By the grace of old pines

  • Seedling pine with extensive roots

    Robert Petty drawing
  • Grown ponderosa pine

    Robert Petty drawing

Fish Creek murmurs to itself in a voice like rustling cottonwood leaves as it curves past Montana's biggest ponderosa pine on its way to the Clark Fork River. Sunlight animates the tree's trunk and ripples on the underside of its lowest branch, 30 feet overhead. Its bark is a smooth sheath of gold flakes with none of the dark furrows of younger trees whose bark splits from the pressure of their burgeoning heartwood.

It's as if the old pine, nearly seven feet wide, had reached equanimity after four centuries of striving.

Nearby, an interpretive sign describes how many houses could be built with its wood; a low cable fence encircles its base. Once one among thousands, the tree stands alone, set apart like the last passenger pigeon in the Cincinnati zoo.

It is a relic out of place in the clearcuts and second-growth stands that cover this drainage.

Describing the ponderosa pine stands in Yosemite, John Muir wrote: "The average size of full-grown trees on the western slope ... is a little less than 200 feet in height and from five to six feet in diameter, though specimens considerably larger may easily be found." He later made note of one that was over eight feet in diameter and 220 feet high. Donald Culross Peattie recorded a ponderosa pine nearly nine feet in diameter along the banks of the Deschutes River near La Pine, Ore., and another near Mount Adams, Wash., almost as big.

I walk one afternoon in the foothills of the Flatirons near Boulder, Colo., with a friend who has lived in the West all his life. We climb a steep trail worn deep into the grassy hillside and enter the shade of ponderosa pines. "Ah," says my friend with satisfaction. "Now there's a big one!" He points to a pine ahead of us. It is only about 18 inches in diameter and 70 feet tall, black-barked with hints of tawny brown. I look across the hillside. The pine is unquestionably bigger than any of the ones surrounding it.

As the great yellowbellies fall, so do our expectations of the pines; we become satisfied with less without realizing what we have lost. In doing so, we surrender the knowledge and experience of what these trees, at their best, can be. The metamorphosis of bark from gray-black to honey yellow, of branches from spindly to thick and graceful, of the pine stand from tangled to clear and spacious, requires centuries of slow growth. The texture and character of the ancient pine forest are as different from those of younger stands as golden eagles from their graceless chicks.

But if my friend truly appreciates the beauty of a small pine, does it matter? I was asked recently by a man who runs a sawmill in southern Utah what I had against small trees. What is wrong, he asked while shaking the branch of a wrist-thick Engelmann spruce, with trees like this? Surely a second-growth forest, which embodies all the potential of old growth in its slender branches, is as beautiful as - not to mention infinitely more useful than - a virgin ancient forest.

I am reminded of the church I attended as a child. It was not an ornate building, but I recall its interior as weathered and mysterious. Its hard-backed pews were of smooth oak, polished by years of wool coats and restless bodies. Simple stained-glass windows interrupted its dark walls, suggesting but not quite revealing the day that unfolded beyond them. Wrought iron lanterns hung from high beams, throwing dim light on the congregation.

Then, in the 1970s, the church was "modernized." When the renovations were complete, the walls were creamy white, brightly illuminated by recessed lighting. Upholstered chairs replaced the pews, and clear, angular windows the stained glass. Beige, looped carpeting covered the tile floor. Accordion-pleated vinyl walls hung on metal tracks, to divide the church into smaller units as needed. The building became surpassingly comfortable and functional - and devoid of spirit and soul.

Perhaps the most inspiring human-made place of worship is Europe's Chartres Cathedral. By the 12th century, when most of Chartres was built, Europe's primeval forests were already nearly gone. The architects and artisans of Chartres drew upon the spiritual power of those vanishing forests, mimicking their scale, complexity, and configuration. Columns rise and spread like pine boughs across a vaulted ceiling a hundred feet high. Muted light filters through the leaded latticework of stained glass like late-day sun through the lace of needles. Shadows pool in cool recesses. Low voices, like the plaintive calls of owls, drift from cloaked alcoves and dissipate in still air. Vast hallways dwarf the human figures wandering smooth stone floors.

