On Monday October 26, at the Oregon Book Awards ceremony, I accepted the Stewart L. Holbrook Literary Legacy Award
from Oregon Literary Arts.
The annual award is given for significant contributions to Oregon literature — in my case, digging up some pretty cool lost Oregon stories like Vortex 1, the Red Hot and Rollin' Portland Trail Blazers of 1977, and some of the players who never received any credit for saving Oregon's ocean beaches from private raping.
I nearly collapsed when I heard the news at my teaching job at Newport High School. It was an unexpected honor for a writer who has self-published all his books about Oregon history.
As I gave my acceptance speech, I looked out to the audience and wondered how many people in attendance had actually read Holbrook, who died in 1964 before modern Oregon existed, and unquestionably wrote more words for publication than any other Oregonian. I doubt any writer will ever surpass it. Blogs don't count. I'm talking about articles and books. The man authored or co-authored 39 books and wrote hundreds of thousands of words in articles and essays for many prominent national magazines.
But my favorite story about Holbrook is how, late in his career, he invented the fictitious James G. Blaine Society, dedicated to undermining the development of the Pacific Northwest. He wrote: "...the Pacific Northwest is the Promised Land and we need to protect it from the steadily mounting danger of overcrowding by the hordes of Goths and Vandals who have been touring our blessed region in increasing numbers." In 1971 the organization was incorporated, mounted a satirical campaign to discourage people from moving to Oregon, and scored national headlines as a result. One of the stunts involved displaying anti-California billboards at the southern border.
Holbrook was one of my chief inspirations for publishing Citadel of the Spirit: Oregon's Sesquicentennial Anthology, a 500-page book that sold out a long time ago and that I have no plans to reprint. In the anthology I wrote a letter to Holbrook. Here it is:
Dear Stewart Holbrook,
As the most prolific writer in Oregon history, the writer who largely introduced Oregon to the nation's consciousness and created an indelible identity for the state, I found it incredibly difficult to choose an excerpt of your monumental body of work for inclusion in Citadel of the Spirit. I mean, how many words did you write about Oregon? One million? Two?
After much soul searching, I finally settled on your essay about the Tillamook Burn. It's not my favorite piece of your writing, but I've spent too many hours walking through Oregon clearcuts not to include it.
Stewart, what great and essential and rowdy stuff you wrote about Oregon! What a literary raconteur you were! I sense, however, that many Oregonians do not read you anymore, which deeply saddens me, for you, and you alone, were responsible for the presentation of one of the state's most powerful archetypes: the Weird and Wild Man of Wild Oregon.
Stewart, I suspect you wonder if this archetype remains. Despite enormous social and financial pressure for Oregonians to conform, television and the Internet, and recent attempts by Republican-led sessions of the Oregon Legislature and professional signature gatherers to homogenize the state, these Weird and Wild Men (and women) still exist. Indeed, they thrive in Oregon. If only you could you have seen a tree sitter trying to save an old growth conifer god, or Steve Prefontaine run, tasted one of the new beers (brewed by a woman!), or witnessed naked men and women ride their bikes through downtown Portland, then any doubt you might have entertained would have instantly vanished.
Your books are harder to find in the bookstores these days, and not too long ago I came across a library sale where some staffer had discarded you for less than the price of a half a gallon of gas. I bought it, of course, and gave it to a friend, one of the many newcomers to Oregon. They need to read you.
Rectification of your forgotten legacy is required. I know I will do everything I can to spread the word of your wonderful and hearty Oregon words. The sesquicentennial is the perfect time for them to be rediscovered.
