In my ramblings around the Pacific Northwest, I often come across peculiar-looking stumps I call Ghost Trees.
The stumps are almost always huge and look like they’ve been there a long time. They often have face-like markings on them, which, along with their rotting and decrepit condition, suggest to me that they are not just stumps, but the spirits of trees now long dead.
Native Americans believe trees, like humans, have souls that live on after they die. If these tree stumps are spirits, then are they friendly, or do they want revenge for their deaths? Perhaps restitution for the destruction of an entire ecosystem in which they sprouted as vernal seedlings a thousand or more years ago? They often have a brooding look, as does this one, which I photographed while hiking in the North Cascades National Park. Such grim expressions make me suspect that they’re not entirely friendly. Sometimes, you can find yourself in a dense, dark forest with dozens of these wraiths surrounding you. Anyone prone to superstition or to supernatural or paranormal musings, might just get the creeps.
Not convinced? Then consider this: each of these ghost tree stumps is the murder victim of the rampant and careless logging that swept across the great old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest with the pioneers in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The marks are diagnostic of the style of logging done back then. They’re springboard marks. A pair of loggers with double-bladed axes would start their felling work by placing ladders against the “swell butt” of the tree (the flair of roots that expand the trunk to a width that no logger willingly would cut through). Then, standing on the ladders, the men would swing their axes, chipping out holes above them, into which they could insert wooden planks called “springboards.” Once a springboard was in place, a man could step up onto it and cut higher on the trunk, where the girth was smaller and the felling work could be finished quicker. Next, standing on pairs of springboards, the two lumberjacks would chip out a great notch in the trunk on one side of the tree, and then cut across from the other side with a long “whipsaw” or “misery whip” pulled back and forth across the trunk by tugging or pushing on two handles, one on each end of the saw blade.
Back in those days, no one asked the trees if they’d like to be cut down. No one cared. No one asked the Douglas squirrels or spotted owls if they’d like to have their homes demolished and hauled away by mule trains to sawmill towns. Every man who could stand the hard work, just cut and cut and cut and cut, until the landscapes of the Northwest were transformed from deep green forests to scraggly brush-covered ravines and ridges, dotted everywhere with ghostly tree stumps.
Time has marched on and the whipsaw loggers are as extinct as the spotted owl and marbled murrelet are in this part of the country, but the stumps remain. They stand as sentinels and slowly-mouldering reminders of what happened and of the beauty that was lost. Many stumps are fifteen or twenty feet across at the base, reminders of what were once stupendously huge forests where now only relatively young trees have had the chance to sprout and grow to any appreciable size.
Consider this: a fir tree that is seventy feet tall, with a trunk two or three feet wide, may seem like a dramatically big and beautiful living thing, and it is. But such a tree is really still in its adolescence. It has another thousand years or so of growing before it can claim the seniority of the trees that fell by the hundreds of thousands around here.
That’s why, when I hike in any forest around Seattle or other parts of the Northwest and I see one of these ghost trees, I get a chill. Considering it will be another thousand years, or two, before the world of the trees returns to normal, do they wish us well or ill in the meantime?
Next time you’re in the forest, beware.
P.S. The photo will be the basis of cover art for a new short Peyton McKean mystery I’m finishing now, called “Death Among The Ghost Trees.” It’ll be released sometime in the next few months. Keep an eye out for it.