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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

A buried treasure of trees

A Washington state man who always loved to dig in the dirt unearths a petrified forest, covered by lava 15 million years ago while still upright.

June 28, 2007|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

Yakima, Wash. — Clyde Friend's life changed the moment his bulldozer hit the first tree on a hot summer afternoon in 2002 as he leveled a hill behind his workshop. Chips flew everywhere, a small explosion of brown and white shards.

He hopped off the dozer to investigate. There, embedded in the hill, was a mostly intact fossilized tree trunk standing upright in solid rock. "Well, that's different," he recalls thinking.

A heavy-machine operator for most of his working life, Friend was used to finding bits of petrified wood now and then. He'd never bumped into anything like this.

For the next several days, in the privacy of his remote 10-acre lot, Friend dug up the rest of his find by chipping away the surrounding rock. It turned out to be a petrified hickory tree, 18 feet tall and as big around as a cantaloupe.

He extracted it in pieces and put it in storage, thinking it could be worth something someday. Then he went back to leveling the hill -- until he hit the second tree. It was the same height as the first, but thicker. The third tree was identical, but the fourth took his breath away: 20 inches in diameter.

"I thought, 'One more tree and that's the end,' " Friend says. "But after one, there'd be another one right behind. I haven't found the end yet."

Friend spent the rest of the summer, and much of the last five years, unearthing what scientists have since confirmed as an ancient hardwood forest that was buried under lava about 15 million years ago. The 2-acre hill, Friend learned, was a giant mound of volcanic rock known as basalt.

Friend has dug up about 200 petrified trees and expects to find hundreds more. The trees are mostly hickory, elm, maple and sweet gum. The tallest was 24 feet, the thickest 24 inches in diameter.

Wood becomes petrified (some scientists prefer the terms "fossilized" or "mineralized") when it gets buried under sediment and minerals slowly replace organic material, turning it to stone over time.

Friend showed samples to local petrified-wood collectors to get an idea of the trees' value, and he bought a $10,000 rock-cutting saw from a well-known rockhound in Seattle. Word of his discovery trickled out, and that's when the scientists started coming around.

Walt Wright, of Brea, Calif., a foremost expert in paleobotany (the study of fossil plants) and owner of one of the world's largest collections of petrified wood, said he had never seen anything like "Clyde's forest."

Other petrified forests are assemblages of log pieces, such as the Ginkgo Petrified Forest in nearby Vantage, Wash., where fallen trees from various places had been carried by mudflows to a funnel point, such as a lake.

Wright says Friend's trees are unique in their length and age. But what makes his forest remarkable is its "vertical orientation," with the trees standing possibly in the exact spot where they sprouted, lived and died. It gives a freeze-frame portrait of a forest as it existed during a distant epoch -- a time when the climate in these parts was more like that of modern-day Louisiana, and aquatic rhinos and giant ground sloths roamed the land.

"This goes beyond the rim of man's understanding.... " Friend says. "It definitely goes beyond mine."

FRIEND parks his 90,000-pound bulldozer just outside his workshop, hops down and slaps dust off his jeans. It's a hot Thursday afternoon, and he's been working all day.

He is 50, long and wiry, graying but energetic in a boyish way. His skin is weathered, like an old saddle. His talk is unhurried, and he has a tendency to end sentences with "and everything." What he actually said was, "This goes beyond the rim of man's understanding and everything."

Friend is divorced with no children. He sleeps in an old Ford Econoline 350 motor home parked inside his shop. He spends a lot of time by himself, although he constantly refers to "we" as in "We need to figure out what to do with this."

He means himself, his 12-year-old dog Ozzie and his heavy machines (he has five on his property), he later explains. To some extent, "we" includes his 70-year-old mother, Barbara Friend, who lives in a mobile home on 28 acres just below his property.

A retired cannery worker, Barbara has increasingly taken on the duty of answering calls from researchers and collectors. She takes messages and her son returns the calls at his leisure, or not. He remains wary of the attention.

The family has owned the adjoining properties for nearly three decades. Friend asks that the location not be disclosed. Suffice to say he lives far off the beaten path, at the end of a long, winding dirt road. The remote location, surrounded by thousands of acres of private property, is the main reason state officials have not tried to acquire the property and turn it into a park. Besides, Friend has shown no interest in selling.

From outside the shop he can see part of Yakima, where he was born and raised, a farming community of 73,000 spread across vast stretches of sage and bunch grass in south-central Washington.

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