÷ ÷ ÷
(From "The Great Tillamook Fire" by Stewart Holbrook, one of the essays included in his collection, Wildmen, Wobblies & Whistle Punks, edited by Brian Booth and published in 1992 by Oregon State University Press. The essay originally appeared in The American Mercury in 1946. From 1933-1951, a series of forest fires in the Coast Range burned over three hundred fifty thousand acres. Popularly known as the Tillamook Burn, the event has been deeply mythologized in Oregon history, much to the detriment of Oregon's northern coastal watersheds and the health of wild salmonids. The burned-over land was reforested (in mono culture Douglas fir) by aerial seeding (financed by public bonds narrowly approved by Oregon voters in 1948). Today, the Tillamook State Forest is "managed," if clearcutting on steep hillsides above salmon-bearing streams constitutes "management," by the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF). It is my sincere hope that when Oregon's bicentennial rolls around, clearcutting will have passed into the category of "Insane Things the State of Oregon Used to Practice," such as the forced sterilization of the mentally retarded and the shooting of wolves, and that significant tracts of the Tillamook State Forest will finally be set aside in reserves — or the "R" word, as ODF officials call it — and placed off limits to logging.)
It started a little after one o'clock on the hot and dry afternoon of August 14, 1933. Up to that hour the lookout forester perched on top of Saddle Mountain in Western Oregon looked down on the world as handsome as man ever saw. Below him there were thousands upon thousands of acres of trees, taller than masts, greener than the sea, thick, straight, and old with the centuries — the fir named for David Douglas.
He loved this world beneath him, did the lookout, and guarded it with all his faculties of sight, sound and smell. On this particular afternoon he was unusually alert, for the weather was bad. He scanned the hills, the valleys and the flats with a keen eye, looking for only one thing; and at a quarter past one on this August day he saw it. At that moment, as his eyes swept a wide arc to the north, a billow of white smoke came rolling up out of Gales Creek Canyon. He sighted along his fire finder a moment to make certain of the location, then picked up the telephone at his elbow and called his warden at Forest Grove, reporting in his usual laconic way and in the proper manner for lookouts, the section, township and range of what he said looked to be quite a smoke.
That was how fast word of what was to be Oregon's greatest forest fire, indeed the greatest forest fire North America has ever known, came out of the woods. A moment before the lookout got on the phone, a logger on a crew working deep in Gales Creek Canyon had watched while a length of wire rope used in yarding timber sawed across a wind-felled tree. An instant later a thin puff of smoke curled up. In another instant it was white still, but not so thin, and the watching logger shouted. "Fire!" he cried. Fire it was, fire to burn up four centuries of trees, fire to remove an immense natural resource from the face of northwestern Oregon.
That was how it began, and this tiny beginning, so uncalled for that the gods must have wept, was what the Pacific Northwest will remember for many a year as the Tillamook Fire. There have been forest fires more deadly to man than this one, but never one so deadly to trees, nor yet one so certain to be remembered so long.
Hundreds of men fought valiantly all night on that August 14, and for all the good they did they might as well have remained in their camps. The fire leaped into the tops of the trees and swept on with fearful speed, making its own wind as it went. Those great trees, many of them 300 feet high, burned like tremendous torches. I saw one great body of Douglas firs, each nearly 500 years old, burn savagely like so many huge columns of fat, spitting, crackling, then roaring like flame under a bellows.
Smoke rolled and billowed above the flames. It formed, for two days, a pillar and mushroom that stood clear and white and terrible five thousand feet above the forest. Presently ashes were drifting through the screens of the windows in Portland homes, fifty miles away. The wind over the fire rose at last to a hurricane and the noise was greater than the sea pounding the Oregon shore. It rumbled and thundered and was marked by the deep booming of ancient trees uprooted by the gale and crashing down.
Five hundred more men, then a thousand more, then two thousand were hurried to the lines that now formed a front along a hundred miles, and mariners far at sea saw dead embers fall on the decks of their ships, while the tides piled debris two feet deep along the Oregon beaches. Tillamook County, Oregon's great timbered pride, was going up in flames and smoke. I saw it burn and I never expected to see another sight like it.
Logging camps and the homes of stump ranches went up. Time after time, when the great blaze suddenly lashed out at the fire fighters like an angry snake, the crews had to turn and flee for their lives, leaving their trucks and bulldozers and pumps and hose and axes and shovels to burn on the spot.
