Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

The Most Interesting Oregonian Ever: Charles Erskine Scott Wood

Thunder in the Mountains: Chief Joseph, Oliver Otis Howard, and the Nez Perce War, by Daniel J. Sharfstein, is awaiting my reading on my iPhone (paper is so twentieth century).

In 1877, Joseph led his people on an epic, but in the end futile, effort to escape to Canada rather than being forced onto a faraway reservation. Charged with capturing Joseph and his band was General Oliver Otis Howard, who had been awarded the Medal of Honor for valor during the American Civil War. Howard later headed up the Reconstruction-era Freedmen’s Bureau, charged with integrating recently freed slaves into society. Howard University in Washington, DC, is named in his honor.


Accompanying Howard—and prominently featured in the book—was Charles Erskine Scott Wood, the most interesting Oregonian ever (so far). Familiar to many modern-day Oregonians as C.E.S. Wood, “Ces” was a poet, author, anarchist, lawyer (who defended Margaret Sanger against obscenity charges for selling the booklet “Family Planning” in Portland and also collected a $1 million [~$26 million in today’s dollars] fee for brokering and litigating one of history’s largest land transfers from public to private ownership), artist, divorcee, bohemian, co-founder of Portland’s Arlington Club, co-founder of the Oregon National Guard, soldier, translator of Chief Joseph’s most famous speech, founding trustee of the Portland Art Museum, director of the Portland Library Association, and originator of the idea for what became the Rose Festival.

In 1908, Wood lamented the loss of Oregon’s old forests in The Pacific Monthly, published in Portland and later incorporated into Sunset magazine. His article, entitled “The Worst of All Microbes,” is excerpted here.

The Worst of All Microbes

by Charles Erskine Scott Wood

Like our great counterparts the Romans, we are, as I have said, a commercial and a utilitarian, not a poetic or artistic people. Our genius, too, is for construction; construction in institutions, as well as in stone and mortar. Our art finds its place in skyscrapers and bridges.

The dream has no place with us, though all which truly lives forever has begun as a dream. Three hundred billion board feet of timber in Oregon are impossible figures to count on the fingers, but they are easily grasped by arithmetic. It is no trouble to divide them by Portland’s own cut of lumber (which is only part of the total cut), five hundred and fifty million feet a year, and guess at the day when Oregon forests shall not be.

The City of Roses carved from that forest will have to take its visitors even now far to show them so much as a few acres of an unbroken forest, and it is so everywhere. The dollar rules, and except for the Government reservations there has been no thought of preserving a specimen of what mysterious Nature was a thousand years in building into infinite beauty with infinite patience.

When I see a dead giant rising from the river and placed dripping and naked before the saw, stripped of its armor of rugged bark to which the lichens and mosses clung lovingly till the last, I am foolish enough to think of the past ages and the future, and to believe that it is not necessary all should be wiped off clean, and when I hear the shriek of the log at the first bite of the saw I am Greek enough to think of Daphne and the dryads* and the hamadryads,** and I like to think of the shadowy aisles of an untouched Oregon forest, where the sky is blotted out by the dark and over-arching roof of green and into the sky, smooth and clear and round, for one hundred, two hundred feet rise the great solemn columns of this cathedral. I smell the balsam and feel the soft carpet of needles and of moss and look into those bluish depths where the giant trunks become almost ghostly and, behind that veil, it seems to me still lingers the Great Spirit of Creation. The brooding Silence shuts out the world and in these temples there is perfect rest.

It seems to me that this great beauty and solemnity is perhaps as valuable as the shriek and clamor of the mill. It is a pity to have all this majesty of antiquity wholly destroyed. Man cannot restore it. It cannot be rebuilt by Nature herself in less than a thousand years, nor indeed ever, for it never is renewed the same. Nor do Government reservations preserve this to us; they, too, are wholly utilitarian and their plan contemplates the gradual sale and destruction of these Titans. There is no spot where the primeval forest is assured from the attack of the worst of all microbes, the dollar.

* In Greek mythology, a divinity presiding over forests and trees; a wood nymph.

** In Greek and Roman mythology, a wood nymph who lives only as long as the tree of which she serves as the spirit.

A version of this first appeared in my book Oregon Wild: Endangered Forest Wilderness (2004, Timber Press).