In honor of Arbor Day in April, which I did last year on this blog, I have chosen to write a tribute to one of my favorite trees. With its tall trunk, thick and gnarly bark, and wide branches that start growing 100+ feet up, you cannot mistake this tree which grows rampant in Oregon’s forest. The Douglas Fir, Oregon’s state tree, has flat, evergreen needles and distinctive cones that appear to have mouse tails dangling down from every orifice. Its uses by Native Americans include using the hard wood and bark for fuel, spears, spoons, and fish hooks. In addition, its infamously sticky pitch was used for sealing cracks in tools and for caulking water vessels. One of its most distinguishing characteristics is its resilience, its bark being resistant to fire and actually prefers severe heat conditions in which to open its cones and spread its seeds. An individual tree can live for over a thousand years, and stands of old growth Douglas Fir remain testaments to forest fires that traveled across the landscape centuries ago. (Botanical information gleaned from Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast by Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon, a staple for naturalists who live and work in this ecologically rich area.)
Without further ado, I offer you a story of the grand Douglas Fir tree, passed down to me orally by my predecessors at Portland Parks and Recreation.
Thousands of years ago, before you were born, before your parents were born, before your teachers were born, before your grandparents were born, before your great grandparents were born, even before your great, great, great, great, great grandparents were born, there lived a great tree. His name was Douglas Fir and he was considered the king of the forest, with his gnarly, thick bark and his high, tall branches. Stories were told about this tree king and his ability to live forever, as some had seen him standing tall and strong as a forest fire raged all around him, licking at his bark.
Douglas Fir wasn’t just a king, but he was a kind king. He was friends with all the animals in the forest- Squirrel liked to climb his bark and look for seeds, Snake liked to circle his trunk, scrounging for shrews or voles, Spider liked to spin webs in his thick bark, Blue Jay liked to call from the highest branch and Eagle perched at the crown, seeking out Rabbit on the forest floor. But Douglas Fir’s best friend of all was a creature that went by the name of Mouse. Small and grey, Mouse could camouflage herself quite well under Sword Ferns and forage for seeds, nuts, and berries. Mouse and Douglas Fir would play all day, Mouse scurrying up Douglas Fir’s thick bark and down his branches, and Douglas Fir tickling Mouse with his grey-green needles.
One day, as Mouse was on her way to visit Douglas Fir, she caught a whiff of a smell that made her heart seize in fear. It weaved its way up her nostrils, an acrid smell that reminded her of death. It was the smell of fresh smoke, and sure enough, he heard the sound of crackling far away in the distance. Soon, all of the friends of the forest broke through the clearing: Deer, Coyote, Bear, Raccoon, Eagle, Sparrow, Snake, Bobcat, and others ran, flew, scurried, and slithered as fast as they could in the direction of the river. But Mouse, with her small legs, didn’t think she could make it there in time. So she scampered as fast as she could to her good friend, Douglas Fir. Standing below his imposing frame, she frantically shouted, “Douglas Fir, Douglas Fir! There is a fire coming! I can hear its flames and smell its smoke, burning our forest home! Won’t you help me? I don’t think I can make it to the river in time!” And Douglas Fir, with his large heart, replied, “Of course, my dear friend Mouse. Come here.” And he lowered one of his long branches, indicating a large cone for Mouse to climb inside. So she settled herself in the cone, high in the branches, and felt the warmth of the fire as it tore through the forest. But she was not burned.
Not that much longer after, Mouse poked her head out of Douglas Fir’s cone. From her vantage point, high in the branches, she was astonished to see that her forest had been ravaged by the fire as far as the eye could see. The river was black with ash but still flowed steadily West. She smelled smoke, but was not harmed herself. She was very grateful for her friend and thanked him over and over.
And to this day, if you look closely enough, you can see Mouse’s tiny feet and tails sticking out of Douglas Fir’s cone, a memory of the friendship between these two creatures. They teach us all the value of true friendship and how the act of giving can be as priceless as life itself.