White fir mystery endures in classic Oregon book

By Jayson Jacoby February 18, 2011 11:50 am

If you would endeavor to understand Oregon, to know this place and
its people, then I believe your bookshelf must hold three volumes.

They are, in no particular order:

• “Oregon Geographic Names,” by Lewis A. McArthur and Lewis L. McArthur
• “The Oregon Desert,” by E.R. Jackman and R.A. Long
• “Trees to Know in Oregon,” originally by Charles R. Ross, Oregon
State University Extension forester; newest edition, released this
year, by OSU forestry professor Edward C. Jensen.

This trio is of course a bare bibliographic minimum.

Any Oregon library which contains only those three is wholesome
enough, as is a potato, but grossly deficient in the garnish — the
chives and sour cream, if you will — that adds a satisfying zest to
the meal.

I would feel bereft, for instance, if my collection did not include,
besides those three essentials, William Sullivan’s “Exploring
Oregon’s Wild Areas,” Ralph Friedman’s “Oregon for the Curious,” and
Ellen Morris Bishop’s “In Search of Ancient Oregon.”

I could list a dozen others. So could any other reader, I’m sure, who
shares my boundless affection for this state where I have always lived.

The McArthurs’ book is perhaps the best known of the three.
Certainly it’s the heftiest — the latest edition runs over a thousand
pages and could, in a pinch, replace a dumbbell.

Lewis A. “Tam” McArthur started the thing in 1928. His son, Lewis L.,
took over in 1974.

The book was destined to sell, so compelling is its concept.
Who among us, having come across Idiot Creek or Funny Bug Basin
Spring on a map, could resist the urge to investigate how either
place came by its name?

(Idiot Creek, by the way, is in Tillamook County. The stream is so
isolated, the story goes, that only an idiot would go there to work.
Funny Bug Basin Spring is in Grant County, and its namesake humorous
insect is a Jerusalem cricket. There is another, lascivious, twist to
the tale, but I’ll leave you to find the details in the book.)

But to credit the elder McArthur only for his clever idea — it’s been
imitated, I imagine, by authors in every state — is, I think, to
belittle his, and his son’s, true accomplishment.

The key to the book’s lasting popularity — it’s the sort of volume
that becomes a family heirloom — is the McArthurs’ gentle wit and
economy with words.

(Although with more than 6,000 place names to chronicle, a degree of
pithiness is to be expected.)

In relating the history of Cupids Knoll, for instance, an
unremarkable eminence in Polk County, the authors (I don’t whether
father or son is responsible) write that the knoll was named “in the
days when automobiles were less plentiful and students at the Oregon
Normal School (now Western Oregon University) were wont to seek
seclusion within walking distance.”

The younger McArthur, writing many years after his father’s death in
1951, also explains how Monmouth residents once tried, as a sort of
prank, to lure the 1976 Winter Olympics by promising to conduct
skiing events on the 321-foot-tall knoll.

“The good burghers of Monmouth, with pardonable pride and commendable
financial acumen, made one last, desperate effort to save these
events for the western United States,” he wrote. (The Monmouth stunt
came about after voters in Denver, the city that had been awarded the
1976 Olympics, rejected a measure to pay for the games.)

The problem, McArthur noted, was that Monmouth’s total budget of
$2.25 “did not quite come up to (the Olympic Committee’s) august

You’ll run across similar examples on very nearly every page of
“Oregon Geographic Names.” It is, I believe, the McArthurs’
dedication to entertain as well as inform that elevates their book
from a mere work of reference to beloved icon.

The least popular of this published trio, I suspect, and indeed the
slimmest, is “Trees to Know in Oregon.”

The subject sounds appropriate, since Oregon’s reputation is as a
place lousy with trees.

But then our state has a reputation for being certain other things
which, in the main, it is not.

A land perpetually lashed by rain squalls would rank, it seems to me,
as the commonest mistake committed by commentators who neither know
this state nor, apparently, are interested in learning about it

The greater part of Oregon is in fact rather dry, climatologically

(Jackman and Long weren’t kidding when they came up with the title of
their wonderful book.)

This belief in Oregon’s general sogginess seems to be a case,
however, in which the popularity of the myth will forever trump the

I have not, in any event, detected any meaningful decline recently in
the frequency of Oregon jokes which feature either slugs or moss, or

The common notion that Oregon is largely a primeval forest is not
altogether accurate either, of course.

In most of the southeastern quarter — a chunk of land that’s larger
than most New England states — trees are so scarce that from many
vantage points you can’t see a single specimen.

Not even through a powerful pair of binoculars.

Most everywhere else in Oregon, though, trees are, if not profuse, at
least moderately abundant.

And so I have long appreciated the existence of “Trees to Know in
Oregon,” and relished reading the dog-eared copy I inherited from my

(Although “appropriated” might be the more apt verb. I remember
grandpa telling me to go ahead and take the book, but my recollection
is not so keen as to whether he might have intended this gesture as a
loan rather than a gift.)

The OSU Extension Service first published the book in 1950.
My copy, which shed its covers years ago, is the 1975 revision put
out jointly by OSU and the Oregon Department of Forestry. The
photographs are small and black-and-white. The volume, which measures
6 inches by 8 1/2, has the look and feel of a pamphlet or brochure more
so than a book.

The latest edition is by comparison a gaudy thing, with 70 new color
photos and 152 pages, fully 56 pages more than my copy.

(A fancy price, too — $18 plus shipping. I don’t know what my version
fetched — the secret went with those lost covers — but I doubt it was
more than a couple bucks.)

According to OSU, the book, 60 years on, remains one of the
university’s more-requested publications.
This pleases me, that people still consider it worth knowing how many
needles per bundle a lodgepole pine has, and how many a ponderosa.
(Lodgepole, 2; ponderosa, 3.)

The aspect of the book of which I’m most fond, though, is that
although its purpose is to teach, the author’s tone is respectful
rather than condescending.

My favorite section is for the white fir.

Anyone who has lived long in the Blue Mountains, and studied in some
detail their flora, has at some time confronted the vexing matter of
distinguishing the white fir from the grand fir.

And so it is ever satisfying to learn that even an expert such as Mr.
Ross will admit that the conifers have gotten the better of him.
“To add more mystery,” he writes, “many concolors (the Latin word for
the species, meaning “of the same color”) take on a different
appearance when they mingle with grand firs in the Cascade and Blue
mountains. The forester throws up his hands; often he cannot tell
whether a tree is white or grand fir. They hybridize (interbreed),
producing specimens with the characters of both species.”

Little wonder then, that this book still attracts readers in an age
when hearty helpings of nourishing but blandly presented facts are
available instantaneously through a fiber optic cable.

Never mind Wikipedia.

I’d rather read about the mysterious woods of Oregon, forests so rich
in diversity that they drive even the experts to despair.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.