The Trees, The Trees
By Nathan HuffstutterFebruary 6, 2015
WHEN I WAS 17 my goal in life was to run headfirst into a brick wall. Literally. I can’t claim any original credit for this ambition: the inspiration to pair skull with masonry came directly from the romanticized doom of the 1986 biopic Sid & Nancy. The film opens with a young woman wrapped in plastic, the narrative backtracking from there; in an early scene, Gary Oldman’s Sid Vicious wanders up to Chloe Webb as Nancy Spungen, dyed black meeting dyed blonde, both in zippered leather, the latter distraught and dragging ragged knuckles against a graffiti-marred building.
“That looks like it hurts,” Sid says, taking Nancy’s bloodied hand in his.
“It does,” she snaps, ripping her wrist free.
“So does this,” he says — SLAM — driving his forehead straight into the brick building, neck and cranium rebounding like a rubber mallet. In that split-second: caring, chivalry, flirtation, one-upmanship, spontaneity, resolve, and an absolute fearlessness in the face of pain. Teen ideals captured in a self-inflicted wound, a glass-slipper match of message and delivery system.
I watched Sid & Nancy dozens of times and rewound that scene hundreds more, certain it held some clue for how to go on living in the world once I’d been stung by the most chronic form of adolescent awareness — the keen eye for adult incompetence — which bombarded me with examples of the reigning generation’s failure to construct the world as a fair, safe, or ethical space. The film’s influence didn’t extend as far as style or substances or even soundtrack — the Sex Pistols were another era’s music and I would never have the right hair for punk. Nor the right roots: instead of the urban blight of seventies London, this was the cusp of the nineties and I’d grown up next to a sprawling meadow on a tree-rimmed cul-de-sac in the Pacific Northwest.
“Entering the town of Twin Peaks. Five miles south of the Canadian border, 12 miles west of the state line. I have never seen so many trees in my life,” says Kyle MacLachlan as the Dudley-Do-Right Agent Dale Cooper, recording procedural minutiae on a handheld cassette as he drives toward the titular town in Twin Peaks’s pilot episode. “I have got to find out what kind of trees these are. They’re really something.”
The trees, the trees: a forest of great Douglas Firs rising with the snow-patched hills and assembling to form a primordial horizon. Like the ocean, those trees have the capacity to fill onlookers with the sense of something grander and more eternal than human progress, and I believe it was the enduring serenity of those evergreens that inspired my father to sell our house in coastal San Diego and move the family to Eugene, Oregon when I was six and my brother nine. Certainly it wasn’t the pines alone: perhaps the town’s unfenced lots and unpretentious economy reminded my parents of being raised during the 1950s in inland San Diego (an area that was, then, the sticks); perhaps it was the omen of Prop 13, a pre-Reaganite, 1978 tax measure that all-but guaranteed California’s future of underfunded schools and ill-prepared emergency services; perhaps there was some unspoken personal crisis or predicament that spurred them to leave and start anew.
Before introducing Agent Cooper on his drive into Twin Peaks, the pilot episode begins with a sequence of small-town tropes: a crotchety fisherman ducking out with his rod and tacklebox; the town capitalist readying documents before the façade of a great stone fireplace; blue-uniformed diner waitresses and a flannel-clad pump-jockey; freshly-bobbed and letter-sweatered students in the unspoiled halls of a very Rydell High; a blubbering, Mayberry-ish deputy bawling at the sight of a young woman wrapped in plastic. This corpse, the body of local sweetheart Laura Palmer, jars each character out of their natural environment and into a high-strung state of fear and obsession.
