They call him “the guru”—University of Washington professor Jerry Franklin, who has made his home for years in our backyard on Squak Mountain. He earned his title for the insight that resulted from, of all things, a disaster.
Here he is in a setting dear to him, in a pine forest teaching the next generation of forest ecologists.
William Dietrich tells the now familiar story in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Final Forest.[i]
The blast laid trees over like a giant comb, burning off the needles and covering the mountainsides with logs like matted brown hair. Ash covered the duff of the forest floor. Humans and large animals caught in the blast were suffocated and roasted. But scientists were surprised at how many small creatures and plants survived the searing heat and began immediately to repair the ecological fabric. Fireweed poked through the ash. Ants scuttled across the gray powder. Gophers burrowed to the surface, beginning to mix the old soil with the new deposits. Insects and seed began to blow across the moonscape.
If you don’t remember that, you probably remember the spotted owl.
The Final Forest tells the story of the battle over our Pacific Northwest forests—unmatched for the amount of usable wood per acre they yielded, and, as it turned out—and this is where Jerry Franklin’s work was instrumental—for the vast and complex ecosystem they supported.
That’s what the spotted owl was about. It was an indicator species. As went the spotted owl so went the fragile forest ecosystem. And Jerry Franklin became the foremost voice in uncovering how complex the forest world was, and then how to find a happy medium.
It dawned on the scientists that leaving woody debris behind speeds the recolonization of the forest after a disturbance, be it volcano or clear-cut. Musing later on the twists and turns of his life that made him one of the Pacific Northwest's most famous and controversial scientists, Franklin remarked on the propitious timing of the eruption that jolted ecologists' thinking: if the blast had not leveled those 150,000 acres of trees, the campaign to preserve millions of additional acres of forest may not have developed quite the same way.
That story got me thinking about this one, and about what seems to be at first some pretty depressing odds, or, if you prefer, a pretty poor performance on the part of this sower who casts his seeds far and wide—recklessly, we might say—finding success only 25% of the time. On the path, on rocky soil, among thorns. All this seed, wasted. What farmer is this careless? What sower would waste such precious seed.
The gophers helped me to understand. Did you catch how their digging actually works to amend the dirt—mixing ash with the dirt beneath to help create a fertile soil once again suitable for sustaining life?
I thought about it too when we were cleaning up after burying our beloved Benny in our back yard. Here he is—attentive and patient and such a good dog for his 14 years of life.
Oh, here’s my current favorite picture. I really think it captures his best, part alien side, don’t you?
And that’s when it hit me. Soil doesn’t just stay the same. The army of gophers and worms amend the soil far better than I ever could, transforming vast acres of rocky soil into fertile fields ready to bear the seed to a bountiful harvest. And those paths. Anyone who has walked along a forest trail knows that those paths are constantly in danger of being swallowed by tree and plant that know no boundaries. And the birds survive on the seeds that they find. It is almost as if this world is not a factory farm, but a rich, vibrant ecosystem that is constantly in motion, recklessly scattering seed, yielding new life, rewriting the story.
And just maybe it isn’t about us anyway. Maybe its about this whole ecosystem and our role in the cycle, doing our part in making for life, fertilizing the seed, preparing, watering, tending, harvesting, and blessing. Taking the worst we see in our politics and our relationships and our societies, and amending it through faithfulness and love. Womb and tomb of this dazzling creation God has created the church to care for. The only mistake we could make would be to think it is about us, rather than about this great goodness of which we are a part, this ancient forest, this sublime creation that was here long before we were, and will be long after we find ourselves once again one with the dust and ashes, fertilizer for what comes next.
Beloved of God. Do not fear this time. Do not doubt that the Sower is sowing seeds of life far and wide. Only continue in this way. Give your life away and watch it come back to you.
[i] Dietrich, William. The Final Forest: The Battle for the Last Great Trees of the Pacific Northwest (Penguin Books, 1992), 99.