Gifford Pinchot runs almost literally in Catherine Foley’s blood, so it stands to reason that her relationship with the Park is rooted in genuine awe and appreciation.
“I loved the woods, and everything about them.”
— Gifford Pinchot
Snuggled between Mount Hood in Oregon and Mount St. Helen’s in Washington state, along the great Cascade Volcanic Arc, you will find a place, perhaps less well-known, but bearing a name of great significance in the history of American land conservation — and also truly embodying those ideals in every last drop of misty luminescence and beauty to be found within it — the stunning and sublime Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
Gifford Pinchot was the first chief forester of the US Forest Service, appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt when the agency was formed at the turn of the century. Together they led a nationwide movement to conserve the country’s natural resources for the good of all “in the long run.”
At a time when the earth’s resources were considered inexhaustible, they argued there was a moral imperative to safeguard our natural heritage from short-sighted devastation and exploitation by wealthy business interests so it could be enjoyed for generations to come.
“A nation deprived of liberty may win it, a nation divided may reunite, but a nation whose natural resources are destroyed must inevitably pay the penalty of poverty, degradation, and decay,” Pinchot wrote in 1910 in his book, The Fight For Conservation. “The conservation issue is a moral issue, and the heart of it is this: For whose benefit shall our natural resources be conserved — for the benefit of us all, or for the use and profit of the few?”
Pinchot’s blend of nature conservation as both scientific land management, and as spirited social reform and advocacy for the common people captured the hearts of many Americans, including John Foley, a lifelong professional forester and, also, my great-grandfather.
John Foley, who spent much of his career as head forester for the Pennsylvania Railroad, worked with Pinchot at the US Department of Agriculture Bureau of Forestry, where he published Conservative Lumbering at Sewanee, Tennessee in 1903. He was fully immersed in the conservation movement, and was nationally recognized as a leading authority on the use and preservation of wood.
As a testament to his loyalty to Pinchot’s vision and crusade for the forests, he named his son — my grandfather — Gifford Pinchot Foley. In fact, my father and brother were named Gifford, too; and my nephews, Gifford and Theodore.
The spirit of land conservation for the good of all has deep roots in my family heritage, which is why my visit to Gifford Pinchot National Forest was in itself a sort of pilgrimage to not only honor my direct connection to Pinchot’s legacy, but also to really experience first-hand this land that was saved for me — and for all of us — over 100 years ago by Pinchot and his “forest missionaries.”
While Gifford Pinchot National Forest in its entirety encompasses more than 1.3 million acres of “forests, mountains, river valleys, waterfalls, wildernesses and volcanoes,” I visited the Siouxon Basin in the southeast corner, a majestic area below Siouxon Peak abundant with pellucid, emerald green creeks and gushing waterfalls; a dazzling diversity of mosses, lichens, ferns and mushrooms; and a forest so thick with all the beloved mainstays of the northwestern US landscape — western red cedar, Douglas fir, western hemlock, silver fir — that your senses forever will be imprinted by the intoxicating, aromatic symphony here.
The 12-mile Siouxon Creek Trail #130 is a mostly gentle and rambling hike where exertion is minimal so you can really soak in the forest scenery. The trailhead is less than 60 miles from Portland, making it a great day trip, although there is a nice assortment of camping sites here to stay the night.
When you make your way east from Interstate 5, you experience a distinct sense of slowly going back in time, the layers of modern stresses loosening and falling away; and as the curves of the road plunge you deeper into the heart of the forest, with it comes the arrival of something reminiscent in the air — a memory just beyond reach; a semblance of familiarity you can’t quite specify, but know deeply within your body.
Stepping onto the trail amplifies this feeling, and under the towering canopy, you immediately wonder if you have crossed an invisible threshold into a dimension where the forest is king, and humans its subjects.
The trees, and all the flora here, speak so loudly with raw, vital energy that you want to do nothing else but gulp and drink the air in, just to share your breath with a place so saturated in elemental healing powers.
As you continue on to marvel at the sheer beauty unfolding all around you with every step, you catch yourself listening very deeply to this place. It is the type of listening we do with our hearts, not our ears; the listening that brings us in touch with the part of us that is bigger, beyond, to the place where we are not confined by our mental loops or personal concerns. This is the place of deference within us, of humility, of peace — the place where our soul meets the earth.
That’s when you realize that what you are remembering here in Gifford Pinchot National Forest is — yourself.
My pilgrimage to this majestic forest kingdom is forever emblazoned on my heart — a hard-wired sensory experience and memory I will carry forward for the next generation. I will never forget the power of this place. It will break you open and bring you back; back to your home, the earth, and to the home within you.
My sister-in-law Katy Foley who grew up in Seattle affirmed this: “I have crazy, vivid memories of my first camping trip there – I think I was in 5th or 6th grade – and I’ll never forget how awed I felt. You can feel the energy pulsing in the air! It’s magical.”
To me, this is the real “science” of land conservation. More than protecting natural resources for all the people, it is the alchemy that happens in the woods at the level of the soul that bonds us forever with the power, significance and importance of these places — and with the power and beauty pulsing within each of us.
Be in awe of the land — be in awe of you.
Thank you, Gifford Pinchot.
Catherine Foley is a writer, healing artist and herbalist living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. She is the great-granddaughter of forester John Foley and still thoroughly lives up to her high school moniker, Mother of the Woods. Learn more here and follow along on IG.
Lead image by Jessie Kanelos Weiner. Photos courtesy of Catherine.