In “A Walk in the Woods,” Bill Bryson observed that trees “choke off views and leave you muddled and without bearings. They make you feel small and confused and vulnerable, like a small child lost in a crowd of strange legs.” I imagine that’s true for some. For me, trees don’t choke off views – they are the view. They exude warmth and protection. I don’t grudgingly run their gauntlet in order to get to my destination. They are the destination.
If stratospheric redwoods, svelte aspens and spidery manzanitas are part of the attraction of the trek, a certain subset of them is the greatest attraction of all – dead ones. That’s right: trees keeled over from disease or blasted to shards by lightning are some of my most treasured hiking buddies. Anchored in the landscape like historical markers, Rhino, Croc, Oliphaunt and Limbo Man wait with wry detachment as I trudge up the hillside to pay my respects. I go out of my way to check on the progress of Dragon, Hog, Taro Dactyl and Cyclops’ decomposition. The twisted intimate I call Knight (as in the chess piece) recently lost his snout to the force of gravity.
Dead trees provide more than habitat for lichens, mosses and lizards; they provide ignition for the engine of imagination: “We don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are,“ wrote Anais Nin. I’m not sure I want to know what my metaphors for dead trees betray about my state of mind, but I know this: my gnarly friends mean a lot to me. They provide a glimmer of companionship amid the solitude of the trail.
Make no mistake: the solitude is good. On the trail I escape the noise of communal life and enter, as Thomas Mann put it, the “mental experiences that are at once more intense and less articulate than those of a gregarious man.” Gregariousness can be jarring. Who wants to hear campers and hikers hootin’ and hollerin’ by the placid grandeur of Shasta Lake, or on Prospector’s Gap overlooking the fog-flooded hollows of Morgan Territory in the pale violet of sunrise, or, come to think of it … anywhere? No, the silence of trees – especially dead ones – makes for good company.
My first encounter with Dragon on a creepy moonlit night in Kettle Moraine, Wisconsin began in dread and ended in mirth. A 60-foot pin oak toppled parallel to a path snaking through a dark ravine, Dragon has been smithied by years of wind, ice and rot into a giant reptile. At our first meeting, his uncannily symmetric ears, razor horns and sunken eye sockets stopped me in my tracks. Only after gathering the gumption to tiptoe over and check him out did I breathe a sigh of comic relief.
Taro Dactyl is another matter, and no laughing one. The victim of inept air traffic control, the pterosaur was evidently rerouted from the skies of the late Mesozoic to an emergency-landing site just northeast of present-day Mt. Diablo, reduced to bland airline food for a million microorganisms.
The image of a dead tree touches a nerve. It’s a statue on exhibit, yet unlike the statues fashioned by human hands, it was once alive. Suddenly the trail becomes a graveyard where the bones of the departed aren’t buried but put on display.
A dead tree is disturbing in another way: Trees are assumed to represent the gold standard for longevity. From its vista atop the White Mountains of Inyo National Forest, a bristlecone pine named Methuselah has felt the rain lash and the wind scour its branches, has watched impassively as the winter stars inched overhead, for 4,775 years. Some trees will go on living into the next Ice Age, long after the human race has abandoned the planet. Or vice versa.
Yet a tree, like the mammal we imagine it mimics, is decidedly mortal. Its transfiguration might take a century to complete, but the end is the same for all organic creatures. Today we marvel at the fluky artistry that makes a monster out of dead wood. In a decade the nutrient cycle, aided by weather’s dull chisel, will have sculpted the carcass into something else. Pterodactyl becomes nondescript fractal. In a century even the wood will be gone, digested like flesh into the shrewd economy of Earth.
How readily in this voracious universe does food for thought become food for worms.
To view a complete gallery of Ger Erickson’s gnarly friends, click here.