In the cathedral's statues, carvings and glasswork - in its great walls, columns, buttresses, piers and pinnacles - is the lifework of thousands, the slow accumulation of years of meticulous and inspired work, embracing a history unfathomably deeper than the memory of any one man. Each of the thousands of sculptures that inhabit its archways, walls and niches, each of the hundreds of stained-glass panels that re-create human history in the play of shadow and light, is worthy of a lifetime of contemplation. Collectively, they inspire rapture, even fear, so fully does their cumulative beauty suggest the divine.

In the ancient forest, thousands of species of plants and animals live beneath thick columns and arching boughs. Each is glorious in its own right, astonishing as part of the finely wrought masterpiece of the forest. The giant pines that sustain them mature with glacial slowness. Though widely dispersed, their wide crowns fill the canopy. In time they fall like ruined castles and dissolve, finally, into earth. The forest they create is a place of eternal life manifested in fruition, death, decay and rebirth.

By modern standards of utility, the cathedral and the ancient forest are maddeningly impractical, inefficient, excessive and illogical. How much easier to heat Chartres if its ceilings were half as high, if it had fewer hallways and chambers.

Think of all the wood going to waste in the ancient forest, with nothing more than humus coming from the old trees. A dozen blackjack pines could grow in the place of a single yellowbelly. In traditional forestry jargon, these old trees are "decadent," "overmature" and "lacking in vigor," depriving the forest and foresters of the youthful trees that would grow so much more quickly and efficiently.

Even well-meaning defenders of old growth focus on the issue of the forests' utility. Ancient forests, they argue, may harbor potential medicines and food sources to benefit humankind. They generate tourism dollars, they prevent erosion, which protects fish populations, which protect the fishing industry. And so on. But as long as we justify preserving ancient forests on economic and utilitarian grounds, we will lose them, for there will undoubtedly come a time when the economics of destroying the forest community outweighs its other potential economic values.

Few would justify the preservation of Chartres on the grounds of its handsome tourism revenues or the potential use of its stones in future building projects. We preserve Chartres because it is a sacred place.

Eugene Ionesco wrote, "If one does not understand the usefulness of the useless and the uselessness of the useful, one cannot understand art. And a country where art is not understood is a country of slaves and robots." We must preserve intact and undisturbed old-growth forests precisely because they are not useful in utilitarian terms.

In transforming the wild forest into a plantation of saplings, we hold back the advance of entropy, make sense of chaos, reduce the mystery of the forest's very existence to the level of our own comprehension. In so doing we gain a sense of control, however illusory, over aging and even death itself. Godlike, we plant the trees and dictate the course of their lives. They grow and die by our timetable, insulated from as many of nature's variables as we have power to control.

By cutting the last remnants of the West's ancient ponderosa pine stands, we reduce the pine and ourselves to the safe, known, shadowless confines of mediocrity. I am not afraid of losing the ponderosa pine species - these trees number in the hundreds of millions in the West, far more than a century ago.

I fear a spiritual extinction, silent and insidious, a numbing monotony as the forest's great canopy crashes around us. Though the sacred resides in all of nature, pristine or scarred, wild or cultivated, it is most readily and powerfully apparent in that part of nature that is beyond our control. For it is most often only in the presence of wildness that we are appropriately humble and conscious of our place in the natural order.

Viewed from outside, the stained-glass windows of Chartres are dark and meaningless. Only by entering the cathedral's shadowed interior and looking out toward the light can one see the stories of humanity told in each translucent mosaic. Similarly it is only by entering the shadowed interior of the ancient pine forest, by lying on the needled earth and gazing through distant, swaying crowns that one can glimpse the particular illumination that issues from unmanipulated, ageless nature. By the grace of old pines, we enter into an understanding of our place and worth in the landscape of the American West.

Alexandra Murphy is a writer and former naturalist at Zion National Park. This essay is adapted from her book Graced by Pines: The Ponderosa Pine in the American West, Mountain Press Publishing Co., Missoula, Mont., 1994.

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