The allure of the gnarled
The lover of nature, whose perceptions have been trained in the Alps, in Italy, Germany, or New England, in the Appalachians or Cordilleras, in Scotland or Colorado, would enter this strange region with a shock, and dwell there for a time with a sense of oppression, and perhaps with horror. Whatsoever things he had learned to regard as beautiful and noble he would seldom or never see... Whatsoever might be bold or striking would at first seem only grotesque…
Clarence Edward Dutton
The Tertiary History of the Grand Canyon District (1882)
On my first trip into Canyon Country, I remember driving past a glorious, lone aspen tree in front of a flavorfully colored rock along Highway 40 around Massadona, Colo. The autumn leaves shook like sheaths of golden paper, and I sensed that I was in for something new. I headed toward Dinosaur National Monument. I had read a lot about the area, so I was aware of its recent and not-so-recent past: David Brower’s crusade to save Echo Park from dam builders in the 1950s; John Wesley Powell’s 1869 exploration of the Green and Colorado rivers; Ute and Fremont natives stalking game and carving petroglyphs during the last two millennia; apatosaurs and allosaurs coming and going 150 million years ago.
In the national monument, I drove out to Harpers Corner and hiked the short trail that leads to Echo Park and the confluence of the Yampa and Green rivers. The canyons were overwhelming, bewildering, like a lithograph by M.C. Escher. But the aspen tree I’d seen on the way in turned out to be a tease: The cliff tops and benches were studded instead with piñon pines and Utah junipers.
The trees leaned awkwardly, like jaded old men. They reminded me of Statler and Waldorf, the grumpy duo from The Muppet Show. I imagined them mad from the heat and waiting — hoping — to die in their balcony seats over the amphitheater of Echo Park.
I would learn later that the characterization isn’t entirely unfair. Piñons and junipers exist under conditions that would warp even the most rugged species: scarce precipitation that typically falls in intense storms with ferocious winds and hail; hydrophobic soil that deprives plants of most of the water that does fall; famished wild creatures of all sizes that will feed on any pine nut, juniper berry, needle, or bark they can sink their teeth into; disease, insects, fire.
As a result, the lives of piñons and junipers are isolated, their forms disfigured. Beneath the desert crust, their roots stretch out like the arms of derelicts reaching for bread crumbs. Extremely dry seasons may even force junipers to cut off water and nutrient flow to a limb to protect the rest of the tree, leaving a withered appendage.
Standing there in Echo Park, I thought the piñons and junipers beyond solace or charity. On my way back to the car, I reveled in the crushing sound of the rivers, the flowering rabbitbrush and the songs of lark sparrows and canyon wrens. But I failed to see the allure of the piñons and junipers.
… But time would bring a gradual change. Some day he would suddenly become conscious that outlines which at first seemed harsh and trivial have grace and meaning; that forms which seemed grotesque are full of dignity; that magnitudes which had added enormity to coarseness have become replete with strength and even majesty…
I didn’t return to Canyon Country for two and a half years, but not because of any lingering distaste for the piñons and junipers. Actually, I had become fascinated with the desert and the vegetation. I wanted to revisit the landscape the way you want to sneak another peek at your lunatic great-uncle sleeping standing up in the spare bedroom of your parents’ house.
That next trip, deep in the backcountry of Zion National Park’s backcountry, the piñons and junipers struck me differently. The trees still looked miserable, but I recognized a stalwart stoicism in them that had eluded me earlier. Perhaps it was my own isolation, miles into the sagebrush and yucca, utterly exposed to the desert. If the piñons and junipers were hermits in this wasteland, there was a bond among them born from long endurance.
At first glance, the trees had seemed like grumpy old men, but now I saw them as defiant, willful curmudgeons. I imagined them raising hell in this perverse, redrock nursing home of an ecosystem, poking branches under the wings and breasts of birds, tripping deer with their roots.
In a world of brutality, the piñons and junipers had the strength to endure. The species have lasted in the desolation for millions of years; individual trees persist for centuries. Nothing — not Brower or Powell, the Utes or even the dinosaurs — knows more about how to survive in the eternally forbidding environs of Canyon Country than the piñons and the junipers. I had found the allure.
These days, I live on Colorado’s plains, beyond the foothills of the Rockies. In my free time, I alternately visit mountain meadows and desert canyons. Autumn aspens still steal my breath. But with the piñon pines and junipers, I can crush their needles in my palm, brush my fingertips along their scraggly bark, and marvel at a perseverance I can only vainly hope to emulate. And then I’ll trip on some hideous root and look around for the source of a haunting laughter that not even a demented magpie could chortle.
Joshua Zaffos writes for the Rocky Mountain Bullhorn in Fort Collins, Colorado, where he’s considering moonshining juniper gin and pine nut schnapps.