Rants from the Hill: Scaling Lone Tree

Learning to see a one-tree forest in the Great Basin Desert.

 

“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.

It is often said that we can’t see the forest for the trees, but that’s not a problem out here in the western Great Basin. In moist slot canyons or riparian areas you’ll find aspen, cottonwood, mountain mahogany, even ponderosa pine, but the open country is sagebrush steppe, largely treeless high desert where the “forest” consists only of widely dispersed Utah Junipers. It is hard for most of us to conceive of a forest in which individual trees may be hundreds or even thousands of yards from each other. Our trees are like distant electrons within the vast, burning nucleus of the desert: this is a forest that consists mainly of space.

“Language makes a mighty loose net with which to go fishing for simple facts, when facts are infinite,” wrote Edward Abbey in the introduction to Desert Solitaire. “If a man knew enough he could write a whole book about the juniper tree. Not juniper trees in general but that one particular juniper tree . . .” In the high, open valley west of our home, which is all public lands, there is one particular juniper tree. It is not a very big tree, a young juniper, perhaps 80 or 100 years old. Most remarkable about this tree is its utter isolation, as it stands absolutely alone on the floor of this expansive valley. From any hill or mountain ridge in the basin you can look down and see, in some cases from vast distances, this single juniper, standing solitary, a tiny island of green in a rolling ocean of shimmering silver sage. The wisdom of Cactus Ed notwithstanding, I do not wish to write a book about an individual tree. But this one particular juniper, this lone tree, surviving out on those baked, windy flats, has earned itself a Rant.

The proper way to stalk a tree is to begin from a great distance, uphill and downwind, and then sneak up on it slowly. I began my approach to Lone Tree by climbing what I call Moonrise, Palisades, and Prospect, the three unnamed ridges, each higher than the last, that rise westward into the azure sky above the Ranting Hill. From the crest of Prospect I gaze west over a jumble of boulders and out across the sweeping valley to our imposing home mountain, which rises above it. At this distance Lone Tree is visible only to the eyes of a person who already knows where it stands. Because the tree is more than a mile away and perhaps a thousand feet below, it is indistinguishable from other dots on the landscape, most of which are piles of rocks.

From this distance, the only tree in the valley is a dot on the landscape. See arrow.
Descending the western slope of Prospect through a steep canyon, a half hour of scrambling brings the tree close enough that, while still impressively distant, it is now discernible as a tree rather than a heap of granite boulders. I am still a half mile away from the tree and five hundred or so feet above it, and I can tell that it has not yet noticed me. This is an important distance from which to admire Lone Tree, because if you happened to be dying of exposure beneath the desert sun, that tiny mushroom out on the sage flats would be your only refuge. While the Prospect view was too distant to create longing, from this perspective Lone Tree is a green magnet, and it is impossible to imagine seeing it from here in summer and not fantasizing repose in its cooling shade.
A closer approach turns a distant dot into a shape recognizable as a tree.
Another twenty minutes of billy-goating down a slope that is by turns scree and sand brings me to the valley floor. I am now a quarter mile or so from Lone Tree, and I’m better able to sneak through the sage, prowling low like a mountain lion. From this proximity a distinct color palette emerges. The sidereal blue of the western sky is swept with the diaphanous white of attenuated clouds. The mountain below it is sere brown and corrugated, here and there shadowed by rock fields on north-facing slopes. Because I now have an eye-line shot of the tree, I notice how beautifully it is set against the small, double-knolled hill behind it. That mounded rise is topped with boulders that apparently host enough chartreuse lichen to provide a hint of green, a yellow-green that is mirrored in a few ephedra bushes in the foreground, scattered among the dust-colored sage. From this angle and distance Lone Tree becomes irresistible. I am now within its orbit, and it pulls me forward, zigzagging through the sage maze toward its shade.
Lone Tree as seen across the sage flats.

