By Tom Webb
Ryan Burns is not an everyday ambulance driver. He doesn’t scream down busy city streets, pick up accident victims and rush them away to the nearest hospital. He has no need for a siren, since his patients are, without exception, dead on arrival. He’s part Quincy, the county coroner, and part public provocateur, documenting the death of biodiversity in the backcountry of America’s national forests. You can call him a stump-rubber, or tree-impressionist, but you’d never be correct in describing him as an average landscape artist. Forest rangers can attest to that.
“They get real confused,” Burns says of the rangers who encounter him and his 1989 Ford ambulance as they travel the logging roads of the Pacific Northwest. “’Whatya’ doing? Did someone get hurt out here?’ they ask. And I’m like ‘No, I’m just looking for some clear-cuts.’”
A fresh cut mapped and found, Burns pulls out his materials—swaths of paper, a glue stick and a thick rubbing crayon—and gets to work on his latest patient. He finds the largest, freshest stump available. The papers are layered across the ringed behemoth and glued together to form a parent sheet. Sometimes he’ll have to saw off an errant snag so as to create a relatively clean, flat surface. Only then does the rubbing begin. As the pine pitch, bone-black pigment and of his crayon scurries across the stump, a new image is born from the recently department Douglas fir, Sitka spruce or Ponderosa pine. It’s like dusting for clues, and Burns knows that every stump has its own unique set of rings, its own fingerprint.