7. The story of the third forest

Yerba Buena Harbor, 1853

Patience yet.  In due time we’ll get to the Boat.  We still need to finish with the forests.

The story of the third forest

Once upon a time, through a series of ecosystem successions, great hardwood forests emerged on the eastern seaboard. The first Europeans to experience the woods were astonished at the almost park-like feel – the result of centuries of thinning and burning of the understory by the native inhabitants who each spring would clear the woods to make it easier to track and follow game. The Europeans experienced grassy glades shaded by maples and conifers, their trunks an easy ten feet in diameter.

We all know what happened, of course. Within a couple hundred years all of New England was timbered out – by the 1800’s 98% of Vermont had been deforested and the land turned over to sheep and dairy. A chunk of that wood made its way down to the McKay Shipyards in Boston and Kennard & Williamson in Baltimore where it was refashioned into clipper ships, vessels so strongly masted and engineered that they could cut around Cape Horn with record speed.

These were the ships that carried the miners to San Francisco after 1849.  When they set port in San Francisco Bay, their crews jumped ship by the droves and headed up into the mountains to work the gold fields. With no one left to sail the ships back, and the investors and owners left holding the bag, that forest of masted clippers and schooners floated idly amouldering in Yerba Buena Harbor, a nation of hardwood that was gradually dismembered and refashioned into the parlor houses, cribs, gin joints, and Victorian filagreed domiciles that graced the city.

That was until 5:12 a.m. on Wednesday, April 18th, 1906, when the ground shook so fiercely that the city of San Francisco collapsed and the gas lines burst into flames.  Within days the Great Fire had consumed over 25,000 buildings.

In a strange arc, those wonderful ancient forests tended by the Algonquin and Abenaki, and tendered by hundreds of years Atlantic nor’easters, as well as vast stands rounding Seattle rooted in tons of salmon flesh, came to be consumed in a holocaust at the gateway to San Francisco Bay.

But not all of the wood burned.

Regardless of what forest or what ocean she came from, some of that wood fashioned of steelhead and moutain fiber made it’s way to a spot of land newly parceled out from the Blucher Rancheria in newly incorporated town of Sebastopol in Sonoma County.  The boards were stacked on the open meadow on the knoll at the crest of our ridge.

One morning in 1901 or 1902 a few sawyers and carpenters arrived and, through their hands, the Room of Requirement wrought as ocean, and then as wood, in all cases ferrying whatever was into Safe Harbor, entered it’s Third Incarnation.

4. The Room of Requirement: The First Incarnation

Salmon spawn

Courtesy of J. K. Rowling, is that place where you hide your fears and fashion your dreams.  It’s that place that’s exactly what you need at exactly that moment.

The house we bought in Sebastopol, it turns out, is endlessly extensible.  It even came with it’s own Room of Requirement.  In it’s first incarnation, the room was the sea.

The First Incarnation:  the story of the sea

After the flood, clam and oyster and shellfish took up calcium and salts from the ocean and from these stores the engines of their DNA fashioned shell and carapace.  Plankton and algae harvested sunlight and carbon dioxide, and in one of life’s most supreme acts created green breathing matter.  The matter was consumed by other fish, krill and invertebrates who in turn were consumed by a diminutive carnivore from the family Salmonidae.  These mighty fish hatched nearly on land, kept safe by the barest sheen of water.  They grew and molted and shimmered down the tributaries to the open sea.  Those that survived ranged the cold Pacific waters as far north as Alaska.  Much of their lives to this day remain a mystery.  What little we do know, however, concerns the laying of their spawn, and their tortured journeys back up stream in which they shed themselves of everything save the desire to reproduce.  Forsaking even their own appetite, they cast themselves repeatedly against the current, battling against the gravitational and tidal pull of the rest of nature solely so that they may live.  Once they reach gravel shoals, they lay and fertilize their own spawn.  Spent, they survive only a short while longer.  Their job is done.  And in their consequent death they return once again to join us on land.

The salmon are required to do this.  Life, their life, all life in the Pacific Northwest has pulsed for ten millennia with their return journey.  It is why, in it’s second incarnation, the Room came to be a forest.

The Boat

As far as this story goes, the boat’s journey began on the back porch of Arlo Guthrie’s farmhouse in Massachusetts. It had sat there for a lot of years. I don’t know how Arlo came to have it or what his plans were. Apparently he doesn’t really like the water.

His friend Jack, though, loved boats. He once took the thing out on Arlo’s pond that was hardly bigger than a small room. And I guess Arlo said Jack could have it.

So Jack drove the thing from Massachusetts to Colorado on a flatbed trailer and the boat pretty much sat upside down on someone’s property for a lot of years and then it was driven down to Palm Springs where it sat upside down for a lot more years. Jack may have floated it in a swimming pool just to see what it was like.

Eventually the boat came to Tomales Bay where it weathered untended to for more than a decade. The gunnels rotted out as well some of the sidings. It had once been a lovely Penguin Dinghy much like a boat that Jack had once owned that had been swept away in the great New York hurricane of 1953.

Just before Thanksgiving my boat building friend Brett was driving down the 1 toward Bolinas when he spied a prickly pear cactus adorned with fruit. He pulled over, got his tongs and gloves and set to gleaning a bag of fruit. He was interrupted, though, by a winsome woman, a complete stranger, who seemed to have materialized out of nowhere.

We need help, she said. We need to save Jack’s boat. She suggested that it was in some sort of imminent danger and that she needed assistance.

Well, I’ve worked on boats, Brett offered. He looked around at the neighboring docks on the bay. Where is it? he asked. I can come over and see what I can do.

The woman looked at him incredulously. The boat’s not here, she said. It’s in Sausalito.

Okay, Brett said. Give me Jack’s phone number and I can call him and I can see what I can do.

The woman became very unnerved. You can’t call Jack! she exclaimed. Everyone wants to talk with Jack. Jack calls you!

So she took Brett’s number and told him to wait ten minutes and the call would arrive.

Which it did. And by the next day Brett was in a Sausalito boat yard listening to a day full of boat yarns and traveling history and loading the boat onto a trailer hitch and towing it to Bolinas. And a few days later he was at our house standing outside the chicken house with a sack of apples in each hand, staring in reverie, wondering what our plans were for the chicken house.

Our friend Evan Nichols the writer had christened it the Room of Requirement. Everyone who stepped inside was possessed by a different overpowering vision. For Mazie, it was the ping pong hang out room. I saw a cider pressing and cheesemaking facility. Evan saw a writers retreat room. His wife Amy saw a yoga room. Anne Harley envisioned a singing studio. The vultures have found it quite useful as a dinner plate.

And Brett saw a boat restoration house.

The room is one and all of these things.

And that’s how last Monday Jack pulled up in his three quarter ton truck pulling the boat. And that’s how Arlo Guthrie’s penguin dinghy came to sit inside our chicken house. And why I will spend a better part of my winter sanding and planing and painting wood.

Because if you do things right, all of this, every bit, is required.