I have no idea what I was doing on April 8th, 1990 when Twin Peaks premiered. Not watching the episode, that’s for certain. From the trailers, I’d assumed David Lynch’s foray into nighttime melodrama would be a skewed take on Dynasty and Falcon Crest and the pandering dopiness of “Who shot J.R.?” — a tradition so over-the-top awful there seemed little crawl-space for parody or homage. Nor would I have spent that night stressing over schoolwork — riding out the last weeks of high school, my attendance rivaled that of Twin Peaks’s varsity truant, Bobby Briggs. It’s possible I was holed up listening to the Pixies or Sonic Youth or The Replacements, or maybe I was somewhere watching Heathers or Drugstore Cowboy, returning again and again to the cool winking fatalism that came so much more naturally than Sid Vicious’s full-bodied abandon. It’s also possible I was out loitering around one of the overgrown reservoirs and undeveloped lots where teenagers congregated, under cover of those great Douglas Firs, freed to leap shoulder-first into retaining walls or to smash empty cans against our foreheads, flirting groping drinking fighting writhing in dark nature, no adults in sight and only the trees to bear witness that no one among us was fearless enough to charge headfirst into something greater.
In the Twin Peaks pilot, after Agent Cooper meets the regrettably-coated town Sheriff Harry S. Truman, the pair are heading through the station and discussing details of Laura Palmer’s murder when Cooper stops the sheriff with two urgent concerns. First, Cooper wants to make sure his counterpart understands the new chain of command: the FBI will be in charge of the investigation. That settled, leading into his second question, Cooper’s face lights up with pure naïve wonder.
“Sheriff… What kind of fantastic trees have you got growing around here?”
A childhood in the Pacific Northwest: we rode BMX bikes and stomped in puddles, we collected baseball cards and stashes of candy; we Dungeoned, we Dragoned. On foggy days we stayed indoors, the moist air gagging with the emissions stink from Weyerhaeuser and Rexius, local factory mills that turned spruces, pines, and firs into pulp products and sawdust. When the weather broke I would arm myself with a stick version of “Beater” or “Biter,” breaching the boundary of wild blackberries at our property line and fording the meadow’s high wetland grasses — the treeline beckoning adventure — and on these solitary marches I’d lose myself in the woods and do battle with orcs and trolls and Tolkienesque forces of evil.
I also played a sport corresponding with every season. There were three Kevins* who suited up on our elementary school basketball team: Tall Kevin drowned in the river before we made it out of middle school; Little Kevin had a rough go from start to finish — in the euphemistic words of the Eugene newspaper, he died of “depression and an anxiety disorder” at age 32. Of the three, Blonde Kevin was the Kevin I knew best — towheaded, his hair was the same ghostly white that Leland Palmer’s turned the morning after one of the prime suspects in his daughter’s murder was found dead. Blonde Kevin lived a short ride down the hill, much closer than Tall Kevin or Little Kevin, and there was a flat, functional space of concrete in front of his garage hoop, securing Blonde Kevin’s position in the neighborhood circuit of two-on-two and three-on-three games.
Blonde Kevin’s father, Warren, was passionate about photography and the Boy Scouts. His mother, Margret, took pills. There’s a paragraph in Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory where an artist remembers his mother — a woman who committed suicide when he was a child — as having an uncanny quality “that was a bit unreal, or in any case timeless,” in which “it seemed implausible that she could have passed her teens in the 1960s, that she ever owned a transistor or gone to rock concerts.” Warren and Margaret had this same timeless presence: he with the spectacles and slicked part of Harry S. Truman (the president, not the sheriff), she with a vertiginous beehive, and neither seemingly touched by any political, social, or cultural development since the storming of Normandy.
At some point our basketball games begat sleepovers, and sleepovers begat slumber parties, and before we were out of elementary school we’d all heard the whispers about Warren. If you spend the night at Blonde Kevin’s, zip your sleeping bag all the way to your throat. Make sure to pretend you’re already asleep if his dad asks to take your picture or offers you a backrub.
No one knew the original source of these warnings: the rumors passed from child to child without anyone volunteering their account as coming firsthand. Nor did we possess anything close to an adequate vocabulary — the whispers spoke of fingers and rubbing, unseen Polaroids, and some vague notion of being pawed at in a way that threatened to make you wake up a different person than you were when you went to sleep. If Blonde Kevin says he’s having a sleepover, no matter what, NEVER stay the night alone.
up to be
be a debaser …”
— The Pixies, “Debaser”
“Why’d you do it, Sid?!” Trailing a plastic-wrapped body through the door, the dazed Sex Pistol is hustled from his room in the Chelsea Hotel and, out on the street, Gary Oldman becomes Sid Vicious in the act of becoming “Sid Vicious,” the young punk reanimated by popping flashbulbs and hollering paparazzi. Though this opening scene more or less says it all, the narrative of Sid & Nancy unfolds as an to answer to that question: Why’d you do it, Sid?
