Crashing Into A Buried Treasure: Clyde Friend Unearths a Petrified Forest
June 28, 2007
By Alex Tizon
YAKIMA, Washington – 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. He 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 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.
It’s hard to say whether Yakima made Friend or Friend was perfect for Yakima, but the place had a lot of what fascinated him, namely dirt. From the time he was a toddler, according to his mother, Friend loved to dig in, play with and cover himself in the soft brown soils of the neighborhood. “I used to ask him, ‘How’d you get so filthy?’ and he’d say, ‘The dirt jumped on me, Mom.’ ”
Friend’s father, who died at 47, helped build dams, which required carving the land. Friend’s uncle was a land excavator for five decades, and all of Friend’s cousins are in some form of excavating or grading profession. He grew up with an excavator’s point of view. Where most people see a mountain and go around, Friend sees a hill of dirt to bore through — or move. It’s how his five-year odyssey began.
It started as a remodeling project. The mini-warehouse that he calls his shop, where he services his heavy equipment, had become cramped. In June 2002, he started to add 30 feet to the back and build a driveway around the building. But on the first day of excavation, within hours after dropping the bulldozer’s blade, he smashed into the first tree. To hear him tell it, curiosity gave way to obsession, and digging up the rest of the forest has become a consuming quest.
He’s turned down a number of grading jobs this year because “the trees,” as he refers to them, have come to take up more of his time. In a typical week, he might spend 20 hours making a living and the rest of the time, including nights and weekends, excavating the trees. He uses his heavy machines to break away large chunks of rock, and then drops to his knees with a hammer and chisel to chip around the trees, like an archeologist unearthing dinosaur bones.
Because the trees have been encased in basalt for so long, Friend says, it’s impossible to extract them whole. Most scientists concur. The process of separating the trees from the rock creates fractures or, more often, reveals micro-fractures already present. Like skeletons encased in concrete, the trees were essentially held together by thick layers of lava that molded to their shapes and eventually hardened. Without the rock encasement, the trees would have broken into pieces long ago. Nevertheless, Friend has unearthed unbroken pieces as long as 8 feet, which in the world of petrified wood qualifies as astounding.
Friend’s frugal lifestyle and dividends from land investments allow him the time. That he had the equipment on site seemed to him serendipitous, almost as if he were fated to find the forest. Someone without the machines would have spent a fortune buying or renting them all these years.
Friend says he welcomes scientists and their theories, but he’s convinced the forest emerging from his hillside is nothing less than a miracle. “Unexplainable,” he says. “God’s handiwork and everything.
“Let me show you,” he says, his work boots kicking up dust as he climbs a trail that snakes behind the shop. A hundred yards later, he comes to a spot where a large chunk of earth has been gouged out of a hillside. He stands in the pocket, looking up at the newly graded bank.
“There’s one, two, three, four, five, six of them here,” he says, gesturing at the tubular shapes only partially exposed. The largest one, about a foot in diameter and 8 feet tall — an elm, he believes — looks like a craggy brown column. In spots where pieces have broken off, a rainbow of earth colors — pearl, oyster, sunset orange and midnight blue — peek out like jewels.
He goes to the nearest tree, points to the low end and then with relish says, “That’s the bottom. It ends right there. There’re no roots, no trunk, no nothing.” For Friend, the abiding mystery of his forest, and perhaps his delight, centers on the fact that none of the trees have roots. If they grew here, what happened to their bases? Says Friend: “There’s no reason these trees should be standing.”
THOMAS Dillhoff would like to know what happened to the roots too. He is a paleobotanist and curatorial associate with the University of Washington’s Burke Museum. Dillhoff has spent three years, on and off, studying Friend’s trees. Wright and Dillhoff believe the trees were preserved “in life position,” but the absence of roots, Dillhoff says, makes it difficult to “feel confident about it.”
An alternative theory is that the trees grew somewhere else, were separated from their roots by natural calamity — earthquake or volcanic blast — and were transported by mud or lava to their present location. But how did the trees remain standing? The prevailing theory is that Friend’s property was once a lake. The lake dried up. Then, 15.4 million years ago, a forest grew up in the lakebed. The lake then refilled with water and submerged the standing forest. The water kept the trees from burning when lava later swept through the region. Subsequent invasions of lava buried the lake containing the forest, eventually fossilizing the trees.
One theory for the missing roots, Dillhoff says, is that the clay layer in the lakebed, in which the roots were embedded, somehow acted as a barrier against petrifying minerals. So while the trees turned to stone, the roots rotted.
‘MAYBE,” Friend says about the theory. But why isn’t there any sign of decay in the clay layer? If something rotted, there would be discoloration. He tromps back to the shop, kicking up dust, passing knee-high piles of fossilized wood chunks. They litter his property like scraps in a junkyard. The prized stuff, the long, intact pieces, he keeps in locked shipping containers just outside his shop.
That his trees could amount to a small gold mine is a concept he’s still trying to fully grasp and assess. Recently, a group of collectors bought some pieces valued at $150,000 and donated them to the nearby Yakima Valley Museum. John Baule, museum director, says the pieces could have sold on the market for “a quarter-million.”
An exact accounting of the value of the forest can’t be determined, because there is no universally accepted pricing scheme for petrified wood. The general rule is that any piece is worth what somebody will pay for it.
Inside one corner of Friend’s shop, floor-to-ceiling shelves display crosscut slices of the fossilized trees that have been polished. The colors hinted at outside seem even more vivid in here. The fluid patterns, the growth rings, the knots give each piece a singularly distinct presentation, like a kaleidoscopic fingerprint, one unlike any other.
Friend folds his wiry frame onto a stool. Nearby, a 2-foot-tall petrified log with a polished top sits like a small table. “Isn’t that something?” he says. “One of these days when things slow down, we’re going to figure out exactly what we’re going to do with this.”
As soon as he finds the end of the forest; as soon as he digs up the last tree. Maybe he’ll turn his property into some sort of public display, although the neighbors might not be too happy about it. Maybe he’ll turn it over to a university or transform it into a private outdoor museum. “You’ve got to take your time about these kinds of things,” he says. Friend has put the workshop expansion on indefinite hold. When he’ll get back to it, he can’t say. Life took him in a different direction. One just can’t take it lightly when one crashes straight into a miracle.