Throughout the region deer in small herds and alone, frantic and confused, moved westward ahead of the flames, but many were caught and killed in their tracks. Cougars, the great cats of the woods, ranged with fear and uncertainty through the heavy smoke, coughing like humans and paying no heed to humans or deer. In a hundred streams, till then cool and clear, pools were soon white with the bellies of trout, dead from charcoal stomachs. (Fish leap at bits of charcoal, thinking them flies, and die from their lunch.) One could only guess, by the pitiful balls of naked flesh around after the fire had passed over, how the myriads of grouse and pheasants had fared.
A sudden shift of the wind, on the tenth day of the conflagration, brought immediate danger to Camp McGregor, logging headquarters of the Oregon-American Lumber Company. An hour later the main body of the fire was only half a mile from camp, the spot fires were springing up within a few yards of the buildings. Men fought these near fires, a rear-guard action, while wives and children were loaded aboard a logging train. The train pulled out just as the camp itself started to burn fiercely. It pounded down the mountain, rocked around curves and crossed dizzily high trestles that were beginning to smolder, while back on the mountain the camp was going up in smoke.
The little hamlet of Elsie, set almost in the middle of the gigantic destruction, was soon surrounded by the fire, and for twenty-four hours it was believed the Elsie and all it contained had been wiped away. But through some quirk in the wind, Elsie survived. Not so another hamlet, Lukarilla. Settlers watched while Lukarilla, with its homes and barns and fences and one store, disappeared entirely. Strangely enough there was no loss of life here. Only one person died in all the fire, Frank Palmer, a CCC boy from Illinois, who was killed instantly when a big fir, uprooted by the wind crushed him to earth.
The blaze burned itself out on August 24, after a fog blanket drifted in from the coast to smother it. In ten days it had killed twelve and one-half billion feet of fine timber. It burned over some 310,000 acres. How can one describe twelve and one-half billion feet of timber? There is no use piling it up, in Sunday-supplement style beside the Empire State Building, which it would put in shadow many times over. But perhaps it will mean something to know that during the year 1932, twelve and one-half billion feet of logs was enough to supply the needs of all the sawmills, lath mills, shingle mills and pulpwood mills in forty-eight states.
Desolation is the word to fit the scene in Tillamook following the fire — the Tillamook Burn, as it is called, covers an area half as a large as Rhode Island. No man who has stumbled through the thick ashes and over the blackened windfalls will forget it; the stark silhouettes of trees; the stumps and snags like sable tombstones; the acres as far as the eye can reach, all barren; the desolate silence, as though a cosmic hush has fallen over the stricken forest.
This terrible quiet, as though all nature were brooding over tragedy, will induce a mood hard for a man to shake off, especially so for a man who loves the forest, because he knows very well that a forest in its natural state is never quiet, never completely hushed. In summer the noises, though often muted, are obvious to the ear — the noises of countless beasts and birds going about their daily or nightly work of making a living. In winter, winds and frost add their bit of noise to that of the fauna still active, such as the squeak of a wood mouse under the snow or the soft whissh of a hunting owl.
That is why the utter silence of a burned forest fastens melancholy on a man — he knows nothing lives in this stark area, no tree, no bird, and often no fish. Gibbon sat amid the ruins of Rome and pondered the decline and fall of an entire civilization. Many a woodsman has sat on the blackened stump and pondered the destruction of an empire of forest with all it contained, wondering how many of its denizens escaped, how many tragedies of nest and burrow occurred. Were the young grouse able to follow their frantic mother out of the strange danger? Did some doe warn its mottled fawn in time — and did they run in the right direction? Did any fire department of the woods run a ladder up to the fourteenth story of an old snag where some flickers were nesting? And what happened to the sly, lone fox, a-mousing in the swamp, when suddenly he found fire on all sides?
