“Spirit of the Forest” by Debbie Catalina

Abbott Butte spruce Photos by Kathleen Pyle

June fifth. Still spring. Delicious mist blanketing the valley. My car hugging the twisting, curving road, the road hugging the higher ground, and the high ground itself hugging the selvages of great flat stretching southward. Thoughts wandered. What would our class be like? What would the other students be like? What was SFI like? What would the teachers be like? What would we learn of the “Spirit of the Forest”? Soon I would know.

Soon tires were crunching on the gravel. Soon my feet were crunching along the gravel path to a door that opened into a great room where tables and chairs and a white board announced that this was where the class would begin. Exhibits of maps and animals and artifacts lined counter tops and walls of the room, and soon our instructors arrived. An enjoyable morning, a rambling group discussion of tips, techniques, and getting acquainted. Over lunch, several of us shared a bench on a patio facing the fields. Swallows chattered to nestlings in the eaves. Lizards scrambled about on a low stone wall.

“Look!” one of us exclaimed, and turning collective gazes, we saw to the east, immobile and floating on the thermals, a great raptor. Suddenly, it folded its wings and fell to the earth like a stone – only to rise again with lunch clasped tightly in its taloned-grasp.

More sharing in the afternoon: this time, from our instructors, Diana Coggle, reading from her own published work, and from Mart Turner with a photo essay of his own work.

Crunching back across the gravel to the road in the afternoon, then our feet raising tiny puffs of red dirt hiking along the road until we reached a trail heading, up, up, and up – still following the trail along the side of a canyon – delicate scents of dry cedar and bay laurel on the air, pine, madrone, and great black oaks, scattered across the open wood, down into the steep canyon, then back up again to the top where giant and singular oak stood defiant, a sentinel watching over all.

Golden shafts of light, moving fast, refocused our attention from minute to minute from the sweep and geometry of the landscape and back again to the ferns, the vines, the bark, and the stones.

That was when I saw it: single powder-blue bloom, smaller than a penny and all alone in a similarly slender shaft of light, like a tiny diva, a lone finale in a spot-light in the middle of a great, great stage.


From the idyllic valley, over the river, then through town we went, carpooling on day two toward distant peaks until finally angling away from the highway and toward the wistful and piquant peaks of the Siskiyou Crest.

The road twisted and turned, occasionally flashing its brilliant green-brown-black serpentine sides in the sun. I squinted into the glare.

We followed the mountain side. Fir and cedar replaced madrone and oak. Slopes angled ever more steeply up, trees grew larger, and soon we were catching occasional glimpses of great deep canyons below.

We spent the day on the mountain, cool and moist among the great dark conifers in the morning then in the afternoon climbing at last to a rocky prominence that felt like the top of the world.


This was a fabulous day, a day of solitary wanderings, finding our own pictures, creating our own narratives.DSCN4690Though shy at first, I finally felt that the forest had flung her doors wide, sharing raptors, flowers, rocks, trees, smells, sounds – and even clues to great mysteries.

I think about this adventure still; my trip to the watershed was itself a watershed for me. It was of great to benefit – from three days in a group of like-minded souls and distinguished, established artists sharing their insights with us, learning new skills, to making new memories and just having fun, but it was a bit more – something I am still conceptualizing – and that is this: the only force that can save this planet is the love and the magic that only she herself can unleash.

This is the magic that’s hiding in the Spirit of the Forest, the spirit we need to unleash, and we will only be able to unleash it to the extent we can sharpen our skills in it to others, as suggested by these famous words: “In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.”

~ Debbie Catalina

Debbie Catalina is working toward her SFI Naturalist Certificate. She received a Siskiyou Audubon Society scholarship in order to enroll in “The Spirit of the Forest” taught in June 2015 by photographer Mark Turner and writer Diana Coogle.