Her introduction came by way of a one-liner in the pilot episode of “Twin Peaks.”
Agent Cooper: “Who’s the lady with the log?”
Sheriff Harry S. Truman: “We call her the Log Lady.”
In David Lynch’s wild, woolly — and sometimes nonsensical — take on supernatural goings-on in the Pacific Northwest, it’s hard for a quirky character to stand out. After all, “Twin Peaks” — which lasted just two seasons and inspired a pretty forgettable film, but is due back sometime soon on Showtime — had crazy denizens that included a backwards-talking dwarf and a demon named BOB.
Somehow, a lady with a log seemed stranger — and, perhaps, more memorable — than them all. And now, the woman who made the Log Lady famous — longtime Lynch collaborator and theater actress Catherine Coulson — is dead at 71. The cause was cancer, as Variety reported.
“Today I lost one of my dearest friends, Catherine Coulson,” Lynch said in a statement. “Catherine was solid gold. She was always there for her friends — she was filled with love for all people — for her family — for her work. She was a tireless worker. She had a great sense of humor — she loved to laugh and make people laugh. She was a spiritual person — a longtime TM meditator.”
Lynch concluded: “She was the Log Lady.”
Born in Illinois, Coulson grew up in Southern California. Her mother was a ballet dancer and vaudevillian; her father, a producer and PR executive for Walt Disney, among other companies. Her family was featured on a radio show called “Breakfast with the Coulsons.”
“I spent a lot of time in Disneyland as a kid,” Coulson said. “… I think it warped me for life.”
Coulson became a classically trained actor — and, as a burgeoning special-effects technician, assistant director and still photographer, a force behind the camera as well. A collaborator at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, where Coulson lived from 1994 until her death, said she was once a camerawoman for “60 Minutes” and “one of the first women on camera crews in L.A. while she was becoming an actor.” Her impressive resume includes work with respected directors such as Lynch, John Cassavetes and Jim Jarmusch.
“She was a remarkable person and she had many different adventures and chapters in her life,” Chris Moore, a director with the festival, told The Washington Post in a phone interview. “She was one of the most generous and openhearted people I have ever met in my life, and I would not be the only person to say that about her.”
Coulson met Lynch while working at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. She played an amputee in an early Lynch short. Her first husband — the hard-drinking character actor and fellow Lynch collaborator Jack Nance, who died under mysterious circumstances in 1997 — played the title character in Lynch’s “Eraserhead” (1977), perhaps the most cultish of all cult films in history. The two had a turbulent relationship — Lynch once told a story about Coulson punching Nance out — and eventually divorced.
“He used to say about me, because I was so much taller, that if you can only get one woman, you may as well get the biggest one you could get,” she said of Nance.
Amid the madness of “Eraserhead” — for which Coulson served as assistant director and did Nance’s famous hair — an even stranger idea was born.
“David got this idea for a TV series that would be called ‘I’ll Test My Log with Every Branch of Knowledge,'” Coulson told Brad Dukes for his “Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks.” “He said I would be a girl who would carry a log with her; it would be Ponderosa Pine because that’s what his dad did his thesis on.” (Lynch’s father was a researcher for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.)
The world’s strangest pitch got even stranger.
“She would carry the log from expert to expert, and that expert would talk about the wood and we would then learn about the wood and learn about what those people did,” Coulson remembered. “… For example: I would go to a dentist, and he’d clip a little blue towel on the log and the dentist would probe the rings and talk about dentistry as well as the wood.”
But what may have elicited “hmms” in the late 1970s proved a hit little more than a decade later. Once Lynch got the “Twin Peaks” pilot, the “log girl” became Margaret Lanterman, the “Log Lady”: Coulson in plaid skirts, logging boots, enormous sweaters and even bigger glasses — and, of course, carrying a log while dispensing mystical tidbits of wisdom and/or warning.
In the sixth episode of the show’s first season, the Log Lady offers Agent Cooper a clue to Laura Palmer’s murder, inviting the slick-haired FBI man to ask her log what it saw on the night of the killing. The answer came in Log-ese: “Dark … laughing … the owls were flying … many things were blocked … laughing … two men … two girls … flashlights passed by in the woods over the ridge … the owls were near … the dark was pressing in on her … quiet then … later footsteps … one man passed by … screams … far away … terrible.”
How did Agent Cooper use this magnetic refrigerator poetry to solve the murder of a teenager? It didn’t matter. People loved it.
“I think that character was well received so they just kept writing in places for the Log Lady to appear,” Coulson said.
For a short time, it seemed, the Log Lady was everywhere. A version of the character even appeared in a “Sesame Street” parody called “Twin Beaks.” This character, it seemed, had Greater Cultural Significance.
“The Log Lady is a primly dressed middle-aged woman who cradles a log in her arms everywhere she goes,” pop über-theorist Griel Marcus wrote in his 2007 book “The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice.” “The log is an oracle; it makes her a medium. Founder of a religion of which she remains the only adherent, she is at once the symbolic mother of the town and its bad conscience. She’s the crazy woman standing at the door; she’s also the town’s secret mayor. Her job is to make everyone else feel normal.”
After putting in an appearance in the “Twin Peaks” feature-film prequel “Fire Walk With Me” — “The tender boughs of innocence burn first, and the wind rises, and then all goodness is in jeopardy,” she warned Laura Palmer — Coulson did something perhaps unexpected: After a fashion, she became an actual log lady. Much like Agent Cooper himself, she professed a love for “the big conifers of Washington and Oregon” and moved to Ashland, a hippie town in southern Oregon famous for its Shakespeare festival. She performed with the company for the rest of her days, squeezing in TV and film work and appearances on the “Twin Peaks” nostalgia circuit.
Director Moore called her the festival’s ambassador and “unofficial welcome wagon.”
“Catherine took that responsibility very seriously,” he said. “She went to talk to audiences at shows … she believed that the experience of live theater did not end when the curtain came down.”
Coulson was involved in the “Twin Peaks” Showtime reboot, but it’s not clear to what extent. She did still have her log. Though she was once told the prop was worth $275,000, she wouldn’t sell it.
“Before 9/11, I was able to put it in the overhead compartment and I remember the flight attendants saying, ‘Oh, we love your work, can we have your autograph?'” she said. “And when I told them what was in the overhead compartment they would go crazy: ‘I can’t believe we’ve got the log on the plane!'”