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Sawdust Mountain

Inquiries into a damp and diminished landscape

Photographs and text by Eirik Johnson

Published in the September/October 2009 issue of Orion magazine



WHEN I WAS YOUNG, my family would hunt mushrooms in the forests of the Northwest: chanterelles and corals in the fall, morels in the spring. We would drive down old dirt roads, pull off at a promising spot, and disappear into the woods. It smelled of sap and pine needles, and the ground was covered with a spongy layer of cedar bark. Some autumn afternoons we spent along the shallows of a river, watching salmon fight their way to spawning grounds upstream. Their scarred and crimson skins glowed in the river’s current. These were the icons of the region: forest and salmon, pillars of Northwest identity.

Returning to photograph the Northwest, I found a region with much history but an uncertain future. Complexities and contradictions challenge the Northwest’s sense of identity at every turn. The forests of the coastal mountains are a patchwork of logged clearings, young third- and fourth-growth timber, and occasional pockets of old growth. Burn piles of tangled branches are heaped on muddy ground. Mountains, covered with Douglas fir seedlings barely a foot tall, appear physically shrunk. The mill towns and ports that once hummed with activity day and night are shadows of once-important communities. Old, rusted machinery and pier pilings recall a time when industry and opportunistic pioneers set their sights on the forest.

Now an eerie, unhurried mood pervades these communities as they search for a refashioned sense of purpose. Homes lie vacant and storefronts closed, streets empty other than the occasional teenagers who wander with no particular destination. They recall a young Kurt Cobain, who spent his high school years drifting and struggling for purpose in the mill town of Aberdeen, Washington.

There is a sense of diminishment and salvage about the region now. The lumber mills that do remain are still a primary employer for timber towns and the main reason for their continued survival. One, Seaport Lumber in Raymond and South Bend, Washington, was closed for years before its current owners resumed the mill’s operation. Today it employs many people from the community, most barely out of high school, turning out not spruce or cedar, but boards of once-scorned alder, bound for furniture factories.

Above the Lower Hoh River, on muddy foothills, Juan Abalos salvages shingle bolts, looking for marketable wood in the rotting stumps of cedar trees logged years before. His chainsaw stands as high as he is tall. Juan is like many immigrants, mainly from Latin America and Southeast Asia, who made their way to the remote reaches of the country’s northwest corner. With local populations falling, immigrants have flooded in, filling the need for cheap manual labor, clearing land, planting tree seedlings, shucking oysters, and gutting fish.

Juan’s life lies in stark contrast to Elizabeth “Missy” Barlow’s. Eighty-seven now, she was raised on the banks of the Hoh on land her grandfather homesteaded after the Civil War. I first met Missy in Forks, at a small store featuring her artwork. She paints with oils and watercolors and creates delicately composed landscapes from bits of dryer lint. She took me down an old road to visit the massive Sitka spruce she had stumbled upon as a young woman collecting pine cones for extra money. The base of the tree measures nearly eighteen feet in diameter; it is estimated to be six hundred years old. Once surrounded by thick forest, the spruce stands alone in the middle of a field. The top fell years before and lies below, slowly rotting back to the Earth.

The wild salmon I remember still return to spawn in coastal rivers, but their numbers are a small fraction of what once were thriving runs. I spent a cold November day with Carl Chastain, head of the Pacific Coast Salmon Coalition, as he visited a handful of small creeks near the Sol Duc River. At each creek, Carl would stop the truck, climb up onto the cargo bed, and toss the carcasses of hatchery salmon into the water below, hoping that they will feed salmon fry downstream as uncounted wild salmon bodies once did.

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Photographer Eirik Johnson’s second monograph, Eirik Johnson: Sawdust Mountain, was published in 2009. He is represented by Rena Bransten Gallery in San Francisco and G. Gibson Gallery in Seattle.

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