Lingering in close-up on Laura Palmer’s corpse — her plastic-haloed face in repose with the sheer wrap bunched about her neck and hair like satin sheets or a wedding gown — Twin Peaks sets out to answer a far more ambitious question: Why would anyone do such a thing? Unlike the prototypical whodunit, in which the writer starts from the crime and plots backward, David Lynch and Mark Frost created Twin Peaks with a murder and no specific culprit. Originally titled “Northwest Passage,” the series explores something more elemental; rather than juxtaposing motive and opportunity with the necessary mens rea, Lynch and Frost juxtapose absolutes of good and evil, investigating the way man and nature habitually flip-flop their positions on that divide.
“I have only been in Twin Peaks a short time, but in that time I have seen decency, honor, and dignity,” Agent Cooper says in the third episode, confronting Miguel Ferrer’s ruthlessly cynical forensic scientist, Albert Rosenfeld. “Murder is not a faceless event here, it is not a statistic to be tallied up at the end of the day. Laura Palmer’s death has affected each and every man, woman, and child — because life has meaning here. Every life. That’s a way of living I thought had vanished from the earth, but it hasn’t, Albert, it’s right here in Twin Peaks.”
While a coeval film like the small-town set, über-cool Heathers toyed with death as the ultimate in-joke — and what small-town teenager doesn’t long to be in on the joke? — Twin Peaks draped itself in a deeply unfashionable nostalgia, yearning for an old-timey innocence in which decency and dignity were core values, and every life was respected as a precious gift. Cooper’s initial view of the townsfolk is, of course, an illusion — a reflection of his own ardor for that “vanished” way of life — and though Laura Palmer’s murder does dislodge the locals from their natural states, fear and obsession were always a latent part of that nature, alongside greed, lust, jealousy, rage, voyeurism, willful indifference, and all the active vices more commonly associated with modern city living.
Still, no Biblical sin or nouveau venality could explain the ritualistic rape and murder of Laura Palmer, and despite Lynch & Co.’s aspirations, a map to the source of pure evil is no simple thing to draw.
Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory involves men setting out into the world of commerce, facing the often irrational forces of supply and demand before giving way to the inevitability of homeward returns and reversions to nature. Rounding out lives spent in the worlds of art, literature, and police investigation, the novel’s central characters return to the wooded, rural areas of their youths, nostalgic locales that offer a respite from the commercial routes they’ve traveled. Houellebecq inserts himself into the narrative, with the author at first waging a battle with his intense, self-destructive nature and later retiring to the countryside, hair gone white as he lives out his days in a rustic house that “reminded him a little of his grandparents’.”
During this quiet idyll, Houellebecq is murdered, decapitated, with his skin flayed and laid in grotesque strips across his living room floor. The stink and shock and gore of the crime scene are so visceral that even hardened investigators brought in from the city are reduced to nausea and tears like Twin Peaks’s chronically weepy Deputy Andy.
“Whoever did that… should not exist,” says a young Lieutenant, surveying the crime scene. “He should be wiped off the face of the earth.”
As the creators of Twin Peaks searched for a perpetrator worthy of the crime they’d given life, they ultimately settled on an otherworldly source of evil; Sheriff Truman and longtime residents whisper about a dark spirit that has haunted the woods for generations. This incorporeal evil emerges from the trees in visions and nightmares and possession, personified in the form of “Bob,” a wild-haired, snarling, cackling vehicle of pure sadistic malevolence. Midway through the second (and final) season, after Laura’s killer is revealed, Agent Cooper spends a night in the woods, sitting out by a campfire with Major Briggs, who began the show as teenage Bobby’s clueless-stiff of a dad before evolving into the series’ wizened soul.
