The Never-Ending Story of Driftwood

     In a grove of quaking-aspen trees nestled in the Deschutes-River canyon of north-central Oregon lives a female pileated woodpecker whose nest and young occupy a dead aspen.


An adult pileated woodpecker (left). "Pileated woodpeckers create large cavities in dead trees wherein the rear their young (right).

     How a tree dies determines how it decomposes and reinvests its biological capital (organic material, chemical elements, and functional processes) back into the soil, and eventually into another forest.
     How a tree dies, which may take decades to a century, is important to the health of the forest because its manner of death determines the structural dynamics of its body as habitat. A tree may die standing as a snag to crumble and fall piecemeal to the forest floor over decades. Or, it may fall directly to the forest floor as a whole tree. Regardless of how it dies the snag and the fallen tree are only altered states of the live tree, as I said before. Consequently, the live old-growth tree must exist before there can be a large snag or a large fallen tree.


Pileated woodpeckers have pecked their way into the mainstream of carpenter-ant life. Carpenter ants are their main food.

     Structural dynamics of a dying or dead tree, in turn, determine the biological/chemical diversity hidden within the tree's decomposing body, greatly affecting the ecological processes that incorporate the old tree into the soil from which the next forest must grow. What goes on inside the decomposing body of a dying or dead tree is the hidden biological and functional diversity that is totally ignored by economic valuation. Consequently, the fact that trees become injured and diseased, die, and remain in place is critical to the long-term structural and functional health of a forest.
     The forest is an interactive, organic whole defined not by the pieces of its body but rather by the interdependent functional relationships of those pieces—the intrinsic value of each piece and its complementary function as they interact to create the whole, such as pileated woodpeckers and carpenter ants.
     These largest of western woodpeckers feed predominantly on carpenter ants, which often chew their colonies into areas of dead wood in living trees. Consequently, the mother woodpecker flies to a live Douglas-fir, where she knows carpenter ants dwell. There, she excavates large holes into the middle of ant life, capturing ants as they move along their now-exposed tunnels.
     The Universe that we humans perceive through our senses is undefinable, no matter how hard we try to make it otherwise, because words--collectively, language--are only symbols, metaphors that defy a direct approach either through touch or intellectual confinement. The word symbol comes to us from the Greek sumbolon and means a token for identification; metaphor comes to us from the Greek Metapherein and means to transfer.
     Because each word is only a symbol, a metaphor, it is not possible, for instance, to define "ancient forest," although I once wrote a whole book--Forest Primeval--trying to do just that. I failed, however, because I could not define "Creation," or "Universe," or "life," or "death," or "tree," or "Earth." I could only assign descriptors of what they appear to be, as in the dictionary, but I could not, and cannot, define what they are because I cannot define the interrelatedness of the Creative processes embodied in infinite becoming. In other words, be they the Universe, the Earth, or a tree, all things are ever in motion, always in the infinite fluidity of Creation, never static, never in the finite of the concrete, of the created. How can we define something that is infinite motion, infinite change, infinite Creation? We cannot, so we must use a symbol or a metaphor to reach beyond the limits of understanding.
     To make this point as clear as possible, let's take one word, "driftwood," and examine it. According to the 1999 Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, "driftwood" means: (1) "wood floating on a body of water or cast ashore by it." (2) "such wood adapted for use in interior decoration. --adj." (3) "of, pertaining to, or made of driftwood: a driftwood lamp." Technically, therefore, driftwood is "defined" as wood floating on or washed up by water, which makes it not only part of the forest but also part of the world's lakes, streams, rivers, estuaries, and oceans. But then, what is "wood?" Where does it come from? What kind is it? How does it get into the water in the first place? Why does it float? What does it means to "float?" What does it mean to "drift?" Why does it drift? And what is "water?"
     "Water," like "wood" and "drift," is also a metaphor, which is technically defined as: "a transparent, odorless, tasteless liquid, a compound of hydrogen and oxygen freezing at 32° F or 0° C and boiling at 212° F or 100° C, that in a more or less impure state constitutes rain, oceans, lakes, rivers, etc.:  it contains 11.188 percent hydrogen and 88.812 percent oxygen by weight," and so on, and so on. Water is essential for all plant and animal life and is the most widely used of all solvents.
     But how did the two hydrogen atoms and a single oxygen atom happen to be in that particular time, in that particular place, under that particular circumstance, in the proper numerical combination to unite and form water? And then, what caused them to unite and why? Furthermore, "hydrogen," "oxygen," and "atom" are not only part of water--and wood--but also symbols in their own right of that which is beyond the limits of our understanding and hence our definition.
     What is "water?" How is it formed? Where does it go? What does it mean to drift or float in or to be washed up by water? What is wood? Where did it come from? What kind of wood is it? What is its genetic history? How did it happen to be here, now, in this particular time, in this particular place, under this particular circumstance? Where is it going? How long will it be recognizable as wood before it is finally broken down to its elemental components, its atoms that will be recycled through the universal atomic interchange to become something else, and then something else, and then something else ad infinitum? And where did the atoms come from before they joined to become water and wood?
     "Atom," what is an atom? The first definition the dictionary gives is: "the smallest component of an element having the chemical properties of the element, consisting of a nucleus containing combinations of neutrons and protons and one or more electrons bond to the nucleus by electrical attraction; the number of protons determines the identity of the element." Where did atoms come from in the first place? How do they travel? How to they combine and recombine? Have two atoms ever combined with each other more than once in time? If so, how long were they apart before they were attracted to each other again? How many different things has a given atom be a part of in its lifetime? Has an atom ever nurtured a tree as part of a water molecule and then, later in life, become part of a piece of driftwood? These are but a few of the infinite dimensions embodied in the symbol, the metaphor, of "driftwood."

After many months at sea, the fallen tree, sculpted years ago by a pileated woodpecker, rests on a beach until the next large storm carries it once again out to sea in the never-ending-story of driftwood.

     "Driftwood" is thus a vision from beyond language, beyond any possible embodiment of meaning in a word. It symbolizes the Eternal relationship between wood and water, between forest and sea, between life and death. It symbolizes the ever-present moment, which is at once the past, present, and future--here, now, in this nanosecond contained. "Driftwood" is but an infinitesimal glimpse into the wonder and mystery infused in the human psyche from the outer reaches of Infinite Creation that we call "the Universe."

© chris maser 2002. All rights reserved.

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