The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Deep Green and the Shore

I’m not a big fan of the wilderness. My father was a forester, and as a child I was hauled along on enough unpleasant and uncomfortable trips to develop a distaste for jolting pickup truck rides and boring conversations about varieties of trees. The Boy Scouts didn’t improve things—I mainly remember the long nights of slow dripping torment in tents that never, ever, kept the rain out, no matter what you did.

I don’t quite like the deep green, the wet and rotting world of the Pacific rainforest along the west coast. People who haven’t spent much time in it never get the picture right. It can be a hellish world. One of my uncles used to cruise timber spending months in the coastal forests. He would come back slug white and drained by months without seeing the sun. People’s skin would rot. The deep green is a dark world, one where the sun never shines, where fallen trees rot quietly, infested with a world of bugs and grubs – white and black swarming over their repast and home. It rains more days than not, but no matter how strong the rain what you experience below is a slow and absolutely endless and relentless drip, drip, drip till the memory of dryness is faint and the lust for it is your steady companion.

Even as neither day nor night is as beautiful as dawn or dusk—sunrise or sunset—the deep green is most beautiful where it fades into something else—shore or creek or glade. The glades offer blessed sun and relief from the eternal damp and in the right season a profusion of wildflowers. Most creeks don’t offer much sun—the canopy arcs over them, but the bubble and swirl of water over and around smooth round stones and the flash of silver fish languid and quick in the water are some of my favorite sights.

For me, however, it’s as the rainforest thins towards the shore that its true beauty shines. Mostly it’s the combination of water and sun that brings out the beauty. The eternal drip, drip, drip that makes the deep green a rotting hell throws up endless beauty as the canopy thins. I remember a huge fern, taller than a small child, with drops of water that shimmered with the blurred hues of a rainbow, more beautiful than any diamond. Likewise the sun shining through the forest’s roof leaves the forest suffused with a light green glow that is enchanting. It’s a beauty that shows only in the pauses amongst the interminable rain, a few brief shining hours, but it is perhaps more enchanting for its brevity and rarity.

When I moved out East, I traveled through the forest and thought it scrub. Compared to the rain forest of the west coast, normal forests can never compare. They are never green enough, alive enough or thick enough.

To me, forest will always mean the deep green and natural beauty will always be where it sweeps down to shore and thins out on the edge of the sand or rock and the sweet rotting scent of humus is joined to the salt tang of wind off the sea.

(A Reprint)

Everything I write here is free, but rent isn’t, so if you value my writing, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.


It’s Essentially Over


Open Thread


  1. Joan

    This was absolutely beautiful, thank you. I felt like I was there, experiencing it directly. I’ll read this again and come back to it repeatedly.

  2. bruce. wilder


  3. someofparts

    Atlanta is in a canopy forest. The trees I walked my dog under sheltered civil war soldiers once. In the hot months they create a cool micro-climate under the canopy and fragrant breezes at dusk.

    We calibrate dog years in reference to human ones. What if we calibrated human years in reference to trees? If I live fifty years and the oak lives 300, that would mean I age six tree years every human year of life.

  4. Have you read Sometimes A Great Notion? You should. You just wrote about it.

  5. someofparts
    I lived in Atlanta for 12 years, and it remains one of my favorite places. Like you I could not wander the woods north of town without thinking of Civil War soldiers fighting battles through those woods. I suspect some battles were not fought because they could not find each other.

    The sight of Dogwoods flowering under Pine trees is unforgettable.

  6. Eric Anderson

    Ten Bears —

    Natch. Always thought you had a little Stamper in ya.

    Commercial fishing in AK I fell in love with the littoral zone in the S.E. AK archipelago. There’s magic there. Spent days worth of hours just walking (sometimes wading) and looking.

  7. Ten Bears

    Thank you Eric. For some, it was more than a notion, it was history.

  8. Willy

    I lived in coastal Georgia for a time. Spanish moss dripping from widely spreading oaks, riots of azalia color, ocean mists rising above the boardwalks, the rumble of alligators hoping for a mate… so many beautifully colored snakes. Red touch black venom lack. Red touch yellow get back jack! Holy crap coral snake! And ticks and crabs and spiders and snappy turtles! Yeeeach. (*runs out of the woods and brushes body crazily*) And now what? Sand fleas and biting midges. And it’s 95 degrees out and gonna rain again.

    There’s much to be said about Salt Lake City, lying in a giant bowl where the edges slope gently upwards towards towering mountains. The city’s trees are short or devoid of leaves half the year, giving everybody in town dramatic views of craggy mountains and valleys. But it’s a very strict, school marmy, sensibly dressed kind of religious place.

