Julie McDonald Commentary: Memoir Offers Glimpse Into Grieving Toledo Family and Its Forest

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Douglas fir and cedar trees tower over visitors to the Cowlitz Ridge Tree Farm, a sustainable family forest near Toledo managed by the Stinson family for five decades. Once felled, those trees float across the Pacific Ocean on a freighter to Japan or Korea, where they’re sawed into lumber for homes and temples (except for “school marms” and rough wood that sells stateside as pulp for paper).

“Logging is a link in the chain that brings a natural, renewable resource out of the woods and into public, often urban space,” Ann Stinson wrote in her literary memoir, “The Ground at My Feet: Sustaining a Family and a Forest,” which will be published Nov. 15 by Oregon State University Press.

Stinson delves into the past of the 320-acre farm that has sustained her family, from the Cowlitz natives who lived there through the pioneers who settled the land and cut the old-growth timber to her family, which moved to the property in 1972 when the author was nine. Stinson is holding a release party from 2 to 4 p.m. Dec. 4 at Steamboat Landing in Toledo. Please RSVP to Ann at her email address, amstinson126Agmail.com. The 144-page book retails for $21.95.

“I didn’t set out to write a book,” Stinson said. “For about three summers, I took a writing class hosted by the Creative Arts Community and taught by poet Ann Staley. I wrote a few of the pieces that ended up in the book there — the chapter about splitting wood and fire building and about berry picking. Later I took classes with Mark Cunningham and Jennifer Denbrow with Literary Arts in Portland.

“It was then that I realized I had something that could become a book. I decided I wanted to research the history of the tree farm and to learn more about the Cowlitz Tribe. And then I got the wild hair that I wanted to go to Japan and Korea to see where our exported wood ends up.”

While giving readers a glimpse of life in the forest and an affinity for the land that sustains her family, Stinson digs deep into the grief of losing her only brother to cancer in 2014 and her own unfulfilled dreams of motherhood.

She describes her brother’s death as “a raw wound in wet ground after a hundred-year-old cedar falls in a windstorm.” She speaks of the at-times tense relationship between her brother and her father, Doug Stinson, who with his wife Fae Marie Beck was 1994 Western Tree Farmer of the Year.

In addition to sharing poetry, Stinson reflects on her respect for the land, the prolific mating habits of saw-whet owls thriving in forest habitats and foresters’ fights with porcupines that girdle trees to nibble on the soft inner layers of bark. She balances love and respect for nature with the need to plant and harvest renewable forests for lumber, pulp and even coffins in rural China.

She and her father traveled together 5,000 miles to Japan and Korea, where they met the ship that left the Port of Longview with logs harvested from their forests. In the book, she says, “Dad’s pickup has two bumper stickers: ‘Wood is Good’ and ‘Family Forests are a Salmon’s Best Friend.’”

After reading a review copy, I told her the book felt a bit like whitewater rafting as I followed one storyline from the forest to overseas construction of houses and temples but veered off at times to hit a rock and plunge into the pain of losing a sibling too soon, bounced back into New York and Portland classrooms where she taught, and then delved into the history of the land and those who inhabited it.

“I wonder how it is that I am here, alone with the trees and not in a classroom swirling with fourteen-year-old energy,” Stinson wrote. “It’s a relief to my psyche not to be responsible for ninety different human beings each day.”

Stinson writes about an 1829–30 epidemic that decimated the Cowlitz tribe’s 50,000 members, a gray fever the natives called the “cold sick” brought by Captain John Dominis. Stinson interviewed Roy I. Wilson, a longtime Cowlitz honorary chief and spiritual leader who built Bear Raven, a longhouse, museum and library on his place outside Winlock. She also interviewed Michael Hubbs, a Cowlitz tribe genealogist who helped her trace the lineage of Thas-e-muth, the daughter of Chief Scanewa, who married French-Canadian trapper Simon Plamondon, the first white man to paddle up the Cowlitz River from the Columbia in 1818.

Stinson studied land documents stored at the Washington State Archives to determine who owned their forests before they bought them. She learned about Edgar R. Willoughby, a Civil War veteran who in 1884 filed a homestead claim on the land off Collins Road near Toledo. He sold it to Lenora Boone whose son, Elmer, and his wife, Dorothy, bought it in 1936. They sold it to the Stinsons in 1971.

Stinson dedicated the book to her brother, Steven Douglas Stinson, who died July 17, 2014, after fighting leiomyosarcoma for more than two years. He was an Alaska native who participated in Toledo FFA and worked as a timber planter and faller before earning a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and a master’s in silviculture. He represented small forest landowners in Washington, D.C., while working for the state Department of Natural Resources and formed the Family Forest Foundation in 2002. He later managed the Cowlitz Ridge Tree Farm. He married Lou Jean, his classmate from kindergarten through high school, in 1995.

As the daughter of a forester and sister of a tree farmers’ advocate, Stinson wanted to create something from the trees by sharing the story of their family’s land.

“This book is a gift from me to the land, to my family, to Dad, to Steve, to the people who work the land and love it,” Stinson wrote. “It is me making sense of the grounding the land has given me in my fifty-six years. A call to see the earth and what it gives.”

It takes courage to share emotions and family stories publicly. Some memoirists find themselves estranged from family after publication, as in the case of Tara Westover, author of “Educated,” whose survivalist Mormon parents didn’t like her depiction of them and their faith in her bestselling book. My sisters don’t want me to publish a memoir I wrote. Was Stinson worried about adverse reaction from her parents, her sister-in-law Lou Jean, her sister Julie?

“It is always a danger to write a memoir,” Stinson said. “I tried to be balanced in my depictions of family members — I love each of them and I wanted readers to feel that. Mom, Dad and Lou Jean have all read the book and have given me permission to tell their stories. I am deeply grateful to them. My sister has read parts and has been my cheerleader throughout the process.”

In the book, Stinson quoted her mother speaking about her grieving daughter-in-law’s new male friend. “I am so happy Lou Jean has found him. I know she’s been lonely. She was probably lonely with Steve. Well, we’re all lonely in our marriages. It’s part of the human condition.”

Stinson described how the tree farm, once her weekend place where she enjoyed family dinners and holidays, became the stage of her life rather than a backdrop.

“I think what I want readers to come away with is a sense of what living among trees is like,” she said. “How much being in the forest gives the people who spend their days there. I want people to get a feel of the work it takes to grow a forest. I want city people to know that a forest can be a working forest — that logging can be sustainable.”

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Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.