Visiting Old Friends


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.

November Nutcrackers

First day of working on winter trails. The long midsummer hikes are over. There will be no more high country trail work this year.

Feeling my brain clunk as it shifts to ski trail maintenance. There is a whole other set of parameters to consider. While there is no snow on the ground now, I visualize how it will fall and lie over logs and brush. How it will catch in the branches of the trees, creating tree wells. Skiers and snowshoers will be up off the ground on the snow. What will impede their safe travel? What will cause an uneven icy snowpack, and can I do anything to make a better travel corridor?

We worked near the Swauk Campground on Highway 97. The Swauk drainage is home to some magnificent ponderosa pines. Old ponderosa pine stands in Washington are rarer than coastal ancient forest. They grow in the lowlands and were easily accessible to earlier generations looking for mine timbers and wood to make apple boxes. Most of the big trees are long gone. The stands that remain have filled in with a shade-tolerant grand fir understory. This is a result of putting out every forest fire for the last hundred years. Ponderosa pines evolved with frequent low-intensity fires, which kept the undergrowth to a minumum.

The campground was built in the 1930s, and has a wonderful example of CCC workmanship in its stone and timber picnic shelter. Within a few hundred feet of the trees and historic structure is a nearly constant stream of traffic whizzing to and from Blewett Pass. At least half the vehicles are large trucks grinding up the grade or whooshing down with all eighteen wheels thundering on the pavement.

We worked the morning in the shade where the ground was frozen. At lunchtime we hiked back to a large patch of sunny ground near the picnic shelter. It was noon and the sun was hanging in the south over the ridge. Shouldn’t it be high overhead? I ate beef-n-barley soup from the thermos with a piece of sourdough rye bread, then settled back on my pack to be a solar collector. This is as bright and warm as it would be all day. Savor it. A squirrel was pitching a fit in a nearby pine, and we saw why when a raptor sailed through the canopy. I sat up to scan the pines, and saw Clark’s nutcrackers. Pretty sure I had heard them earlier. There were at least six birds, moving from pine to pine.

Clark’s nutcrackers are some of the most interesting characters in the bird world (in my humble opinion). Related to crows and jays, they are intelligent, gregarious, and somewhat raucous. Handsome gray plumage is set off by black wings and tail with white edges. They look sharp and crisp. Their preferred food is whitebark pine seeds, which they collect and cache. The whitebark pine lives near timberline and has been hit hard by whitepine blister rust, a fungal disease introduced from Europe in the early 1900s. Climate change is predicted to push hard on specialized plants and animals, so those with small niches and tough habitats face an uncertain future. I watched the nutcrackers foraging in the ponderosa pines and wonder if it has been a lean year for whitebark pine seeds. Would that explain them being down from timberline?

“Well…” I said and got up. Time to go back to work. Back to the shade under the trees and frozen ground. I ran the saw all afternoon, in that zone where I feel the machine vibrating my hands and I’m aware of where I put my feet and the tip of the bar. Even now as I write, I smell the grand fir sap on my clothes warmed by my body heat.

Walking back to the truck at the end of the day as the sun slipped west. The air was cooler, the shadows deeper. I heard trucks and nutcrackers and the squirrel was still hollering about something.

This is November. Snow will come any day.


“Mmm, smell that?” asks Mikki as we walk together. Yeah, I got a whiff right at the same time she did. “I love our pine trees,” she declares.

There is nothing like the scent of warm sun hitting the bark of ponderosa pines. Some people say it smells like vanilla, but to my nose it does not. First of all, it’s sweet but hasn’t entirely given up its piney essence. Not really resinous or sharp, but not sugary either. It’s complex. The young trees don’t give off the aroma as well as the big old trees whose trunks have begun to sway and bow. The big pines self-prune, meaning that as they grow, the lower branches retreat further up the bole. So a person can walk right up and put her nose to the cinnamon-colored bark without getting poked by a limb. Sometimes it’s possible to find a solid chunk of cloudy amber pitch to take home and smell later.

Smell and memory are both processed in the deep limbic system of the brain. That’s why certain smells bring back memories so clearly. It sure worked for Mikki and me today, as we remembered being out on trails in the woods in the sun. It means summer is coming.