    My uncle lives under the Billings rimrocks, which glow with fantastical orange hues at dusk and dawn. Midday, rattlesnakes often arrive to sun themselves in his backyard. Or coil themselves under his car.

    At a Phoenix mountainside coffee shop the lady in front of me, who’d never been out of Quebec before, proclaimed how beautiful the place was. The barista glared and blandly sneered: “We live in a desert.” Sorta dampened the enthusiasm.

    No matter where you go in North America, it’s always something.

  9. different clue

    This makes the PNW temperate rain forest seem as a place of silent creepy-lurking danger. And it could well be. And it should be, for the unwary and unwatchful.

    I hope to go see this type of forest some day.

    What makes the difference between a merely rainy forest and a truly rain forest? Is the difference a bright line? Or a notional dotted line somewhere along the gradient between merely rainy and truly rain?

    I lived in Knoxville, Tennessee till 15 years old. We went semi-often into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There were and maybe still are ( even this far into climate change) places where enough rain fell that the merely rainy? truly rain? question comes up. I think a case could be made that if a forest is steadily moist enough to where a thick horizontal branch can build up a deep enough rotted moss mat on its own upper surface to where other little trees can root and grow in this branch-held moss bed, then it is a functionally true rain forest.

    My father sometimes showed us a slide ( in the family slide shows that suburban heads of household sometimes used to show The Family) of a big maple tree with a big horizontal limb somewhere along the Boulevard Trail with 10 or so little hemlock trees growing in a row in the rotted moss bed held by that horizontal limb.

    Rain forest? A case could be made.

  10. different clue


    Was that Phoenix-area barista from around there? Or from “away”?

    That part of Arizona isn’t just any old desert. The Sonora Desert is one of the bio-richest and uniquest deserts in the world. That is another place I want to go.

    What first inspired me was reading, and then re-reading , and then re-re-reading the book Arizona and its Bird Life, by Herbert Brandt.

    One unique thing about the Sonora Desert area is the number of free standing isolated little mountain ranges scattered all over it. They function so analogously to islands surrounded by water that they have been dubbed the Sky Islands. Here is a website about that.

    If that barista was too dumm stoopit ignorant to know about any of this, then she would probably be happier living in one of the Great Urban Death Traps like New York City. Pray she goes to find her happiness there.

  11. Willy

    different clue,

    The barista was 20ish. Seemed to be a local. Right after that we drove a little and saw a sign for something called “Piestewa Peak”, and on a whim parked in the lot for a few pictures and a brief walk. A uniquely compelling trail, it seemed that the further up we went the further we wanted to go. Lots of little lizards and Saguaro. We wound up hiking all the way to the top in our touristy mall shoes near dusk for spectacular city views. That was back in the grunge-hipster era. Maybe crowded Manhattan was more her style, I dunno.

    My LA cousin who bragged about being able to ski and surf the same day in his native city, wound up moving to Iowa and has been there ever since. He’s really big into growing corn and sunflowers in his huge backyard and claims to not miss LA. I understand, somewhat. As kids from Ohio visiting our grandparents that place was a wonderland of natural beauty, movie stars and adventures. The suburban house that cousin grew up in was right out of the Wonder Years. Years later, in ’09 for grandmas funeral, I was at that same house when a fierce looking cholo with a “do-not-employ” look (tattoes all over bald head except for the ponytail) walked up and demanded a light from my rental car. I thought I was dead. Or at least robbed, possibly raped.
    So I sorta understood cousins position. Be hard to raise another generation of wonder years kids in that environment.

  12. Synoia

    Conifer forests are dank, dark and dead.

    Deciduous and Tropical forests the epitome of life.

    Walk through the UK’s New Forest. It is wonderful. Don’t carry food the ponies are more aggressive than dogs.

    The New Forest was new in about 1100 AD.

  13. Ché Pasa


    Thanks for the change of pace. We really need it right now.

  14. AAA


  15. different clue


    I have never been “to” Iowa. I have been “through” Iowa several times by train. And just judging by the narrow view from the train tracks, it don’t hardly get no more MidWestern than Iowa. And Eastern Nebraska.

    I saw several deep gullies where the soil had been mishandled and erosionised. One such gully was 6 feet deep. And it looked like German Chocolate Cake all the way down. I wanted to jump out of the train and roll around in it. Here and there beside the train tracks I saw large running bunches of some kind of umbelliferous plant. Fennel and dill and etc. are in that group. But these were ten to fifteen feet tall with biiiiggg flower heads. I don’t know what they were. Elsewhere and anon were rail-side bunches of hemp plants, probably left over from the “Plant Hemp for Victory!” campaign of World War II.

