Gail Wells is an independent writer and editor specializing in history and natural-resource science. Her most recent book is The Little Lucky: A Family Geography (2008).

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We are standing on the knife’s edge of a ridge in Oregon’s rugged Coast Range, peering down into a steep draw with a gurgling creek at the bottom. The hillside, pockmarked with tree stumps, also bears a patchy covering of shrubs and soft-stemmed plants: evergreen huckleberry, Oregon grape, Ceanothus, bracken fern, trailing blackberry, …

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