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Big Doug
There is no denying that the Douglas fir can be a beautiful tree. It grows tall and straight and reassuringly symmetrical like any good conifer. It grows fast, too, making it a favored source of building materials. Truckloads of doug fir studs and joists and beams pour out of the Pacific Northwest to building sites around the country.

It supplies the bone structure for my own home as well, and its strong silhouette joins the local redwoods and oaks to form the woody horizons around my mountain community. It is a familiar and plentiful cohabitant of my world. But the Douglas fir is no friend to me. Indeed, by some measures it is my mortal enemy. Or more precisely, my nemesis.

Still, I have no choice but to coexist with it. Doug fir is everywhere, and there are many more of it than there are of me. There is one growing in my front yard now that is thirty feet tall. It appears to be healthy and well on its way to 200’ or more…if it is allowed to live.

Its future was not always so promising. During its early life, it lived in the shadows of several large tan oaks, and had a spare, spindly look that seemed to foretell a short stay here. But through the years, the tan oaks came down one by one, succumbing to to the ravages of sudden oak death and infestations of bark beetles. Their passing let the sun shine in fullness on the fir, and it responded vigorously. The trunk is now quite thick and it has branches and needles in abundance. It will be a shame to cut it down.

I had chosen to let it grow because I was charmed by how it responded to its sudden change of fortune — struggling against the odds in its early years then seizing the opportunity fate had given it. And, as I have said, I had already decided to live peacefully alongside its species when at all possible.

But it would be foolish to ignore our history with the Douglas fir here on the mountain. It has proven to be an unpredictable and dangerous neighbor — like the time thirty years ago when a big one tried to kill my wife.

We had been hit by a particularly strong storm that spring night, one that carried lots of water and the high winds that can whip up to 60 mph or more along our ridge tops. This Douglas fir snapped very close to ground level, at a place where the tree was nearly five feet across, so it must have made a terrific noise. The wind and rain were making a racket of their own, however, so I never heard it.

I could not miss, however, the blow it struck across our roof. The whole house shuddered. The door to our second floor master bedroom flew open, and my wide-eyed wife charged out and down the stairs. “What the hell was that?”

We tentatively ventured out into the storm and found a tangle of limbs and a cracked tree trunk wedged against the house. “A doug fir,” I said. “Where did that come from?” I didn’t recognize the tree. Not from our property, anyway.

By morning, the storm had passed, and the sobering truth was revealed. The 120-foot-tall fir had stood up the slope from our home. When the high winds struck, its rotted bole had split, hurling the massive tree toward us. As it fell, gravity kicked in, accelerating the fall. If it had struck unimpeded, it would have made short work of the doug fir skeleton of the house, even the big four-bys. At the very least, it would have blown through the rafters above the top floor and demolished the entire second story bedroom. Right where Jane had been sleeping.

There had been only one object in the path of the falling fir. A mature madrone, perhaps twenty inches in diameter, grew at a slight tilt at the edge of our property. Its hardwood trunk t-boned the fir as it fell, taking on a big part of its momentum and slowing it enough to save our home…and the life of my beloved.

Now, all these years later, we still have reminders around us of this event. There is a long, straight dent across the ribs of our steel roofing., The carcass of the fir itself still lies in the woods, finding its way back to the earth. And the madrone — whose mighty trunk had been flattened in its heroic effort — now sends up a host of saplings from its root ball.

As if I needed a reminder. The Douglas fir is my nemesis. Its soft, pitchy wood is a worst-case wildfire waiting to happen. Its straight, healthy appearance can be a lie, concealing a rotten core. It is a killer, lying in wait to crush unwary humans or assist in their incineration. Let it flourish along a distant skyline. Let it provide the framework of my home. But it should not grow here.

So, this plucky survivor growing in my front yard — so blessed by fate and my own forbearance — will fall soon. There will be no remorse, no wistful remembrance. Just a pile of chips and another rotting carcass on the forest floor. Good riddance.

Please Note: Tim Eagan will read your comments but he is currently not publishing them.

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