“I find myself thinking a lot about ‘Bob.’ He truly exists,” says Cooper. “I try to imagine him out there, incarnate. Looking for another victim to inhabit.”
“There are powerful forces of evil,” Major Briggs replies. “It is some men’s fate to face great darkness. We each choose how to react — if the choice is fear, then we become vulnerable to darkness.”
now I understand you are the owner of a small
piece of time like anyone else tonight
everyone’s sending me flowers and I am upset
thinking maybe where I am the earth will collapse
— Heather Christle, from “When the Sun Went Down They Kept Growing,” The Trees The Trees
After Tall Kevin drowned, our basketball coach arranged for the team to gather at the grieving family’s home for the memorial. Coach Jesse had been a star high school athlete, but was on a disability pension following his tour in Vietnam: a kid in his unit flipped out and shot up their platoon, leaving Jesse with sporadic nightmares and a creaking limp. He also coached our baseball team, and not long after Tall Kevin’s wake, Coach Jesse called our squad together and told us our best pitcher, Joel, would miss the next handful of games.
Joel was one of two kids on our team who could throw a decent fastball and the only one who could locate it, firing darts to our stump of a catcher, Floyd Jr. (who would later change his given name after Floyd Sr. ran away with another man). Joel was a boy who’d show up to school in a white undershirt because that’s what there was to put on that day, and in addition to being the only pitcher on our team who could place a fastball, he was also the only kid likely to leave his house with a folding knife in his front pocket. This was fortunate — one afternoon while Joel was hunting frogs by the river, a stranger crept out of the trees and attacked him.
“He tried to rape me,” Joel whispered, describing the assault several weeks later as we sat side-by-side in the back seat of Coach Jesse’s wood-paneled station wagon.
Joel barely knew what happened — one minute he was on the trail of hopping amphibians, the next he was running like mad, wearing only a pair of blood-soaked tighty-whities and clutching the pocket-knife that probably saved his life.
“Maybe that’s all ‘Bob’ is — the evil that men do,” suggests Albert Rosenfeld, speaking with Agent Cooper and Sheriff Truman after Laura Palmer’s rapist and killer has been buried.
Spoken by a skeptic and a scientist, this comes as a lame cop-out, a proposal that evil represents an external, dissociative act. The reverse holds far more truth — men do evil — only this construction is one decent folk aren’t terribly good at communicating.
Shortly after this time, Blonde Kevin quit playing basketball and took up smoking. We were getting too big for garage courts and there were no more slumber parties, but the whispers hadn’t stopped. Warren, timeless as ever, kept strapping on his camera and gave no indication of having ever heard the rumors; Margret, meanwhile, continued to float in an alternate pharmaceutical dimension. Blonde Kevin no longer invited neighborhood kids to their house, but Warren had access to cabins by the coast and cabins in the woods, and he would arrange overnight nature trips, taking groups of boys out to experience the beauty and wonder of these isolated territories.
In a meta-stroke — probably more unintentional than deliberate — David Lynch wrote himself into Twin Peaks as a hearing-impaired FBI Bureau Chief only to notably bail early in the second season, announcing he was dashing off to Bend, Oregon, “REAL HUSH-HUSH!” Without an auteur on the set, the crew of Hollywood pros charged with overseeing the series were capable of stringing out subplots and putting episodes in the can, but none had the vision or inclination to grapple with Lynch and Frost’s original question.
Why would anyone do such a thing?
In hindsight, it’s possible to pinpoint how the series went off track almost from the outset: confronted by a crime with no killer, there was nobody to investigate but the victim. So, to that question of why, Agent Cooper, Sheriff Truman, and pretty much the entire population of Twin Peaks sniff around Laura Palmer’s (ultimately irrelevant) sexuality. The beloved, darling girl wasn’t exactly the timeless picture of innocence shown night after night in the show’s credits: she’d confessed to her psychiatrist that her sexual exploits and fantasies made her feel so dirty that she was compelled to corrupt others, to bring them down to the base and degraded image she had of herself.
