[NOTE: This essay began as a prose poem entitled Gwynn Creek on February 14, 2015 and has since morphed into more standard prose. You may also find it posted as a guest blog at Oregon Wild. (TAT)]
Astrophysicist Janna Levin knows a lot about the universe. She says that it formed from a Big Bang that might have been one of many big bangs but this one banged just right and formed billions of galaxies with gargantuan black holes at their centers, galaxies that occasionally eat one another while moving apart with increasing speed until eventually they will be separating faster than the speed of light and will become unseeable and unkowable. Mind-boggling. And in the vastness of this unlikely universe travels a tiny smidgeon of coalesced stardust we call Earth, carrying upon it an even smaller bit of matter, the North American Plate, that creeps inexorably toward the northwest, throwing up mountains, capturing sea stacks, and absorbing the brunt of weather and waves coming off the not-so-pacific Pacific Ocean.
A small wrinkle of a canyon is etched onto the lip of the continent by a rushing strand of tarnished silver. Gwynn Creek hurries downward through two and a half miles of what has become one of the rarest commodities in the universe—an undisturbed temperate coastal forest. The creek begins on a ridge a little southeast of Cape Perpetua, one of the most inappropriately named landmarks along this tectonically active and eroding coastline. The upper reaches of the drainage are mostly dry-tolerant Douglas fir that give way to Sitka spruce and western hemlock closer to the ocean where moisture is more persistent.
Someone in this universe thought this canyon might hold something worth knowing. The federal government designated Gwynn Creek and nearby Cummins Creek as a Research Natural Area. In bureaucrat speak, the place will serve “as a monitoring area to determine effects of management techniques and practices applied to similar ecosystems.” Put more bluntly, in our rush to dismantle the coastal forests we have left very few places like Gwynn Creek. Now we can’t even know what we’ve lost.
You don’t need a degree in forest ecology to know that Gwynn Creek holds secrets. When you, a mobile wet bag of star particles, begin walking up the trail from Highway 101, noise from cars quickly disappears beneath the sound of rushing water. Even in this driest of winters, the canyon bottom remains moist. There is a healthy odor of decay, of living things returning to dark matter. Okay, not the Dark Matter, but soil is dark and it does matter. Here, what matters is that the Big Bang has coalesced and become organized into living, breathing organisms interacting with one another to form a larger living, breathing thing. We should be finding out how all this synchronic living and breathing works. But intuition says there is something else living here, something perhaps beyond the purview of ecology.
We think we know about four percent of the “known” universe. That doesn’t sound like much. What might the huge spruce know, their trunks covered in square gray alligator lizard scales with fine green moss creeping upward toward nesting places of Marbled Murrelets? What of the Douglas fir, beings of unutterable magnificence daring us to stretch our short arms around trunks several hundred years in the making, brown bark etched by wavering longitudinal canyons bearing black fire scars? These giants must have survived the conflagration that 150 years ago turned their kin on the ridges into gushing plumes of elemental orange flame, “back to normal” as James Cassidy would say. Maybe the trees know about a different four percent of the universe. Heck, maybe they understand Dark Energy.
These enormous trees that are only pinches of matter are keepers of the shady rain-fed damp that holds the salamanders, silent ones who keep their secrets close. We could learn a thing or two from salamanders. Where are those giant Coastal Giant Salamanders who made the not-so-giant gill-breathing baby living beneath a small rock in the trickling spring, the collected rain that whispers incessantly over tree roots on its way down to Gwynn Creek? Salamanders keep to themselves, inviting us to learn on their own quiet terms. We talk constantly, baring all of our small secrets while holding our big ones close, like old trees we can’t wrap our arms around.
There must be other secrets. What of Gwynn Creek herself? Her water is clear and cold, protected from erosion and sun by all those big trees. She also talks constantly, but not in the way people talk. She is the collected amplified whisper of rain, speaking in gurgling riffles, small plunges, and other tiny leaps of gravity-driven faith that carry her home to the white surf. Along the way she washes the flanks of cutthroat trout seeking refuge from an ocean agnostic to the place of fish in this small corner of the huge universe of which we know so little.
What of the people? Hundreds of generations of laughing, crying, living, dying humans preceded us in this very canyon. Five different bands of folks knew and kept secrets that are now mostly lost, reduced to a few relics and old photos by people who pushed them from present and future consciousness, new people with no use for mystery. We hike the trail, our incessant talking keeping old secrets at bay, preventing new ones from forming. We have much to learn.