Ghost Trees

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.

Ghost Tree
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.

About Tom Hopp

Thomas P Hopp is a scientist and author living in Seattle. He writes medical thrillers, natural disaster novels, and the Dinosaur Wars science fiction series.
This entry was posted in Indian Country, My Soapbox, Peyton McKean and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Ghost Trees

  1. Dev DuRuz says:

    Hi Tom,

    Ghost Trees – Great article – thanks – sorry I did not get a chance to visit with you today at the club – I was on duty and busy. Dev

    • Tom Hopp says:

      Hi Dev,
      Yeah, I guess we passed like two ships in the morning fog. You were busy with duties and I was busy with trying to make up for lost ski time. Well, there ‘s always next week.

  2. Patricia Maguire says:


  3. j.m.newell says:

    To: T.P.H. From: J.M.N.

    Cover on Thistle Street

    This AM outside each kitchen window, making lots of noisy chatter, the crows circled above juvenile evergreens.

    “Where is the hawk?” I asked , not really expecting an answer. It was more likely a stray seagull, far away from it’s home, invading their space and this racket a different, less alarming complaint.

    Yet secured by talons to a tangle of branch, well hidden in grey-brown raiment, the infrequent guest at breakfast balanced, a majestically speckled, sharp-eyed eminence. A cautionary presence ruffling feathers, listening and waiting for a reprimand free flight path to retrieve the prey pigeon splayed out on the pavement and with that intersection disappear.

    I went back to drink cooling coffee, the murder of crows dispersed and the house sparrows came out from hiding between the rafters while the radio broadcast muddled the immediacy of indelible imprint.

    I think of you and wonder. With myriad imaginable arrayment, ghost trees are truely negated space.

    I found your reply of o1-o7 on o2-16. Not exactly light speed. Conversation on-line is new to me. From one individual to another, continue to thrive untaken. I look forward to reading your stories.

    Happy(much belated) Birthday

    Your use of a greenish word led to the discovery of this beautiful quote:
    “rising suns that gild vernal morn” Darwin (poet)

    • Tom Hopp says:

      Thanks for your response to the Ghost Tree post. Your reply was poetic. Thanks for that. It sounds like you’ve tuned in to nature too. Bald eagle, gulls, crows, even the unsuspecting pigeon are part of a fabric that refuses to unravel despite humankind’s best efforts. They’ll outlast us if we don’t get our act together, and the Ghost Trees will proudly watch their children grow over the tumulus of our mayhem. Chief Seattle predicted it in his famous speech.

  4. Patrick says:

    Great post! Have you by chance kept track of the locations you’ve encountered/photographed these?

  5. Tom Hopp says:

    Patrick, the photo from which I made the image was snapped just outside the North Cascades National Park. No doubt, the loggers were chopping trees right up to the edge of the park before it was declared off limits. I was returning from a day hike in the mountains when this face just popped out at me from among the many trees and stumps along the trail. Other ghost trees appear all over the Northwest, you just have to be looking for them and, there they are!

Comments are closed.