“Is it safe to say she [Laura] came to you because she was having problems?” Agent Cooper asks that psychiatrist, Dr. Jacoby (played by Russ Tamblyn, one of two Twin Peaks actors resurrected from West Side Story).
“Oh my, yes,” says Doctor Jacoby.
“Were her problems of a sexual nature?” asks Cooper.
“Agent Cooper,” says Doctor Jacoby. “The problems of our entire society are of a sexual nature.”
After departing the horrific crime scene in The Map and the Territory, the lead investigator descends the Rue Martin-Heidegger and comes across a display of art by the village’s mental patients, including a grotesque painting of “a man with a duck’s head and an excessively large penis.” Absent a pure financial motive, the inspector has come to see sex as the cause for the most heinous criminal offenses: “…He now saw in it more and more often the struggle, the brutal fight for domination, the elimination of the rival and the hazardous multiplication of coitus without any reason other than ensuring the maximum propagation of genes. He saw in it the source of all conflict, of all massacres and suffering. Sexuality increasingly appeared to him as the most direct and obvious manifestation of evil.”
Laura and her killer were both in the ground midway through Twin Peaks’s run, but the show must go on, so the not-so-Lynchian shepherds of the series consulted their templates and trotted out the archetypal “partner-gone-bad.” From the demonic visage of “Bob,” the embodiment of evil shifts to Cooper’s criminally-insane ex-partner, Windom Earle, a putzier version of the shape-shifting, government-trained assassin John Malkovich would unnervingly inhabit two years later in In the Line of Fire.
Earle not only neuters the show’s most potent form of living evil — taming Leo Johnson’s lurking, brain-damaged brutality into the simpering grunts of a domesticated Frankenstein — but the rogue agent represents “evil for the sake of evil” and “darkness without leavening motive.” As such, Earle negates the show’s most vital question — why would anyone do such a thing? — with a shrug of contrived madness.
Sexually violent men become, in the words of Agent Cooper, “victims” inhabited by “Bob.” Otherwise, Twin Peaks’s human (i.e., sane) manifestations of evil are largely housed in female sexuality. Following the errant trail of Laura’s sexual explorations, the show’s writers revert to their own natures and summon an icy succubus (Miss Jones), a nympho femme fatale (Evelyn Marsh), and a pathological whore (Josie Packard). Where female sexuality isn’t situated as a weapon, it’s a curse: Heather Graham’s ex-nun Annie sleeps with Agent Cooper, and Sherilyn Fenn’s Audrey loses her virginity to the ever-hammy Billy Zane, marking both for doom.
Besides lending his name to an avenue that terminates at the spectacle of a humongous cock, Martin Heidegger wrote about the process of recognizing and identifying that which is smack dab in front of us. In Being and Time, the philosopher discussed oscillations of the familiar and unfamiliar, looking at the sources of perception that allow us to mistake the proverbial forest for the trees: “Beings are not completely concealed, rather they are what is discovered, and at the same time distorted. They show themselves, but in the mode of semblance. Similarly, what was previously discovered sinks back again into dissemblance and concealment.”
Distortion. Concealment. Dissemblance. The path is perilous and tricky — still, even a small-town teenager could tell you, if you’re searching for evil down a young woman’s pants, you’re looking in the wrong fucking place.
“we’re apin’ rapin’ tapin’ catharthis
you get torn down and I get erected
my blood is working but my, my heart is
— The Pixies, “Dead”
This past summer my wife and I took our daughters to visit Bend, Oregon: the girls are 5 and 8, nearly the same ages my older brother and I were, back when my parents decided to move up north. While in Bend we rode bikes and horses, hiked through high meadow grasses, and tromped beneath canopies of old growth in the Deschutes National Forest. Later in the trip we stopped with my parents and had lunch in Elkton, a town on the Umpqua River with a population that hovers around 200. The diner we chose — Arlene’s Café — has been operating since the 1950s, with a lunch counter that opens directly into a bait and tackle shop and a dozen flavors of pie listed on a signboard above the kitchen.