    I used to think that if I decided to devote my retirement to gardening, that Iowas would be where I wanted to move to. But lately I have read that the industrial agri-biz commodity-crop growers of Iowa have been using so much artificial Haber-Bosch nitrogen fertilizer that the excess, which swiftly becomes nitrates if it doesn’t start out that way ( as per ammonium nitrate), has been slowly leaching and settling down through the soil and is on track to leisurely eventually in its own good time settle down into the ground water zone and the sub-groundwater zone below that. And this is all over Iowa. So within my lifetime all the groundwater under Iowa will be unsafe to drink and then unsafe to farm with. So I have re-decided that it won’t be safe for me to retire to Iowa.

    Quelle fucking drag, as some of the kids used to say.

  16. Willy

    I’ve only driven through Iowa a couple times. I stayed in Sioux City once, in 1995. The girls all seemed so sweet and giggly. It was like going through a time machine back to the 1950’s.

    I lived in the deep south before our current political division and sensed no prejudice towards northerners, aside from New Yorkers who they considered to be rude and crude. But then, it was Atlanta and Savannah, which were both full of liberal northerner transplants at that time.

    Back to PNW conifer forests, they can indeed be so dark and dank that you get the impulse to look over your shoulder for the flying monkeys to arrive. Or, they can be spectacularly beautiful. The reason for the difference is in the land use.

    There’s a mountainside trail to a place called Heather Lake. In the lower half you hike through a re-growing clear cut, meaning that all of the trees had been cut down together decades ago, and their replacements are all growing back together, all the same size, with all of the forest green being way up high and very little light reaching the ground. You’ll see the occasional gigantic stump from trees long gone. No animals, not even birds. It’s a depressing place to hike through.

    Suddenly, you cross a line into the upper half, the old growth forest. There are trees of every size, from seedlings to 10 foot diameter giants, with ferns and understory, and light and view windows all over the place.

    I never really understood my tree hugger coworker friend until I went on that hike.

  17. salal

    Another notable quality of PNW forests is the smell: in the warm season, oxidized fallen douglas fir needles warmed by the sun, mingled with saltwater. In the winter, rain falling on red cedar, especially when the air is thick and heavy with humidity.

  18. JohnEmerson

    I had an experience years ago which makes your feelings about the rainforest completely convincing. I\’d been hiking in the PNW for decades, but always on paths cut through the rainforest which led to alpine meadows and spectacular views. But one year in the early spring I lost the return path in the remaining snow, and I had to bushwhack back to my campsite. (This could have turned out badly but I was lucky). When I read your piece I realized that this was the first time I\’d been in the real wilderness. Those cut paths had opened it up, given it direction, and made it non-wilderness. The true rain forest wilderness is damp and dim, claustrophobic, hard traveling, and easy to get lost in.

  19. Brian

    I’ve spent most of my life on Vancouver Island. Long ago, before you needed a reservation six months in advance, I walked the West Coast Trail with two Army friends. We walked a lot of the way along the beaches and one day the tide was coming in and we were stuck on a head; could not go back or forward so scrambled up the cliff to the forest. The trail was only about 600 yards in but it took us an hour and a half to get there, to climb through that massive damp puzzle of rotten wood and trees that had fallen over each other for a hundred years. The Pacific rainforest is probably one of the worst places in the world to be lost in.

  20. Zac

    Beautiful description, Ian. I once spent a week in Olympic National Park in Washington, it is a strange and enchanting environment, and sometimes beautiful, but I was more than ready to leave when it was done.

  21. someofparts

    synoia – Just went and looked at pictures of New Forest. Wow. Pulled one to use as my screen saver.

  22. Ten Bears

    This was good, should do it again sometime.

  23. different clue

    @Ian Welsh,

    Have you ever visited Point Pelee’ in the late springtime? When the birds are migrating north, Point Pelee’ is visited by hordes of birdwatchers from both sides of the border and maybe from farawayer countries too.

    From a forest point of view, the Pelee forest has somehow evolved to be Hackberry-dominant with oaks and some maples. The gray smoothly multi-blistered bark of the thousands of Hackberry trees in all directions makes for a very strange and eerie seem-feel.

  24. Ian Welsh

    I have not, sounds beautiful.

  25. John Emerson

    Willy: I’m from Minnesota, north of Iowa. We are famous for 10,000 lakes (more, really) but 40% of our lakes and streams are polluted.

  26. different clue

    @Ian Welsh,

    Peak Spring Migration would be the time to do it. And an organized group of birdwatchers would be the group to go with. If it is at all affordable, there are pay-to-go birdwatching tours who go there. That’s how I got there. The leaves on the trees would still be small enough that one could see a long way into among and between the brushed matte finish of the gray multi-blistered hackberry trunks of the forest. Even if one weren’t into the birds part of it, one would be there, in that forest.

    Even after twenty years, the memory has a powerful grip on my brain.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén