Evergreen scents and childlike wonder

by Brian Straniti, Central Cascades community coordinator

In the pilot episode of David Lynch’s cult classic television show Twin Peaks, the protagonist enthusiastically states as he is being escorted through Washington State, "Man... smell those trees. Smell those Douglas firs." As a native New Englander, I never understood Agent Cooper’s jubilation; nor could I understand the dense smell of tall western conifers crowded together on rural road. Sure, we have our share of conifers back east. However, the grandeur of the trees in my new home of Washington State shadows that of the trees I grew up with in the Northeast. It has been explained to me that this difference is the result of many factors including soil, climate, elevation, and historic forestry practices. I am nothing close to a forester or ecologist, so please take this as hearsay.

Now that I am a full-fledged Washingtonian (see: drivers license) I believe it is compulsory that I spend my time hiking and snowshoeing in our majestic, vast forestlands. While hiking, my partner and I have fun engaging in city slicker jokes. For example, “there better be a Starbucks at the next peak” or “this is a slog, I better get a million likes on Facebook for this.” Alright, they are funnier after 10 minutes of silence along a hot and dusty eastern Washington trail. One reoccurring joke between us, as we ascend to the top of the tree-line where the conifers are tightly congregating is, “They must have stolen this scent from Yankee Candle!”

Brain and his son Ellis on a hike in the Central Cascades.

This joke is an artifact of our disbelief that any collection of trees can be that fragrant. I can honestly recall the first time we encountered this hearty aroma while hiking up to the ridgeline in the North Fork area of the Teanaway. My mind quite literally went to car air fresheners and scented candles as I always assumed these items were an overstatement of the olfactory kind. I mean, sandalwood does not smell like that, does it?

It is clear at this point that I absolutely love the loftiness of height and smell possessed by these trees. And as I begin to take my 10-month-old son on hikes I believe he has caught my enthusiasm. I have noticed him gazing at the tall Ponderosas and laughing delightedly as the Kittitas County wind rushes through the pine needles. I often stop for him to admire the intricate puzzle like pattern on Ponderosa bark and reach out and grab the thick and deeply furrowed Douglas Fir bark.

It’s an old cliché that parenting reignites the wonder you once possessed as a child. As I get older, I am observant of how many of these old clichés are accurate. I am also becoming aware about how little I know about tree identification, yet, I am overwhelmingly fascinated by them. Varieties of hemlock, spruces, pines, firs and cedars have my brain in a knot as I try to talk to my son about the trees we hike with. What I do understand and convey to him is why proper forest management is important to the ecosystems and the surrounding communities, and the lessons which respecting nature can translate to kindness and empathy. My love for trees goes far beyond the smell and obelisk-ness of these old timers. Just because I cannot identify every tree in the forest does not mean I cannot understand their integral role with the health of the terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, and the communities who rely on this health.

One more quote from a different, more eccentric character in Twin Peaks better summarizes my relationship with trees, “I grew up in the woods. I understand many things because of the woods. Trees standing together, growing alongside one another, providing so much.” I may not fully understand the biology of the western conifers that tower over me as I hike by, but they have taught me a great deal about appreciating the need to coexist with the natural world, and the duality of humans and nature. If I cannot pass on the biological value of trees to my son, I hope to share the conservation and personal value these trees can provide, and the valuable lesson they can teach us about coexisting.

Banner photo by Cameron Karsten.