My mother never let me shirk trash duty. No matter how much I begged, no matter how much I railed against the Machiavellian family dynamics that forced me to take out the trash every night after dinner, my mother remained unmoved.
“Listen here, buckaroo,” she used to say, pointing at me with a wooden spoon. “I just spent half the day slaving over dinner and the least you can do is take out the trash. Besides, it’ll build character.”
“But Mom!” I wailed, “Coyotes will eat me!”
“Fine. Take Emily Dickinson with you.”
(Emily Dickinson was the name of our basset hound, a pitiful creature who waddled through life in a remarkably portly and morose fashion. Her companionship was little consolation.)
Before you scoff at my cowardly reluctance to finish my chores, it’s important to understand that our house was surrounded by a vast forest of pine trees. When I took out the garbage, I wasn’t blithely strolling to the end of a suburban driveway; instead, I was venturing out into utter darkness, into a wilderness rustling beneath a web of stars. Taking out the garbage at night was less like performing a mundane duty and more like participating in a deep-sea dive. I used to dash out into the yard, imagining myself buckling into an old-fashioned diving bell and preparing to plumb the depths of the Mariana Trench. It would have an apt comparison, if it weren’t for the basset hound waddling at my heels.
Despite my unwillingness to carry out my task, I always found myself lingering out by the garbage cans after depositing the trash. In my childish imagination, the house became the bulging prow of a ship plunging into a sea of pine trees, while the yard around me became terribly small. It was a meager clearing in the heart of an immense forest, and it seemed the pine trees would reclaim the territory we’d borrowed at any moment.
I stood alone in the yard, watching the pine forest rise above me like a tidal wave. Beside me, Emily Dickinson was howling at something way out in the darkness of the woods.
Over fifty percent of Washington’s forty-odd million acres of land are covered with forest. At a glance, this statistic might not seem terribly impressive, but consider that Washington’s forests are vast enough to support over 100,000 jobs (including about 40,000 direct jobs), $2.5 billion in direct wages, and nearly $30 billion in gross business income, as of 2013. These are a lot of trees we’re talking about, here.
And they aren’t all the same, either. Washington is home to some 25 different native tree species, including the abundant western hemlock, the towering Douglas-fir, and the western red cedar, a ponderous organism that can live longer than 1,000 years. Of course, as a child, I could no sooner identify a Sitka Spruce than tie my own shoes (while I was uncommonly accomplished when it came to abstract activities like reading, it took me an embarrassing length of time to master the simple mechanics of threading my laces into knots). As such, I called everything a pine tree, and remained happy in my ignorance.
If, however, I was blissfully unaware that the trees in my backyard were members of an astoundingly rich biomass, it was not for lack of enthusiasm. I more or less grew up out of doors, as my mother operated under the assumption that a kid who ran around in the woods from sunup to sundown was unlikely to give you much trouble once you finally allowed him to enter the house. Accompanied by my brother, sister, the next-door neighbors’ kids, and our various and assorted dogs, I spent my childhood exploring a vast forest of pine trees. During the summer, we constructed forts up in the canopy with bits of salvaged wood; during the winter, we tumbled into muddy ravines lined by the alien shapes of pine boughs drifting through banks of cloud. I don’t know what my relatives thought of us, running around in the wild like that; compared to the suburban sprawl of the East Coast, the pine forests of Washington State must have seemed like the veritable, teetering edge of the Earth.
Surprisingly, I used to be frightened of pine trees. Standing below their towering forms with Emily Dickinson at my side, I imagined Washington’s trees to be menacing giants, grinning Titans who’d lumbered out of the dreams of prehistory; it wouldn’t have surprised me if they’d hauled me out of my bed and eaten me alive. Now, however, I think a little differently. I’ve lived in a few places since I first left home, and most of them didn’t possess the sheer mass of wilderness native to Washington State. Few places on Earth, I realized, are fortunate enough to accommodate serried ranks of pine trees marching toward a boundless horizon. As such, the giants that terrified me as a child became venerable grandfathers, elders with creaky joints and trailing, mossy beards who waited patiently back at the homestead, hoping their wandering grandchildren would write them a letter once in awhile.
Once upon a time in the recent past, I took out the trash in Austin, Texas. Emily Dickinson had long since passed away, and so I made the trek alone, although it was hardly long enough to matter: I simply walked out to the end of an urban driveway lined by manicured shrubs. My simple task completed, I looked right and left, peering out at the opposite ends of my street. The brake lights of a car flashed suddenly below the street lamps, and a dog barked somewhere in the dusk. I realized I’d spent most of my life frightened of the wilderness, never thinking that one day I might be equally terrified of losing it.