Where on Earth?! Rock Prairie

There was no sign or sound of the wind and rain that had vehemently lashed and pounded the hillsides all the day before and well into the late evening.  Alarmed by a power failure in the middle of the night, the dog had awakened us, as Rocky, the stalwart watchdog that he is, would dive for cover when anything made him afraid or nervous.

All was calm and quiet, and the bright white moonlight illuminated the evergreens outside the spacious bedroom windows overhead.  But the moonlight outside seemed almost too white, and in that moment the silence was broken by loud gunshot sounds.

What was going on?

I rushed through the house and out to the deck overlooking the valley, and to my amazement, six inches of snow coated the deck. It quickly became apparent that the moonlight was extra bright because of a surprising and unpredicted late night carpeting of snow.  It also became apparent that the suspected gunshot sounds ringing out were tree branches snapping and entire trees cracking and uprooting to their thunderous demise up and down the valley.

For the rest of the night and into the white daylight the crescendo of tormented trees continued, as the forests in all directions groaned under the heavy wet snowfall that had accumulated in a few short hours.

Branches still were occasionally snapping as Carlin and I slogged down the short driveway to survey the damage.  At the driveway’s apex with the county road our landmark myrtle tree was wrest asunder, with one of its three large trunks smashed onto the road in a spray of dense foliage.  Fortunately, two other main stems were intact down to their massive bole, which I termed my “wall of wood” because it paralleled the road for fully 14 feet and towered higher than a tall man’s height.

It was the myrtle trees that took the biggest hit, partly because they are an evergreen hardwood  and retain their leaves, and because their long heavy trunks lean out over the open road as their upper branches seek out sunlight.  With this freak storm of heavy wet snow, their tentacles let go of the soggy steep banks and they crashed with roots wads reaching skywards, cleaving great holes from the hillsides.

The valley road was a disaster zone, with the uprooted myrtles blocking travel in both directions, and the neighbor’s house and vehicles had disappeared beneath an enormous canopy of freshly fallen green.  From the steep bank above Mike’s house, a giant root wad with six tree trunks tore away in a mini landslide and draped over his roof and front lawn.

Bewildered, Mike approached us and we discussed the storm and his situation.  Luckily, all his windows and the main roof structure remained intact. We both knew the power would be off for days and we were always prepared for such winter events with wood heat and gravity feed water that ran freely out of the hills.  But Mike’s metal chimney pipe lay in the yard and smoke drifted from the hole left in the roof, making his first priority obvious.

Still in shock from the long night of trees falling, Mike was perplexed and did not think it was safe to tackle reattaching the heavy chimney on the slick, snow covered roof.  I nudged him along with the possibility that together we could manage the task, and offered to scale the roof.

With pruning shears handy, I ascended the pitched roof on all fours and tight rope walked along the roof peak to the chimney area.  Unlike frozen and packed snow, the light and fluffy layers proved easier to negotiate than it appeared. After I snipped away the small limbs that left an array of heavier branches, Mike passed up the chainsaw and scrambled up behind it.  Using the sturdiest limbs for support, he sawed off the remaining limbs as I pulled them away, teetering along on the roof peak.

After cutting through the chaotic tangle of limb draping the front porch overhang, we maneuvered the heavy chimney flue up, and onto the gently sloped porch roof.  Once again, Mike propped up in the heavy branches on the main roof at the gaping chimney hole, which still wafted wood smoke as a gentle reminder of the normalcy of the night before.  I heisted the ungainly flue pipe upwards, and Mike stood it up until he had it aligned with the connector slots, and with some deft twisting, the flue was locked into place.

*                     *                       *                    *                     *

By the following week roads had opened up, and with storm damage everywhere in the county, I knew it was a good time to salvage myrtlewood for my carvings.  I also knew it would be a treasure hunt and a search far afield, for not all myrtle is created equally, and most lowland myrtle grows a plain and unimpressive grain.  But the occasional tree, usually at higher elevations, will go wild with deep rich colorations, sharp contrasts and unusual figure, and of course the spectacular wood grain contributes to finer art works.

Warily, I drove over mountain  gravel roads, dodging broken limbs and muddy slide outs, up and over snow covered ridge tops, one with the title of “Hungry Mountain”, and down into the melted out valleys of only the color green. I scouted out the fallen myrtles along these mountain corridors, but I had an idea of my final destination and the possibilities that it might hold.

From two opposite directions the angled ridgelines gradually descended, pinching off the valley floor until they met where the winding river had cut its path.  At this apex where the river canyon formed and before it became surrounded by abrupt cliff walls, a verdant prairie crowded the steep slopes with a maze of creeks that chased the river and turned swamp-like in the wet months of the year. The occasional passerby would never know what sylvan mysteries were present in the imposing myrtle and maple giants that dominated the marshy fringes of the prairie.

Hidden in the soils was a magic mineral mix that infused these myrtles with an extraordinary concentrate of colorful figure.  I knew this from a past experience salvaging wood when the county cleared some of this land to open up meadows.  Lloyd, an ex- logger and my mentor of the myrtle woods, called me about the wood available with one of his pet phrases,  “ It’s enough to make a grown man cry.”  After rushing to the site, he showed me an ancient myrtle tree the cat had scraped up from the forest floor where it had lain for decades, if not centuries, and where the cat blade hit the log, it gleamed like a shiny black shoeshine.  Other myrtles in the same area had yielded a proliferation of tiger stripe, a black streaking on a chocolate brown field of wood.

So here I was again twenty years later, between the river and the marshes, seeking out that magic myrtlewood of unusual color and character that may have been downed by the snow storm.

And there it was; like an elephant carcass of the temperate rain forest, a gigantic tree had crashed across the road.  Its remains were sawed  into sections of immense boles and branching trunks, gnarls and splintered chunks, all pushed aside by the road crews.

With a rush of adrenaline I analyzed the exposed end cuts of the large trunks, and it was enough to “make a grown man cry”.  Bands of gold were interlaced with purple tone designs, alternating with ribbons of red and occasional black layers, all indications of the prime grain colorations that would run throughout the wood.

With two chain saws and the winch on my jeep pickup truck, I went to work, sloshing through a seasonal tributary of Lost Creek and using hillside gravity to my advantage in handling the dense, water logged hardwood. In the shadow of the immense splintered off stump that was once a monarch of the forest, I bucked a 3 foot diameter trunk  into 5 foot lengths, which I then ripped end to end.  These sections and smaller whole logs and random chunks of the larger bole of the tree [where the richest colorations are usually found] were manageable on the chainsaw mill back at the shop.

Three weeks after the dramatic snowfall surprise, I had twenty four  salmon cut out from this prize myrtlewood.  To help prepare for a new edition to be released in time for the next holiday season, the heat of summer will slowly coax out the moisture trapped in the 14” fish, reducing their weight by a third, and when the lacquer finish is finally applied, the colors of these natural wonders will once again leap out.

Myrtlewood Salmon Mural
© Terry Woodall

And so the earth wobbles along on its shaky axis, hurling off its dependents with  unpredictable chaos, and like sharp eyed crows swooping over a corn field, the humble and the proud  pick up the pieces and carry on.

Where on Earth?!  Rock Prairie and Kentuck Inlet

March 2012 in Coos County, Oregon

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One Response to Where on Earth?! Rock Prairie

  1. Beautiful writing and sculpture (as always!) Terry.

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