This is the world we show our children. The world is more beautiful through their eyes and for as long as possible we want them to hold on to the world as we remember it — or, at the very least, the world as we would’ve liked it to be.
My parents were the ones who passed along the news about Warren, calling me out of the blue several years after I’d left Eugene and returned for good to Southern California. The local Eugene paper reported that Warren had been organizing wilderness excursions for diabetic boys, and while out on a camping trip a woman spotted him videotaping young boys (ages 10-14) in the nude. This witness happened to work as a treatment provider for sex offenders, and she had no difficulty recognizing and identifying what was smack dab in front of her. A police search turned up incriminating photos and videos, the initial set of criminal charges led more victims to come forward with more charges, and across multiple courtrooms in multiple counties Warren was convicted of a variety of sex offenses, all tied to the groping and photographing of young boys.
In Being and Time, Heidegger — himself no stranger to complicity in the face of great evil — wrote about the phenomenon of anxiety, interrogating the way we human beings take care of ourselves and seek to avoid falling prey within the world we’ve all been “thrown” into. Using a formulation that translates as “being-ahead-of-oneself,” Heidegger outlines the phenomena of self-projection, whereby individuals have the capacity to project (or conceive of) themselves confronting potential threats in their environment, a speculative advance that allows for the avoidance of certain dangers.
No one from our neighborhood was among the victims who pressed charges against Warren. As we were growing up, no parents, coaches, or teachers ever confirmed that they’d heard the rumors or harbored suspicions of their own, so it’s possible our elementary school whispers were born of a self-protective premonition, a phenomena of “being-ahead-of-ourselves” after properly recognizing a threat at hand.
More likely, though, the whole story has never been told — Eugene was a small town and decent folk simply didn’t talk about those kinds of things.
Folk tales and myths are filled with episodes of men heading out into the forest to confront their dark nature; whatever evil they find, it is not the fault of the trees. While we can conceive of (and sometimes avoid) the threats we recognize, we routinely fail at projecting ourselves into those threats facing others; we routinely fail to appreciate how the things we don’t speak of flourish in the spaces between us; we routinely fail to acknowledge how the secrets we bury ultimately take root and thrive. I don’t know whether this marks a collective failure of will or mind or empathy, but I do know that while it takes no effort for me to remember Warren’s scoutmaster grin and pomaded normalcy, I still can’t conjure an image of the man who attacked Joel. I can see the frogs jumping beside the river and I can see Joel running in bloody underpants — I can see all the parts of the story I was told — but in the space where the attacker belongs, all I see is a hole in my own imagination.
Somewhere in that space I was out in the woods, waving my stick at orcs and trolls.
In the final episodes of Twin Peaks, Deputy Andy stands for hours in Sheriff Truman’s office, staring at a primitive, chalkboard-drawn map to the “Black Lodge,” a location in the forest housing pure evil. For days, though, no one recognizes the crude, black and white representation is meant to be a map — largely because it’s not really a map at all. In order to identify the landmarks on the sketch, someone would’ve had to have passed all those places some time before.
While David Lynch and the writers of Twin Peaks identified Laura Palmer’s killer, they never solved the crime: the act exists in a gap in space, with no one ever wrapping their minds all the way around the question: why would anyone do such a thing?
“An evil that great in this beautiful world…” Agent Briggs says, gazing up at the trees shortly after the murderer and his secrets have been buried. “Finally, does it matter what the cause?”
“Yes,” Agent Cooper answers, without a moment’s hesitation.
* The three boys shared the same first name, but that name was not Kevin. I recognize the irony of changing the names in this essay to protect the innocent.
This essay is part of a series of investigations, reflections, and reminiscences by writers, artists, and musicians who were influenced by David Lynch’s seminal television show Twin Peaks. To read more, or to learn about participation, visit www.twinpeaksproject.com.
Nathan Huffstutter lives and writes in San Diego. His fiction has been published in The Literary Review and his essays and reviews have appeared in The Millions, Electric Literature, The Classical, and Paste. You can find more of his work at www.nhuffstutterlit.com.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.