Not Just Trees: The Legacy of a Douglas-fir Forest

by Jane Claire Dirks-Edmunds

Published by Washington State University Press

332 pages, 1999


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The View From the Hill

Reviewed by Linda L. Richards

 

Once in a while you encounter a book so special, so steeped in love and integrity that -- regardless of subject matter -- it's impossible not to be drawn in. Not Just Trees is that sort of book. Jane Claire Dirks-Edmunds' 60 year study of an ancient Oregon Coast rain forest on Saddleback Mountain is breathtaking, in a couple of very important ways. First of all, even contemplating a close and scientific study of a single topic in a single area over six decades is staggering. As Robert Michael Pyle, award-winning author, writes in his forward:

Dr. Jane Claire Dirks-Edmunds became one of the major ecologists of her time, having apprenticed on Saddleback Mountain. How badly we need, once again, the whole view that she brought to the forest, and brings to us in this magical book.

And it is a magical book. A rare, intimate and even irreplaceable account of a relatively small area in Oregon by an expert in her areas of study. Dirks-Edmunds is an Emerita Professor of Biology at Linfield College, McMinnville, Oregon where she was a faculty member for more than 30 years. She attained her doctorate in zoology at the University of Illinois in 1941. Dirks-Edmunds was an environmentalist long before the term had ever been coined and a feminist by virtue of blazing trails where no women had gone before.

Neither of these things is, however, what the book about. It is, quite simply, the story of a mountain -- and its study -- told in a clear, gentle and ultimately knowledgeable voice. And so, amid passages filled with arcane bits of information on the various flora and fauna of the region, we also find stanzas filled with poetry:

A light wind whispered through the treetops. Cool breezes ruffled my hair. Lost in thought, I sat with my back braced against a huge old fir, gazing into branches towering skyward, layer upon layer. Insects hovered over sweet-scented vanilla leaf plants nearby or buzzed softly as they crowded upon the fragrant, bright yellow Oregon grape. Leaving my companions near the center of the research site a short time before, I had set out, net in hand to watch insects. This sunny spot had lured me to pause for a quiet time of thinking.

But it isn't all poetry. Dirks-Edmunds reflects -- sadly in many cases -- on the changes human hands have wrought to "her" forest. Along the way, she looks -- sometimes in great and expert detail -- at the various life forms that inhabit the forest. For instance, chapter 25 "Insects in Armor" begins with a single, clarifying line, "This is about beetles." And from those four short words, she gives us an elegant tour of beetle-lore and knowledge, beginning with the explanation of their scientific name (Coleoptera) and going on to explain the beetle's place in history and mythology and, finally, relating all of this beautifully to her finds on Saddleback over the years. All of this, like other portions of the book, is remarkably told. Dirks-Edmunds takes material that other scientists would render dry and boring and -- through her own passion -- gives it life.

Not Just Trees is a remarkable and important book. Readers with an interest in the environment, the life of a forest or living women pioneers would do well to add it to their library. | August 1999

 

Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.