The Backstory

Mike Anderson is a writer and film maker living in Eugene, Oregon.    He can be  reached at Mike@big-stump.com

On lazy summer days at the beach, a lot of folks like to kick back in a lounge chair with a good mystery book.  But for me, the beach is a great place to let my mind wander over esoteric questions of grand scale.  You see, I love mysteries–especially real world mysteries.  I am always puzzled about why things are as they are– like, how did the cosmos come into being? How long has it been here? When will it end? Big questions like that, and like…where did that big piece of driftwood come from?  OK, I guess that’s not a question of cosmic importance.  But like I said, I always wonder why things are as the are.  And even a piece of driftwood has a story to tell.

In 1996, my wife and I were vacationing just south of Waldport, Oregon, where the beach is miles of pure white sand. In the surf zone– where the waves crash– there was this tree stump.  Kids were actually playing on it, which got my attention because everyone knows it isn’t safe to play on driftwood in the waves.

But this huge piece of driftwood wasn’t drifting. The kids left, and I went to investigate. I waded through ankle deep water and climbed aboard through a gash in its side. I stood in the hollow trunk as waves crashed against it. The tree was leaning slightly to starboard, like a sailing ship tacking into the wind. I ran my hands over the smooth gunnels of my ship and tried to count the tree rings– clearly it had lived for hundreds of years. In my mind it became a time ship, sailing into a different age when the seas were lower and forests extended over the horizon.

How had this thing come to be?  If it wasn’t driftwood, had it grown in some ancient soil before the present beach formed? How long ago had it lived, and what was the world like? What had it witnessed– what stories could it tell? And thus I began my inquiry, slowly at first, as casual as a beachcomber.

I asked questions of local residents. I pored through files at the Waldport Heritage Museum. I spoke to the archaeologist at the nearby ranger station. I went to the Hatfield Marine Science Center and spoke to the director.  I took a sample of the wood and sent it off to be identified.

Slowly, the mystery began to unfold.

I learned that the story of the Oregon coast is one of continuous change.  We live in an active seismic zone where the land rises in places and falls in others; where huge earthquakes and tidal waves take place every 500 years or so.  Starting in 1997, Oregon geologists Roger Hart and Curt Peterson found more than 500 stumps rooted in ancient soils along the beaches– many of which can only be seen in minus tides. But this tree was different, and it was omitted from the surveys. Hart, who is now deceased, told me he suspected it was rooted and may have drowned because of seismic subsidance of the beach. He said he would like to core under it, to seek evidence of an ancient soil. I do not know if he ever got that chance.

In the fall of 2007, I received a reply from the Forest Service Wood Identification lab– and the mystery only deepened. The tree– this stump, this apparent piece of driftwood– is redwood.

The implications were immediately huge.  On the one hand, the presence of redwood this far from California argued for it being driftwood.  On the other hand, if it could be shown that it was rooted, then a disjunct population of redwoods would be possible.  And that would be hard to explain.

I needed more help.  This was beyond the abilities of a beacomber detective: I turned to the University of Oregon. Now, nearly five years later, a scientific paper has been submitted for publication.  Soon I will be able to share what we learned in the investigation.