Sometimes I get a hankering to go see them. I’ve been thinking of them, how nice it would be to spend some time in their company. These particular friends never come to see me–I always have to go see them. And that’s OK. It pleases me to know that they are just fine at home.
It’s a short ski from Highway 97 to where they live. The day I went, it was cold enough to keep the snow from settling and sticking. My skis pushed through the powder almost without effort. Occasionally a few flakes would swirl down from the sky, but there were moments of blue sky as the clouds wafted apart. Before long, I had found my way to the meadow where my friends make their home. The forest is dense all around there, one of those “unhealthy” forests that we hear about from land managers trying to justify ecosystem intervention. The original intervention was 100 years of fire suppression. Without frequent low-intensity fires, ground fuels built up and many small trees fill the spaces in the understory. Mother Nature is creative, and sent defoliating insects to thin the forest since fire wasn’t allowed. Fire came anyway in 2012, and humans scampered through the stand with a light underburn intended to slow the big Table Mountain fire. Since then, the budworms have died off and many of the smaller dead trees are falling down.
None of this has affected my friends. They live in the open, and even if a low-intensity ground fire came along, their thick bark would smolder and likely withstand the flames. Their branches are high overhead, so fire would have to climb up to them.
My friends are much older and wiser than I. They were probably adults when the botanical collector David Douglas came to this part of the world and named their kin Pinus ponderosa. Ponderous pines. Slow-growing, patient, tough as nails. Yet also filled with character as they age, taking on a sway or a lean. Symmetry is not as important to them as it is for true firs or spruce. One or two heavy branches can droop toward the ground, giving them a lopsided demeanor.
The color of their bark reminds me of cinnamon, and the flaky shapes are like puzzle pieces. The shallow furrows in the bark are darker. When I look closely, I can see the dingy sulfur yellow powder of last year’s pollen collected in cracks. Maybe a spider web here or there. Perhaps some dried pitch, hardened and amber. Some people say the bark smells like vanilla, but I swear I have never smelled this. When the sun shines on them, the only scent is warm ponderosa pine. Nothing like it.
I hang out with my friends in their meadow, happy to be with them after a long absence. I snuggle up as close as I can without taking my off my skis and stare up into the crown and out at the sky. Then look past the trunk to neighbors. I’m happy to be there.
Much has been discovered recently about how plants live. What they sense, how they communicate, how they help each other. Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia has done ground-breaking work on how forest trees collaborate communally through their roots. I’ve always had an affinity for trees, but all these discoveries have increased my sense of wonder and appreciation of trees as co-inhabitants of the world. They are much more than inert towers of wood that drop needles and cones into my yard and provide perches for birds. Trees are mysterious.
It is unfashionable to be anthropomorphic, but standing next to the pine tree I wonder if it has any awareness of my presence, any inkling of me exuding joy, goodwill and dare I say it, love? Are trees sentient? Not in any animal intelligent way of course, but are they aware of other creatures, we short-lived rapidly-vibrating warm-blooded mobile things like birds and squirrels and humans? I would like to think so, but I truly do not know and am unlikely ever to know.
And that’s OK too. As long as I can visit them–these pines below Tronsen Ridge, the big doug-firs along the Pete Lake trail, those few hemlocks along Spinola Creek, a particular larch tree on the way to Haney Meadow…things will be right in my world. We all rely on old friends to help us keep our perspective, and I’m beyond grateful to all of my old friends.
For more amazing stuff, check out What A Plant Knows by Daniel Chamovitz, The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, and Suzanne Simard’s TED talk, linked above.