In Northern New Mexico, a piñon-nut culture is vanishing

A warming climate hits piñon pines — and the community that harvests them.

 

When I bought land west of Santa Fe in the late 1980s, it felt like home to me even before I physically moved there in 1992. What made it home were the piñon pines, that forest of short, squat trees. But when my wife first came to New Mexico after growing up in the East, she was somewhat taken aback by the sight — maybe even a little shocked to see what she described as “polka-dot hills.” 

Yes, from a distance pinõn pines can look like spots on a hillside, separate from each other; years of drought have done that in places. But decades ago, there were actual forests of piñon, well, at least suggestions of forests: I could hike to open land west of my property and at times walk through dense groves of piñon. That was my idea of heaven, having a home in the middle of a piñon forest, living with the piñon jays.

Then, within eight years, catastrophe stuck. It wasn’t a forest fire, which would have been localized, but a far-ranging disaster across the entire Western United States. It seemed as if overnight, trees that had been a vibrant green suddenly took on a gray pallor. Needles dried up, and the trees were soon standing dead, brought down by an infestation of bark beetles. Usually, the trees could fight off the burrowing bugs by forming sap that drowns them, but because of the ongoing drought, the trees lacked the moisture to do what they had been doing for so long. 

Many of the trees were tall, and considering how slowly piñon trees grow, some were old before I was born. I recalled the times that I had seen sap running down their trunks of the trees, never realizing that the trees were battling for their lives. Those past skirmishes had been successful because there had been an occasional easing of the drought. But when too many dry years piled up, the trees could no longer summon the sap they needed. The bark beetles got the upper hand. And this wasn’t just happening west of Santa Fe, where I live; the destruction was occurring throughout the West.   

Hundreds of years ago, the Anasazi Indians must have experienced a similar period of continuing drought. Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde and so many other ruins we visit today are witnesses to what happened. The Ancient Ones packed up and moved when their landscape began to vanish.  

When I was growing up in northern New Mexico in a Spanish-American community — a time before we were called Mexicans, Chicanos or Hispanics — piñon trees were often a subject of conversation. Every summer, people would ask how the pile of wood in the backyard was coming. Were you going to have enough wood for the winter, and was your firewood piñon, with its cleaner fire and aromatic smoke?

Piñon nuts were another topic of interest, especially as the fall approached. Local lore said that good piñon crops happened just once every seven years or so, but the people I knew were always optimistic. So much depended on the rainfall. Good rain at the right times allowed the piñon cones to fully develop and produce a crop. Yet more often than not, the monsoonal rains came too late, or the moisture petered out, or the rain shied away entirely. 

Of course, we realized the weather wasn’t the same everywhere. In some other place, the weather conditions might be just right, so people frequently quizzed anybody they met who came from somewhere else: “Heard of any piñon?” If you bought piñon nuts at the store, they were very expensive, and if they came all the way from China, they never had the same sweet flavor. 

After years of not tasting piñon, your mouth watered for it. Maybe it was a craving we inherited from the Indians, just as we inherited many things from the first Spanish colonists, who came to New Mexico, to the tierra adentro, the far land. Many of my ancestors would have had seafood as part of their daily fare before they left Spain. In the Western United States, we learned to love corn, squash, chile, and, yes, piñon nuts. They were a real treat and incredibly nutritious for their small size.

For a while, I am proud to say, I lived in a piñon forest. I looked at the trees fondly; they brought good memories. Now, I realize how quickly things can change if the climate changes. The trees you love can dry up and die before your eyes.

Leo Romero is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He writes in New Mexico.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.