Temperate rain forests are rare and fragile. The Ho and its sisters along the upper US and Canadian west coasts will not last long, given the climatic changes that are increasing daily. Already the Ho Glacier, source of the river and carver of the valley during the last ice age, has retreated kilometers from where it was when I visited.
Go see it while you can.