NESKOWIN, Ore. - Saltwater, cold and green, wreathes a forest of ancient stumps, standing sentry in the sand.
Winter storms fueled by El Nino have scoured sand from the beaches along the central coast of Oregon and exposed hundreds of stumps like these, some for the first time.
From a distance, the stump forests don't look like much. They could be remnants of an old pier.
But they've become a scientific sensation and tourist mecca, attracting visitors from around the country. Neskowin residents, however, were bewildered, and not amused when their tiny town - so small the telephone company forgot to put it in the directory this year - was besieged by thousands of people wanting to touch, photograph and contemplate the stumps.
Scientists say the stumps at Neskowin are estimated to be nearly 2,000 years old, dating to the height of the Roman Empire.
Another group of about 100 stumps around Newport, to the south, are estimated to be about 4,000 years old, almost as old as the Pyramids.
Some of Oregon's sand forests, including the stumps at Neskowin, have been visible at least in part since the 1950s, depending on winter storm patterns. But this spring, because of heavy beach erosion, the Neskowin stumps show wood and bark never visible before.
Storms at Neskowin also uncovered layers of what scientists think is ancient soil, complete with tufts of dead grass.
The stumps - the tallest on the coast, including one around 6 feet high - are a clue to the violent past of the Pacific coast, and a good predictor of future geologic calamity.
Roger Hart, a marine geologist with Oregon State University in Corvallis, says exactly what buried the forest is a mystery. Powerful earthquakes certainly played a part, he believes.
Quakes dropped the forest below sea level. Other forces combined to snap off the trunks and bury the stumps. Geologic faults, tsunamis, and breached sand bars that allowed saltwater and sand to wash inland also played a part.
Future earthquakes and tsunamis are certain on the Northwest coast. And their potential power is on display in the sand forests, ghostly in the pearly light of overcast skies.
"It's kind of eerie," said Bob Beardsley of Salem as he walked the beach in Neskowin last week. "I've rented a cabin here for years but never seen it like this. It's not normal at all."
Tom Rheutan of Woodburn said he'd visited the beach at Neskowin since high school but never seen the stumps so bare, or so many of them. "It's pretty amazing. The ocean is doing some strange things."
Even the sand looks different, with the usual tawny, fine-grained beach scraped away by the surf to reveal zebra patterns of black, heavier grains banded with fractured white shells.
The bases of the stumps are slick and clean, or delicately beaded with new barnacles, tiny and white as seed pearls. The bases don't show the calcified rings of former barnacle colonies that would indicate long exposure to the air.
Hart, the marine geologist, said the stumps were preserved by their burial. The mix of sand and saltwater that covered them shuts out air that would support sea life that helps decompose wood.
It's the same with faint remnants of ancient grass visible in hunks of soil veined through the sand. Hacking at the mud with a rusty garden tool, Hart last week collected samples to analyze at his lab.
He'll look for microscopic traces of what used to grow there, hints of what the climate was like, whether the water was fresh or salt, and even ancient grains of pollen.
Hart was surprised at the public's reaction to the stumps when they emerged from the sand this year.
Pilgrims descended on the beach by the thousands in Neskowin after news reports described stumps "dating back to the time of Jesus."
About 3,000 people a day trampled the beach and pocked the dunes. "It looked like Woodstock," Hart marveled.
The locals, including those in a gated community adjacent to the stump forest, did not like the intrusions.
In what are supposed to be the quiet months, visitors tramped through people's yards, lined Highway 101 with cars, and, locals say, left trash and bad memories behind.
Some towns would have capitalized on the off-season tourist interest. In Neskowin, property owners instead gated a trail to the beach and put up signs to warn people off their property. Visitors wanting to see the stumps had to ford a small creek to get there.
In the local store, owner Roy Weber was so sensitive to local hostility he sold stump postcards by the thousands but didn't dare diversify into T-shirts.
"I got so much abuse from selling the cards I decided not to do the shirts," he said. "It's frustrating. The true character of this town came out."
The crowds have abated now, but the stumps still are a sensitive subject.
"It was crazy, like a lemming mentality," said Rowan Lehrman, a waitress at the town's one cafe.
Judith Schlicting, her mother, blamed the media for publicizing the stumps and making their appearance sound like a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, when in Neskowin they are a familiar sight.
"This has all been very confusing," Schlicting said of the crowds of people who approached the stumps in awe. "I don't understand it."
The stumps get no reverent pilgrimage from her or other locals, who are quick to tell visitors the stumps have been around as long as they can remember.
A flyer pasted on a motel-office door notes: "As a matter of general interest, the stumps are visible most years."
Townspeople are so used to the stumps that when the county hauled away one that was blocking a bridge and dumped it in her yard, Schlicting figured she might as well burn it to get rid of it. "They don't burn," she noted.
After all the hassle between locals and visitors, the town is just as happy the hullabaloo has died down. Even better, summer is coming - and with it, tides that again will cover the stumps with sand.
Lynda Mapes' phone message number is 206-464-2736. Her e-mail is email@example.com