Signs Of Foolishness

The need to know leads this editor on a wild goose chase.
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The need to know leads this editor on a wild goose chase.

I was looking for a spot to take a midafternoon break from hiking when I spotted the sign.

"Do not touch the tree," it said.

The sign obviously had been there a while, since it was almost obscured by plants and had that weathered look that wood gets after a few rough winters without maintenance.

Obviously, the first thing I did was walk up to the tree in question for a closer view. I couldn't see anything special about the tree that warranted not touching it.

The sign made me want to reach out and feel the bark on the trunk, but I refrained. Instead, I walked over to another tree, one that the sign couldn't possibly refer to. I stuck my face a few inches from the tree and examined it. A couple of ants were walking up it, but other than that, it was just another pine to me. I reached out and touched it.

But this wasn't the tree I shouldn't touch, according to the sign. I stood between the two trees, looking back and forth trying to see some difference. Was it the location? Was it something about the bark? What the heck made one tree touchable and the other not? I couldn't figure it out.

Eventually, I hiked on, endlessly fascinated by every tree I passed. Which of these were touchable? Which weren't?

When I finished my hike in the Loof Lirpa Wilderness, I immediately called my friend Russell at the Forest Service.

"Yeah, I remember seeing those signs," Russell said.

"There's more than one?"

"I think I've seen three or four over the years."

But Russell had no idea why they were put there, and they predated his assignment. He suggested I call the district office and see if they knew the answer. I had a better idea-I'd just go all the way to the top and call the head of the Forest Service.

Of course, that's not as easy as it sounds. In Washington, D.C., most of the agency heads have layers of folks who screen calls and serve to deflect queries, especially from the press. As I got passed up the chain of screeners, I asked each one why some trees were untouchable. A few had theories ("maybe it had been sprayed" and "perhaps it has some historical significance" were among them), but none knew the answer, and most were clearly frightened by an editor asking questions that might relate to some policy they knew nothing about. This approach was clearly getting me nowhere.

Suddenly, I had an inspiration. The signs were the only clue I had. Perhaps I could simply call the office that made them and find out who had ordered them.

Bingo. Most Forest Service and National Park Service signs are created in one shop, and the manager of that operation had been there for 20 years.

"Yeah, I remember those signs because we had a big stink about them," he said. This was more like it; I was about to find out the real scoop. I'd finally know why a few trees were untouchable while others weren't.

"You see, the guy who ordered the signs claimed they were wrong, but they were exactly what he had specified-we don't make mistakes here. It takes us too darn long to make each sign, so we check, double-check, and triple-check the work orders."

"What was wrong with them?" I asked.

"According to the big-shot district manager who ordered them, they were supposed to read 'Do not touch the trees.' Plural, as in more than one tree. But that's not what he wrote on the work order. We fought about that for months. He even managed to get an internal inquiry started, the dolt. Well, guess who's still working at his job and who got reassigned to Timbuktu? You want to find out about those signs, you should be talking to him, Bob ___."

The news that the signs were supposed to refer to all the trees depressed me. It didn't matter that I had no way of telling the difference between the trees; perhaps I had touched a tree that wasn't supposed to be touched. And I still didn't know why. Bob didn't want the trees touched in the first place. And, of course, since I wasn't supposed to touch the trees, I now wanted to do so more than ever.

I tracked down the manager who had ordered the signs. He'd been transferred half a dozen times, but he was still with the Forest Service. When I finally reached him, I asked, "Hey Bob, why were you trying to mark all those trees untouchable?"

Bob laughed. "I knew I hadn't heard the last of those signs," he said. "It's as if they have a life of their own and are following me around forever. As curses go, I think I'd rather be the Flying Dutchman than be plagued by those signs.

"You see," Bob continued, "this was all before Leave No Trace and all the other education programs we have today. We were simply trying different approaches to keep people from pulling off dead tree branches for fires or carving their initials into trunks. It wasn't touching a tree that was the problem, but how you touched it. I didn't want to have to list all the things we didn't want people to do, so it just seemed simpler to tell everyone not to touch the trees. Of course, because the signs came out wrong, we actually protected only six trees?." His voice trailed off, and I decided to leave Bob with his memories. I had found out what I wanted to know.

A few months later, I hiked back into the Loof Lirpa Wilderness to the sign that had started the whole mess. The trees still looked the same to me, but some strange urge was compelling me to do what I had originally wanted to, to touch that one "protected" tree. I approached slowly, taking in the whole tree, trying to soak in all its individual characteristics. A misshapen branch here, a dead one there, the slight lean of the tree-all this I carefully noted. Instead of merely touching it, I decided to hug the tree instead.

As I backed away, I looked down at the sap that was now stuck to my brand new synthetic T-shirt. Perhaps Bob was right. Let's not touch the trees.