An image of an old growth forest. Trees tower above small green plants that are growing on the forest floor. Some sunlight streams through the trees and in the distance, some bits of blue sky can be seen.

The Future Logs of Unit 72

Thoughts from an imperiled old-growth forest

1. Because the U.S. Forest Service refers to the parcel of old-growth forest in the Yaak Valley of Montana as “Unit 72,” it will be easier to clear-cut. We learned this trick from history: Tattoo a number on someone’s arm. Refer only to that number. Then, erase the digits.

2. This forest is the rarest of forests—primary—never logged, and never burned, because it sits on a water table, which means that forest fires never licked it.

3. Some of its old larch have lived there for eight hundred years. When these larch were saplings, Marco Polo visited China. King John signed the Magna Carta. Genghis Khan founded the Mongol Empire.

4. Yes, names are important. Old larch. Subalpine fir. Western red cedar, white pine, ponderosa pine, cottonwood, aspen, western hemlock.

5. The future logs of Unit 72.

6. There’s but one road through the valley. Which is why the animals have maintained their own roads, the hoof-carved roads of moose and caribou wandering down from Canada snorting their hot blood, sunlight warming the funk of their dusty coats. The slinky roads padded by lynx and mountain lions. Long before the human animals know, the mule deer and elk know: what a good year for morels.

7. There are twenty-five grizzlies, because of the valley’s only-one-roadiness, because of its trees-that-were-here-before-the-Fourth-Crusade-sacked-Constantinople-iness. Each of the twenty-five grizzlies has been photographed with a wildlife cam. When I drive into the only town’s only store to stock up on granola and beef jerky, I see their photos pinned on the corkboard, like wanted posters. The cameras, positioned in the trees by hunters, shot the bears from above. Shot from above, the bears are nose-down, furtive, side-eyed, their shoulders wadded with steaky muscles.

8. The man who loves this forest was walking there one day when he found a storm-downed Engelmann spruce. He took a cut of its heartwood and gave it to a master luthier, because Engelmann spruce is lighter and less stiff than other spruce, which allows the guitar top to vibrate more, which creates stronger overtones, which produces a rich, complex, less compressed sound. The luthier, even now, is bent over his workbench, even now he is lifting his chisel, his rasp. The man who loves the forest plans to ship the guitar, when it’s finished, to different musicians, ask them to play it.

9. He believes the wood will remember thrilling to the quick chord progression of squirrel paws, will remember the percussive pileated woodpecker beating its head against a nearby stump. He believes the sound hole will remember the hollow to which the vixen returned after a long day of work, softly gumming a rabbit for her waiting kits. He believes—he really believes—the wood will remember the stroke of the wind’s fingers. That the wood will string that memory six times over its belly.

10. Let me say this another way. The weapon this man pits against the government-kissed bulldozers is song.

11. And when was anything ever saved, except by a love that’s grand and foolish? And when was anything ever saved, without first singing its name?

More Resources:

Visit the Yaak Valley Forest Council and Protect Ancient Forests to learn more about how you can support a wild Yaak and protect the ancient forest from Black Ram for another thousand years.

Read more about this old old-growth forest from Rick Bass and Bill McKibben.

Revisit Orion’s Winter 2021 cover story and Marina Tsaplina’s journey into Unit 72 with her forest guardian dream puppet.


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Beth Ann Fennelly, the poet laureate of Mississippi from 2016- to 2021, has won grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, United States Artists, and a Fulbright to Brazil. Her sixth book, Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, was an Atlanta Journal Journal-Constitution Best Book and a Goodreaders’ Goodreaders’ Favorite.