If it weren’t for John Marshall’s letter…

Oyster Schooner Louisa Morrison

Yesterday’s email brought an inquiry from a man in Seattle regarding  something I had written — a remark about many of the oldest homes in Oysterville being built of redwood lumber brought up as ballast on the old oyster schooners.   “Why bring redwood up to the Washington coast?” he asked.  “It’s like bringing coals to Newcastle. I don’t know much about the historical ecology of the peninsula. Was there a dense forest of classic PNW trees?

I thought it was a great question.  I told him that, yes, we had plenty of forests.  However, in those very early days (the 1860s) there was no mill nearby but, even more important might have been what those old growth forests were like.  And I sent him a copy of this letter written from Oysterville in 1863 by John Marshall to his wife in New York:

Pioneer Loggers

Mary it does me good to write your name for it does appear that I am talking to you…
I am getting out timber to build a house for John Morgan.  I go in the woods and look for trees suitable for house but can’t find them they are so bige
[sic].  They are from 150 feet to 200 feet high and from 3 feet through to 6 feet and it is so much labor to get them they stand so close together that we can’t hardly get through them.  I never saw such woods until I came to this country.  Here we can’t see anything else.
People here own claims of 100 acres and 300 and can’t get land enough cleared to raise a few potatoes to eat.  They have to ship them it is so hard to clear off the land.
Mary keepe a good hart we will see one another again.  Give my love to you all…
I remain your True Husband, John Marshall

Tom Crellin House, 1869

John’s letter is a great reminder, at least to me, that when we look back in time, we must be cautious not to carry along any of the present-day with us.  In this case, not the way our forests look now; not our easy access to tools, especially power tools; not the availability of heavy machinery; and definitely not the ease of getting to the job site!

John Marshall was here just a little more than 150 years ago.  I wonder how hard it will be for people in 2175 to imagine back to our time and have an understanding of why we make the choices we do.  I think I’m happy we won’t be here to find out.

2 Responses to “If it weren’t for John Marshall’s letter…”

  1. James A. Tweedie says:

    Great article and great letter from John Marshall. As I hike about and see the massive stumps of those great trees scattered about I think how–even if we left the present landscape completely untouched–it would take close to 1,000 years before it would begin to resemble what it looked like just a little over 150 years ago. “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

  2. sydney says:

    “It do, indeed,” Jim. The downside of growing old is realizing what we’ve lost in the name of “change.” We can only have faith that what lies ahead can, someday, recapture some of the grandeur we have lost in our rush to civilize and tame…
    Am enjoying your (and David’s) book. Hope to see more! Sydney

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