Once I am within a hundred yards of the tree, what appeared to be lichen on the rocky hills behind it emerges instead as ephedra and small bunch grasses growing in open patches in the hill’s broken granite tops. At this distance the shapes of the image strike me as even more important than its colors. This perspective reveals how beautifully the dome shape of the juniper’s crown is repeated in the arched tops of the granite hills behind it, which are themselves reflected in the sinuous rises in the ridgeline of the big mountain that fills the western sky. From here I can see for the first time that the tree has a full crown but a skeletal, open structure beneath, and I’m struck by how this form is mirrored in the brushy tops and dark stems of the big sage filling the foreground of my view. This top-heavy shape shows that the tree has been cropped around its base, probably when it was just a sapling.

Lone Tree takes shape.
From thirty feet away, Lone Tree fills my view, crowding out the landscape and demanding my full attention. My dog, Beauregard, has run ahead and is already reclined comfortably beside it. At this distance I notice hopeful second growth spouting from the long-ago cropped trunk. The area beneath and surrounding the tree is clear of sage, suggesting that animals have been attracted to this juniper beacon, and the shelter it provides for open range livestock, Old Man Coyote and other wild things, even a wayward desert rat and his drooling dog.

Beauregard discovers Lone Tree.

Noticing several dark masses hidden within its crown, I make my final advance on this particular juniper. Now standing beneath Lone Tree and looking up inside it, I see cradled in its angular, flaking arms a pair of large, intricately woven stick nests—one about eight feet off the ground, the other higher, about twelve feet. I don’t know who lives in these nests, but I do know why: if you fancy having your home in a tree, this is the only game in town. The avian duplex leads me to the realization that this tree has accomplished something remarkable. It is growing in an exposed and unfavorable spot and has at some point been thoroughly munched. It has allowed many of its limbs to die in a successful attempt to preserve its core vitality. Miraculously, it has even dodged the wildfires that scour this valley ever fifteen or twenty years. Here is no forest. Working entirely alone, this single, gnarled juniper has kept my scorching, windswept home valley from being treeless. I should be fortunate to achieve so much in my own life.

The high desert sun filtering through the nested arms of Lone Tree.
I spent a pleasant hour with Beauregard, both of us stretched out in the sage-scented alkali dust beneath Lone Tree. Only when we finally rose and shook ourselves off did I suddenly notice the other tree. I had stalked Lone Tree only to discover that it was not alone after all. Just to the north of this particular juniper was its shadow tree, cast down for the benefit of every creature in the valley. It is this single juniper’s shadow that makes it possible to traverse the valley floor during midday in summer; we stop at Lone Tree because it is all that can be put between ourselves and the sun. Beneath it you’ll find owl pellets and mustang dung, the coffee bean droppings of pronghorn, coyote scat containing fragments of kangaroo rat skulls, tufts of matted jackrabbit fur, the gracefully curved alabaster rib bone of a calf, a pair of ragged raven feathers, a shiny beer can tab brought in from afar by an enterprising packrat.
The latticed shadow of Lone Tree.

Our way of seeing the world is conditioned not only by experience and belief but also by scale, by the distance, angle, and perspective from which we choose to view things. I find it useful to back up from something I’m concentrating on—a problem, a memory, an essay—until I am so far away from and so high above it that it exists in that liminal zone between the world of granite and the equally beautiful universe of the imagination. I also find it helpful to begin far from and high above something I hope to discover—an idea, a way of understanding the desert, a lone juniper—and stalk it through registers of scale until it becomes solitary, focused, all-consuming. Perhaps the nature of a desert is veiled by its sage-filled valley, and the nature of its valley is hidden within the arms of its solitary juniper tree, and the nature of that unique tree is concealed within its woven nest, and the nature of a nest is a latticed pattern so exquisitely complex, imbricated, and minute that you must begin from a distant ridgetop in order to learn to see it clearly.

The fabric of the high desert, revealed.

Photographs by Michael Branch.