Several layers of forest are preserved in stone on the mountain across the way. The petrified woodlands are different species than grow here now: sycamore, maple, dogwood. Eocene volcanics buried the forests one by one by one in different volcanic episodes some 50 million years ago. Earth’s intricate processes replaced the tree’s living cells with minerals, so that now petrified stumps and trunks decorate the cliffs. Many of these petrified remains are of rich, varied colors: deep caramel blending through cream and rust, or iron gray interspersed with ivory. Occasionally, the color is of wood, monochrome brown, the mineralized tree maintaining its original appearance through millions of years. There was such a piece next to my lunch stop high on the mountain’s ridge.
I discovered the woody brown chunk only because it lay next to a small, petrified stump with annual rings that caught my eye. Each year, a tree lays down a layer of new cells in its trunk. Cut a tree down, and the concentric rings tell the age of the tree. The petrified stump that grabbed my attention had mineralized in a way that preserved each distinct annual layer, setting years of life into stone. The stump was only a portion of the whole, and had cracked, shifting the rings out of alignment. Lichen decorated the surface with black circles and crusty light-green clumps. This petrified piece appeared ancient, something from the deep past, preserved yet worn, buried, unearthed, shifting, cracking, once alive, now existing as rock on this slope surrounded by pine and spruce.
In contrast, the brown piece of petrified wood lying next to the stone stump looked like it came from a tree that had fallen and decayed last year, maybe the year before. It looked like wood. I tapped it and heard the mineralized ring of rock. The petrified chunk was decaying delicately, in thin slices. It was falling into pieces along the lines of its rings, slowly, in geologic time, peeling away the layers created so long ago.
I left that petrified forest, and worked my way from the lunch spot across to a different ridge where trees grow, a forest of today, with corky-barked Douglas fir dotting the slopes. The massive trees – hundreds of years old – did not seem so ancient after contemplating their mineralized cousins of the past. One old giant had toppled a few years ago, and its trunk lay in a disassembled state – not really rotting so much as falling to pieces. In its disheveled stump was a broken piece of wood, disintegrating by layers. I drew in a breath. That piece of wood was the mirror image of the woody-brown petrified chunk I’d seen only a moment and a ridge-line before.
The same process of photosynthesis, cellular growth, and the turn of the seasons created both trees. When that petrified tree grew in the foreign land of the past, human ancestors did not exist – there was nothing like the animal that I am now. Yet, arboreal continuity, the process of life, reached across all those 50 million years to produce likeness. Points of time touched, a loop in the eons bringing two bits of wood together in the hand of one small, short-lived human, standing in wonder as the ages contracted, even as my own life shrank into a sliver of existence.