I’d begun to dread the aftermath of my elderly neighbor’s passing months before he died. He’d been a quiet presence in the farmhouse down the road, a generous steward of the 120 acres where he had lived since childhood.
Yet, it wasn’t until after he was gone that I realized what a blessing his lifelong tenure had been. As with so many matters that we don’t fully appreciate, this was not truly felt until after the fact.
I got an inkling of what was to come during one of the long walks that have replaced running in my exercise routine. I met my neighbor’s nephew on the road. His uncle languished in a Puyallup nursing home, he said, his alert brain betrayed by his failing body. He wasn’t likely to return to his shabby farmhouse again. The nephew had come to tend the cattle, as he would for months after our encounter.
“What will happen to the land?” I asked, rather boldly. “Will it be sold?”
Probably, was the answer.
My neighbor was a lifelong bachelor who had shared the house with his widowed mother for years before she passed on. Now he intended to will the farm he had inherited to his extended family. There were many heirs, the nephew explained, and none had the means to conserve the land for the future.
I live where we surround ourselves with acres of insulation to escape from urban sprawl. Weekday mornings, we zip into town to work and, later in the day, hustle back to our hideaways. Some of us keep horses or cattle, but the gates and barbed wire are meant as much to keep intruders out as livestock in.
Still, I can’t help becoming attached to the places around ours, perhaps even more than the people who inhabit them. For decades, my neighbor had run cattle on the loamy, flood-prone, open fields at the heart of his farm and let the surrounding firs and hemlocks thrive as they would.
His wasn’t virgin forest. It had history. Through the trees you could see the springboard notches on the decaying stumps of the original stand, big trees cut perhaps 100 years ago when a logging railroad ran down what is now our road.
Thinking back on it, maybe what my late neighbor’s land looks like now is something like it did back then. Because soon after he died, his heirs sold the property to a logger who promptly felled virtually every stick of merchantable timber on the grounds.
Ordinarily, a live-and-let-live attitude prevails here. If a neighbor decides it’s time to log off his timber, it’s his business. We’re not far removed from our economic history. Two or three generations ago, the forest industry pretty much ran the show.
But I cried. Those conifers had been my companions. I’d skirted the farm thousands of times, basked in the shadows cast, marveled at the trees’ dimensions, their furrowed bark, the lush carpet of native salal and Oregon grape they nurtured. I had rejoiced when I noticed a pair of pileated woodpeckers noisily knocking holes in the snags my neighbor let stand. It wasn’t a big, deep woods, but it was a hospitable one.
The sweet aroma of fresh-cut lumber and crushed needles lingered in the air for a while after the logging was done. The sap that oozed from the stumps glistened in the summer sun for a few days, then lost its glow. For months, huge piles of decaying debris studded the scarred landscape. Dozens of them. Now seedlings grow in place of the old trees. But the woods won’t come back in my lifetime.
I’m sure my elderly neighbor did what he believed was best when he let his heirs sell the farm. And while I am not certain he would be happy with the result, his gentle soul deserves to rest in peace. He did right by the place in the years he had it. We should all do as well.Susan Gordon, one of five reader columnists whose work appears on this page, lives on about five acres north of Eatonville with her husband and son. She’s a former News Tribune staff writer. Reach her at SJGordon Communications@gmail.com.