OK. I admit it. I’m a tree hugger, but I am not profligate in my affections. Only certain species receive my embrace.
I can’t remember when I started hugging trees, but I’ve always admired them, perhaps because I grew up on the high plains of Southeast Colorado, where any tree at all was a miracle, a revelation, a gift of leaves, shelter and shade.
Here in the Rockies, some trees stand out more than others. When I hike or camp or hunt, I always look for the big ones, the old fellows, the ones with the limbs reaching to the sky. Sometimes I’ll sit at the base of a ponderosa pine and have lunch or take a nap. I stare up at the vast canopy above me and wonder how secure the dead limbs are. The older I get, the slower I hike, and the more I want to take in everything I can see and smell. It’s not about distance; it’s about understanding, and I think trees have deep understanding. They’ve been rooted awhile, or at least the big ones have. I think of their patience.
Just like talking to a Labrador retriever, trees make excellent conversationalists. They don’t talk back. They listen well, and sometimes they’ll nod their needles in assent. The stalwarts of the forest are healthy old-growth species that have survived countless fires, droughts and heavy winters. Hugging such a tree is like putting your arms around a solid, loving grandmother or an aunt with a respectable waist and a firm embrace. What I love about trees is they don’t go anywhere. I seek them out. They have my utmost respect.
Take the ancient bristlecone pines in Nevada in Great Basin National Park. Some of those gnarled trunks represent the oldest living things on Earth. Bristlecones are rare, but I think I found one, or something like it, on the Bear Creek Trail south of Ouray. I’ve never met a tree I didn’t like, but I do have favorites.
Growing up on the plains, I came to admire cottonwoods and to understand when their leaves twisted upside down, a big storm was imminent. The sound of wind whistling through dry cottonwood leaves always signaled late fall, the return of V-shaped flocks of geese, and deer stepping from shadows in twilight. But in the high country, who can resist glorious groves of aspens with their white trunks so easy to touch and their vibrant autumnal yellows and golds? To cottonwoods and aspens, I have to add one more favorite – ponderosa pines – not only because they stand so straight and tall but for their deep vanilla scent.
To hug a warm ponderosa in late afternoon and to breathe in that striking vanilla, especially where a lightning strike has separated the tough outer bark, is to be immediately grounded and snapped into the present moment. So when I hike I look for older trees, and the farther off trail the better.
Hunting turkey on a long rim on the Flattop Mountains in the White River National Forest, we came across a shaggy Douglas fir, a true patriarch of the woods that drew us into its base to stand and stare and look up at a canopy that filled the sky. On Lemhi Pass on the Montana and Idaho border looking down into Horse Prairie Valley, I found ancient twisted pines with lush moss on their north-facing sides. With their thick girth, and even thicker bark, these were probably witness trees getting their start two centuries ago when Sacagawea traveled with Lewis and Clark, her baby Jean Baptiste in a Shoshone cradleboard.
In Utah on the west side of the Abajos, or Blue Mountains, is a rare U.S. Forest Service natural area, fenced and closed to the public and not on any maps. The Cliff Dwellers Pasture Research Natural Area is in a small box canyon of fewer than 300 acres. It’s a Forest Service pasture from the early 1900s when forest rangers rode horses and needed adequate grass to feed their stock. Never grazed or overgrazed by cattle, the land is an ecological oasis with the largest ponderosa pine I’ve ever seen. To fully encircle the trunk took seven of us holding hands.
On horseback I’ve ridden into the 11,000-acre Humphries Wildlife Area in northern New Mexico, south of Chromo and north of Chama, N.M. Amidst thick grasses in open meadows and stands of piñon we saw deer, bear, a broken stove from a homestead, and finally a few miles in on a ridge line, we found a legendary juniper with a trunk 6 feet in circumference. I know, because I brought a measuring tape. But this grandfather tree is not doing well. The deep drought we are facing was evident in its limbs, although its roots are enormous and perhaps it can endure.
I’m sure the tree saw Jicarilla Apache hunting parties, and I imagine that more than one black bear has rubbed its rump against that gray bark.
Scott Wagner, a forester with the Pagosa District Field Office of the San Juan National Forest, explains why large trees are important. “They have survived several disturbances like fire and drought and therefore are best adapted to local conditions,” he says. “Large ponderosa pine and Douglas fir trees are most resistant to low-intensity fire and they provide unique habitat characteristics necessary for many species of wildlife.” But with a grin he adds, “They’re awe-inspiring and among the oldest living organisms on the planet.” Yes, that’s why I like them, too.
We made a big mistake at the turn of the century when the U.S. Forest Service was just getting started. After the disastrous “Big Burn” of 1910, the orders from the chief were to implement the 10 a.m. rule. All wildfires were supposed to be put out by 10 a.m. the day after they started. But nature doesn’t work that way. Forest fires are an ecological reset button. Fire has a place in our montane ecosystems.
Because we aggressively fought naturally caused forest fires for almost a century, now we have too many trees in the forest, as thick as hairs on a sheepdog’s back. We need fewer trees on public lands but bigger ones. That’s the wisdom of relict stands. That’s why under the proper circumstances, and only under the right temperature, humidity and wind conditions, some fires should be allowed to burn.
I’ll keep hugging grandfather trees. There’s a lot to learn from old growth.
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. Contact him by emailing [email protected]