Alex Chappell
from "Nature's Call" 3(2):4-5, 1992

I have many heros and heroines I look up to and often lean on in times of struggle. My heros are not, as you might guess, sports figures or wealthy tycoons or movie stars. No Liz Taylor, Henry Ford, or Magic Johnson on my list. In fact, my list is short and exclusive to a fault--take a look: Jane Goodall, Robert Frost, Saint Francis of Assisi, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey, and Chico Mendez. All naturalists, though some not obviously so. All naturalists, but much more than just naturalists; they are also poets, philosophers, prophets, and authors.

I have recently added to my list a naturalist that has provided me with comfort at a time of suffering. I have added to my list of heros Chris Maser, a gentle, kind, unpretentious man endowed with a gift--rare, but much needed in our time--the ability to teach. In his books, articles, lectures, and field trips, this man unselfishly gives of himself, articulately and effectively passing knowledge from his mind to yours or mine or anyone willing to learn. A walk through the woods with Chris is a learning experience second to none. Every step is the equivalent of reading a chapter in a book of mastering a complex concept, cracking a difficult code.

On a recent trip to the Northwest to view the rainforest and the ancient forest that remains, I decided to read again Chris Maser's book "Forest Primeval, the Natural History of an Ancient Forest." I've done this before; that is, I've read Edward Abbey's "Desert Solitaire" in the desert and "Hayduke Lives" in Canyonlands, and John Muir while young and in the Sierras. It enhances my ability to learn. I carried Chris Maser's words with me while hiking, running, camping, and contemplating in the ancient Douglas Fir forests of Oregon and Washington.

In his preface to "Forest Primeval," which is dedicated 'to Mother Earth who allowed me to make mistakes without judgement and who taught me to observe and to question…. ' Chris intrigued me with this opening paragraph:

'Friendship is one of the rare, beautiful gifts of life. I am fortunate to have you as a friend. Although I know the richness that your friendship gives to me, I can only guess what richness my friendship may give to you. But if I could, I know what I would give you to make your life as beautiful as mine.'

I was intrigued by the warmth of this statement and by its boldness, for I do not treat friendship lightly. And yet, now I feel friendship and I can truly say that he has made my life richer. The wonderful insights I gained from his words in Forest Primeval allowed me to appreciate the ancient Douglas Fir forest far beyond my personal ability. As a biologist, I had learned much about the intricate relationships in the ancient forest he speaks about, but I never had the appreciation he has given me. It took a skilled teacher to do this.

Events in our lives sometimes demand a second look, especially when, for no apparent reason, they coincide with other events. The day the 'God-squad' made their announcement to forego the spotted owl for a few logging jobs, i.e., exempt the owl from the Endangered Species Act protections, we were in the midst of an area in Oregon that had recently been clearcut. Mile after mile of devastation was playing for our eyes, a surreal life video of total devastation. The moment is deeply imprinted in my mind--the sadness that overcame me, the irrationality of the world around me at that point, the owl sentenced to death, for what? The headless aftermath around me, all that remained of a beautiful Douglas Fir forest, for what? Irony cut to the heart at that moment, for I had come to see the ancient forest. I had come to see the spotted owl. I had come to relish in learning from Chris the natural history of an ancient but living forest. Certainly the events in our lives sometimes deserve a second look.

Later on in our trip, I had somewhat recovered and as I progressed through Chris Maser's book and learned much about the forest around me, I found comfort in his teachings:

'Flying squirrels are associated with large amounts of rotting wood on the floor of the forest, especially large, fallen trees, because that is where their food, the belowground truffles, fruits most abundantly. Most of the truffles in one way or another are dependent on the rotting wood in the soil, and flying squirrels, whose main food is truffles, are the staple prey for the spotted owls. These owls are therefore indirectly dependent on the rotting wood.'

Fascinating! Intricate relationships. I began to heal.

In the preface to his book, this great naturalist says, 'So, I offer you my hand. Take it and come back in time with me that I may paint for you with words the beauty and dignity of the land as I have seen it.' His words are comforting to me now when in my mind images of destroyed, devastated forests fight for dominance over the images he creates of a beautiful, thriving forest alive with numerous creatures, plant and animals, all pulsating with life.

Even now, back in Colorado, I occasionally wake up with an ache, most like homesickness, for the ancient trees I recently saw, caressed, and smelled. Like any other creature, if one takes time, you begin to see the individual characteristics of these trees that make up the ancient forest. I miss them and I miss leaning back on my heels, stretching my neck to an extreme as I tilt my head back to try to see their tops--mostly to no avail, for they are so tall that you must step back several yards before you get a glimpse.

Chris Maser says of the profit-driven exploitation of our forests, 'thus, we transform spirited and lively mutual gifts into lifeless commodities, including ourselves--the human resource.' As I said earlier, the heroes on my list, including Chris Maser, are much more than naturalists; some are prophets.