Back in the ForestPosted: March 7, 2015
…a realm that always linked ooze to land – running water, which is not water in quite the same sense as sea or lake. Seas and lakes are conservative, placidly sitting in their basins, jealously guarding the wealth of their depths. Rivers and creeks are radical – cutting new channels, throwing out sporadic bonanzas such as salmon runs – but poor compared to the old, established seas.
~ David Rains Wallace (“The Klamath Knot”)
The day is clear and crisp with just the right angle of the sun to let me know that winter is waning and spring is coming. A friend and I walk upstream, tracing the sinuous course of the creek as it winds its way among the hillsides, carving its way long ago through the soft geology of this recently uplifted place. After going through a steep-sided canyon, here the topography and creek flatten out. The steep banks of the canyon portion were lined with conifer – second-growth Douglas-fir and redwood; but here in the flat, soggy bottoms of the flood plain red alder and willow abound. Their leafless forms stretch to the sky like out stretched arms saluting the sun.
I brush past a California bay shrub, releasing the spicy, menthol-like aroma of its leaves. Also known as pepperwood, its leaves can be used in to spice up stews and sauces just like Italian bay leaves. Native Americans throughout California have used the leaves, fruit, nuts, bark and wood of this species for a variety of reasons ranging from food (the nut) to cooking (leaves ) to medicine (leaves and nutmeat for sores, aromatic steam from leaves for colds and sinus infections as well as other uses). I grab a leaf and gently crush it in my hand releasing its pungent smell. This aroma will linger on my hand for the rest of the day reminding me of this moment, this light and this tree; and reminding me of the powerful medicine of this plant and the people who have used it since time immemorial.
We meander our way among the alders and willows, enjoying the dappled sunlight of this riparian realm. Low gradient sections like this are key rearing habitat for coho salmon. Coho eggs hatch and the young come out of the gravels whereupon they seek out these slack water habitats to grow fat and healthy (hopefully) before migrating out to sea. I stop and let this reality sink in. I look around me: the creek flows off to my left, a slack-water side channel is straight ahead and all around are the grayish-white trunks of alder and willow trees, fracturing the slanted light of late winter into a million points of dappled light. I imagine young coho swimming in and amongst the trees, going back in the forest, hiding and seeking amidst the shadows and among the roots. In this moment, at this time and in the place I realize that salmon, coho at least, are as much a forest creature as they are a river or ocean dweller. They may grow up interlaced with riparian trees and upon their return and subsequent death their carcasses will decompose into the very soil upon which these trees grow. Their nutrients, both oceanic and riverine, will become alder, willow, Douglas-fir and redwood. My eyesight loses focus for a second and all lines, all boundaries blur. I blink in the sunlight and my focus comes back. There is still the creek, the old side channel and the riparian gallery but things seem more fluid than they were before. The salmon go back in the forest and the forest blends with the creek in an infinitely fluid and beautiful co-existence.