Life in death: the Wind River Arboretum

The arboretum in spring

It had been a year of deaths, injuries, setbacks, disasters, tragedies, politics, challenges, and general life Overwhelm. It was time for a visit to the Wind River Arboretum.

A place of trees

The Wind River Arboretum, part of the Wind River Experimental Forest in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest near Carson, Washington, was established in 1912, when the Forest Service planted tree species from all over the world to compare their lifespan to native Pacific Northwest trees. Some succumbed to the long, dry summers; others died during cold snaps or heavy, wet snowstorms; others slowly died from needle diseases in the humid climate. Of course, after testing more than 165 species over 90 years, it’s obvious that native Pacific Northwest Douglas-fir, hemlocks, true firs, and cedars grow best. Most of the non-native trees at the arboretum have died, and others are struggling.

The arboretum as winter draws near

The arboretum today is a peculiar sight. Post markers indicate trees long since fallen to powder. Aluminum ID plates remain nailed to dead and dying trees, resembling the cheap pauper’s headstones in a cemetery. A lone, random picnic table hosts no one but squirrels; a single rotting bench seats no one but birds. Dead branches and truncated trunks scratch at the sky. In the lush green of spring and summer, ground cover obscures a trail winding through what sometimes looks like a normal forest under a brilliant blue sky. In the fading warmth of fall, luminously golden maple and chestnut leaves glow against brown ferns and dark evergreens.

An arboreal Body Farm

We expect an arboretum to be full of life, and many different kinds of life. But this is an arboretum full of death, and many different kinds of death, and in that death, there is life. Fallen trees are mostly left to rot away, housing insects that birds eat. Mushrooms sprout from mossy bark; I found a dropped knife from a ‘shroom forager. Understory grows thick and snaggly. Birds sing, rodents scuffle, moths flutter, deer browse. On Google Earth, over decades, compared to surrounding areas, the canopy exposes — not obscures — the ground.

“The test of a first-rate intelligence,” F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote in “The Crack-Up,” “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Visiting the arboretum that is both dead and alive, a success full of “failures,” helps me do this. It fosters curiosity, resilience, balance, open-mindedness, and mental flexibility. In my daily life, I pay a high price to maintain a high level of cognitive dissonance. As Fitzgerald describes it, “…my life had been a drawing on resources that I did not possess, that I had been mortgaging myself physically and spiritually up to the hilt.” The arboretum pays some of that back.

“I must hold in balance the sense of futility of effort and the sense of the necessity to struggle; the conviction of the inevitability of failure and still the determination to ‘succeed’ — and, more than these, the contradiction between the dead hand of the past and the high intentions of the future.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up” (1936)

Long-term learning

The arboretum in fall

If you believe that everything in life is a learning experience, as I do, there are no lose-lose scenarios, because even the mistakes and failures have educational value. Even if a tree species died, the experiment still wasn’t a failure. The arboretum is a learning experience that continues well past its expected usefulness; to me it is a reminder that we never ever stop learning.

I appreciate the long-term view inherent in the arboretum’s continued existence. In this fast-paced, short attention span, instant gratification, 24/7 world that we live in, this long-term thinker finds the arboretum’s longevity incredibly reassuring. Somebody besides me has taken the long view. Somebody else wants to make room for the past in the future. Because some days I feel like I’m the only one who does.

A living (and dying) contradiction

The Wind River Arboretum shows me that it is possible to persist, and even thrive, as a living, breathing contradiction. It gives me hope to see that some actually respect that, value it, learn from it, support it, protect it, and want it to continue. So it makes it easier for me to continue, too.


Michelle Rau blogs on various topics including midlife fitness in Fit, Fudge Fiftyand writes fiction in various genres.

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