Saturday, September 7, 2013

Musings: Before and After

As all of us well know, there are some experiences in life that, once we've gone through them, forever divide our life story into "before " and "after". Major events such as getting your driver's license, getting married, having children, losing a loved one - all of these are instances where our lives "after" the event are radically different than they were "before".  This phenomenon came to mind during a recent hike as I realized that there is another "before and after" in my own life: nature experiences before my ecology education, and nature experiences after my ecology education.  I found that going on a hike armed with knowledge about the ecological history of our region was a much different experience than when I had hiked it previously, in blissful ignorance of the history that was writ in the scenery all around me.

The hike of which I speak is the Big Four ice caves, located in the midst of the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.  Most people in the area have either heard of or hiked this beautiful, well-maintained trail that slopes gently uphill toward the ice caves nestled at the base of the imposing Big Four mountain.  I first hiked this trail when I was a child, but I unfortunately have a horrible memory and so don't recall very much about that experience.  The second time I hiked to the ice caves was a few years ago, when I was just beginning my environmental studies education, but yet still didn't know enough to tell a hemlock from a Douglas fir. During this hike, I marveled at the beautiful scenery, breathed deeply the intoxicating fresh air, tilted my head back to squint at the treetops against the rainy gray sky, and had it not been for the manicured gravel trail and boardwalks, I could have easily been convinced that I was the only human to have ever trod on that piece of earth. I felt as though I was in an undiscovered wilderness.

The feeling was entirely different during my most recent excursion to the ice caves.  Immediately after setting foot in the forest, I was thrown off by an overwhelming sensation that something didn't feel right here. Scanning the trees around me, I quickly realized what the problem was: I stood in a homogeneous forest comprised almost solely of hemlock trees.  Forests are not supposed to be homogeneous.  Typically in this region, you would expect to see varying combinations of hemlock, western red cedar, Douglas fir, maple, and alder, among others.  These trees would be at different stages in their lifespan: some young trees still in the early years of their growth, some towering mature trees, and some older trees that were in their declining years, ready to topple over in the next windstorm. However, none of those sights were to be found: all of these trees were hemlock and they were nearly all the same size.  That got me wondering: was this was a second-growth forest that took root years ago after this land had been logged?  Clearly, this was not "undiscovered wilderness" after all.

Yep.. nothing but hemlocks...

After doing a little extra research after returning from my hike, I found that in fact, in the late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries, there was a busy mining and logging industry in what is now the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.  There was also plenty of recreation for the wealthy to be had at the Big Four Inn. Built in the early 1920's, the inn featured a golf course, man-made lake, tennis courts, and of course - the hiking trail to the Big Four ice caves. Eerily enough, the inn was burned to the ground 64 years ago today, on Sept. 7th, 1949, and all that remains is the fireplace, currently located at the Big Four picnic area. 

 The Big Four Inn and cabins at the base of Big Four mountain.  

There certainly was a great deal of human activity in the area, and although I can't verify for sure that the forest surrounding the Big Four ice caves trail was logged at some point in its history, all of my ecology studies tell me that it probably was.  Without the knowledge gleaned from my ecology courses, I would never have thought to investigate the history of the area and find out the story behind the scenery.  Before: blissful ignorance of feeling as though this was untouched wilderness.  After: noticing incongruousness in the ecology of the forest that leads to a revelation that in fact, this piece of nature has been significantly altered by the presence of humans.

Is there something wrong with feeling as though you're in an undiscovered wilderness when in fact, you likely stand in the midst of a second-growth forest that has not escaped the impact of humans? Should everyone be expected to recognize historical human impacts in the ecology of a certain area?  No, not at all.  You know why? That lost-in-the-wilderness feeling, that feeling of discovery and connecting to wild nature-- that is what makes people fall in love with it.  That is what fosters a sense of awe and respect for nature, and what inspires people to protect it.  So while knowledge is a good thing, at the same time, I think both the earth and ourselves will benefit from having more individuals experience that feeling of discovery.  Not everyone has to be an ecologist, but if we can somehow find ways to connect with nature that causes us to fall in love with it and fight for its protection, then in some way, each of us can be an environmentalist.  And there is nothing wrong with that!

I would say this is worth protecting!

1 comment:

  1. How wonderful it must have been for the person who witnessed such beauty for the very first time. No one else had yet been blessed by the beauty, only the person who first came upon it.

    Conversely, how utterly sad it would be if that first witness were to look at the same scene now. He or she would not believe their eyes, and grief would ensue.