Man was responsible for this devastation of an empire of timber. And promptly man set out to salvage what he could. Before the 1933 blaze had ceased to smolder, timber owners had formed a cooperative logging concern, and in the next dozen years had salvaged about one-third of the killed timber.
It is perhaps necessary to explain that fire does not burn up completely such gigantic trees as those in the Tillamook forest; what it does is kill them, whereupon hordes of parasites immediately set to work to eat up or rot the dead but still standing timber.
During the dozen years when salvage operations were going forward, nature was also taking a hand, trying to rectify the damage. The seed sources were many and they proved wonderfully fruitful; new growth sprang up and started to cover the ghastly scars, clothing the hills and valleys with new green. By the middle of 1945 on many thousands of acres there was timber, new timber, as tall as a small house.
I went over much of the Burn early in 1945 and was cheered by what I saw. The forest already was tall and thick enough for a man to get lost in. Birds had returned to the area. So had animals, and the elk and deer were numerous. Again the streams were clear and cold. Many trout leaped in them. Indeed, all was going well until a year ago, in 1945.
What happened then compounded tragedy on tragedy, and a part of this new disaster probably stemmed from the war in the Pacific. This was the manner of its coming:
Early in the morning of July 9, 1945, a watchman on the Salmonberry River, in Tillamook County, roused to find a canyon beneath his station filled with smoke. The sight gave him the creeps, and with good reason, for forest fires do not ordinarily start at such an hour, when humidity is high and the dew is heavy on trees and underbrush. The smoke appeared to have its source in an almost inaccessible spot, a high bluff across the canyon. Many woodsmen thought then, and still think, that this fire was touched off by one of the Japanese incendiary balloons which had been falling in the Pacific Northwestern since late in 1944.
In any case it was fire. The weather was ripe; humidity quickly fell as wind like the breath of an open-hearth furnace swept down the Columbia River gorge and so on into Tillamook County. Inside of two hours a great pillar of smoke, something like the one that rose here in 1933, had risen about four thousand feet. I stood on a ridge twenty miles away that afternoon and watched the cloud grow dreadfully fast. That night the whole horizon had a fitful red base.
The fire burned on. Two days later, as if planned by some horrible and efficient coordinator of forest fires, a second blaze broke out in Tillamook County, this time at Wilson River. This one was not set by an incendiary balloon from across the Pacific but (probably) by the cigarette of an employee of a logging concern. Twelve hundred men went to fight both fires. Their efforts, like those of twelve years before, were as nothing. The Salmonberry blaze and the one at Wilson River grew swiftly, and then, merging blew up into one great holocaust.
It was 1933 all over again, only this time it was for the most part a new forest that was being destroyed; and this time it burned longer, for no heavy fog blanket came in from the coast to stop it. The second Tillamook fire roared on through July, August, September and into October, covering an area of more than 150,000 acres, nearly all of it burned once before.
What makes the Tillamook Burn so deeply tragic is that so much of the area has undergone fire at least twice. A once-burned forest will recover, for seed sources are left from the older trees. But there is no hope for a forest burned a second time as thoroughly as this one was. The second time the flames took everything, including such a seeds as were stored in the forest floor, and virtually all the trees from which seeds might be expected to blow on the devastated acres. Unless man were to take hold in a big way, nothing but weeds would grow here and even weeds would have a hard time of it in the burned-out soil.
It is fortunate that Oregon has for its state forester a man who grew up in the Tillamook woods, a man who is more often in the woods than in his office. Nelson Rogers is now facing the most gigantic job of reforestation any man has ever faced, for this vast and desolate region must be planted by hand, either with seeds or with young trees, or with both. Rogers is equal to the task, and long since he has had his young men at work, planting thousands of seedlings every day, making firebreaks and roads for protection and telling the state of Oregon he must have $750,000 a year for the next six years if the job is really to get going as it should. His young men have invented two new tools that, loathing the Tillamook Burn as only foresters can, are working enthusiastically.
But it will be many years before Tillamook Burn will be anything more than a horrible example of what forest fires can do.