We are on the eve of a magical floral display. As modest choke cherry petals tremble to earth, a grander tree steps forward to deliver its splendid aria. This is the Pacific dogwood, Cornus nuttallii, known by the Skagit People as Kloba’c Sibiau (klo-BAHTS si-beeau), Eye of Coyote.
I remember it vividly from childhood. Leaving Pleasanton, California’s sunny hills in 1949, my father drove our family north to a dirt logging road in Snohomish County. Negotiating a steep trace he stopped in front of a rough basement overshadowed by dense forest. He left us to go off to war, and this remained the family home for the next half century.
I was three. In summer millions of tent caterpillars swarmed the dense alder, their showering fecal pellets sounding like a rainstorm. At night, packs of wild dogs ran over the roof. Hoboes wandered the trails asking for food. The huge forest was dark and terrible. In one of our timid forays, my older sister and I stumbled on a fresh animal carcass torn apart. We backed away.
Animal trails found their way amid gigantic trees. The spring when I was five I wandered deep into the damp quiet and stopped, amazed. Before me, an ivory vision rose in the cathedral gloom. Panoplies of extravagant flowers encircled a tabernacle of silvered trunks, attended by acolytes of blooming spirea. Standing 30 feet, dwarfed by ogival firs and alders, the dogwood commanded the apse, singing its own Mass.
The tree offered many gifts. I later learned that the splendid ivory petals were large bracts surrounding the true flower, a small mace of green-white petals tipped in purple. These burgeoned into roseate cabochons of berries that bears devoured. The straight, dense wood provided native people with spear hafts, arrow shafts, pestles, and, cut into thin rounds, gambling pieces often elegantly decorated.
Our name dogwood may be of Sanskrit origin as the dag or skewer used to roast meats. Its inner bark made a healthful tea. An ancient tree paleo-botanically, dogwood’s astonishing capacity for photosynthesis enables it to flourish and bloom in the shadows. On Northwestern rivers people said that when plump, native bumble bees hovered around a woman, they were telling her to make baskets. When the dogwood bloomed, it signaled a time to head down to the beaches and fill the baskets with fat clams.
The name Coyote’s Eyes signals portent. To the Skagit’s neighbors east of the Cascades, Coyote was the trickster hero, the Changer who transformed the world by defeating its monsters and making it habitable for humanity. Like his analogs west of the mountains, Coyote could be foolish, violent, and sex-crazed, gambling away his eyes and in one story even his anus to competitors who used them for gaming pieces.
In springtime he transforms the world. When he opens his crimson eye, the world blooms. The tree is his sign and his promise that life is greater than death.
The tree I saw when I was five is gone along with the forest it graced, replaced by tract homes. In the last century, fungal blight has killed off many of the larger dogwoods in the wild. But they can be found in moist, shady places, still offering their exhilarating,pale beauty and sanguine hope.