The Mountains of California
by John Muir
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

I would fain ask my readers to linger awhile in this fertile wilderness, to trace its history from its earliest glacial beginnings, and learn what we may of its wild inhabitants and visitors. How happy the birds are all summer and some of them all winter; how the pouched marmots drive tunnels under the snow, and how fine and brave a life the slandered coyote lives here, and the deer and bears! But, knowing well the difference between reading and seeing, I will only ask attention to some brief sketches of its varying aspects as they are presented throughout the more marked seasons of the year.

The summer life we have been depicting lasts with but little abatement until October, when the night frosts begin to sting, bronzing the grasses, and ripening the leaves of the creeping heathworts along the banks of the stream to reddish purple and crimson; while the flowers disappear, all save the goldenrods and a few daisies, that continue to bloom on unscathed until the beginning of snowy winter. In still nights the grass panicles and every leaf and stalk are laden with frost crystals, through which the morning sunbeams sift in ravishing splendor, transforming each to a precious diamond radiating the colors of the rainbow. The brook shallows are plaited across and across with slender lances of ice, but both these and the grass crystals are melted before midday, and, notwithstanding the great elevation of the meadow, the afternoons are still warm enough to revive the chilled butterflies and call them out to enjoy the late-flowering goldenrods. The divine alpenglow flushes the surrounding forest every evening, followed by a crystal night with hosts of lily stars, whose size and brilliancy cannot be conceived by those who have never risen above the lowlands.

Thus come and go the bright sun-days of autumn, not a cloud in the sky, week after week until near December. Then comes a sudden change. Clouds of a peculiar aspect with a slow, crawling gait gather and grow in the azure, throwing out satiny fringes, and becoming gradually darker until every lake-like rift and opening is closed and the whole bent firmament is obscured in equal structureless gloom. Then comes the snow, for the clouds are ripe, the meadows of the sky are in bloom, and shed their radiant blossoms like an orchard in the spring. Lightly, lightly they lodge in the brown grasses and in the tasseled needles of the pines, falling hour after hour, day after day, silently, lovingly,—all the winds hushed,—glancing and circling hither, thither, glinting against one another, rays interlocking in flakes as large as daisies; and then the dry grasses, and the trees, and the stones are all equally abloom again. Thunder-showers occur here during the summer months, and impressive it is to watch the coming of the big transparent drops, each a small world in itself,—one unbroken ocean without islands hurling free through the air like planets through space. But still more impressive to me is the coming of the snow-flowers,—falling stars, winter daisies,—giving bloom to all the ground alike. Raindrops blossom brilliantly in the rainbow, and change to flowers in the sod, but snow comes in full flower direct from the dark, frozen sky.

The later snow-storms are oftentimes accompanied by winds that break up the crystals, when the temperature is low, into single petals and irregular dusty fragments; but there is comparatively little drifting on the meadow, so securely is it embosomed in the woods. From December to May, storm succeeds storm, until the snow is about fifteen or twenty feet deep, but the surface is always as smooth as the breast of a bird.

Hushed now is the life that so late was beating warmly. Most of the birds have gone down below the snow-line, the plants sleep, and all the fly-wings are folded. Yet the sun beams gloriously many a cloudless day in midwinter, casting long lance shadows athwart the dazzling expanse. In June small flecks of the dead, decaying sod begin to appear, gradually widening and uniting with one another, covered with creeping rags of water during the day, and ice by night, looking as hopeless and unvital as crushed rocks just emerging from the darkness of the glacial period. Walk the meadow now! Scarce the memory of a flower will you find. The ground seems twice dead. Nevertheless, the annual resurrection is drawing near. The life-giving sun pours his floods, the last snow-wreath melts, myriads of growing points push eagerly through the steaming mold, the birds come back, new wings fill the air, and fervid summer life comes surging on, seemingly yet more glorious than before.

This is a perfect meadow, and under favorable circumstances exists without manifesting any marked changes for centuries. Nevertheless, soon or late it must inevitably grow old and vanish. During the calm Indian summer, scarce a sand-grain moves around its banks, but in flood-times and storm-times, soil is washed forward upon it and laid in successive sheets around its gently sloping rim, and is gradually extended to the center, making it dryer. Through a considerable period the meadow vegetation is not greatly affected thereby, for it gradually rises with the rising ground, keeping on the surface like water-plants rising on the swell of waves. But at length the elevation of the meadow-land goes on so far as to produce too dry a soil for the specific meadow-plants, when, of course, they have to give up their places to others fitted for the new conditions. The most characteristic of the newcomers at this elevation above the sea are principally sun-loving gilias, eriogonae, and compositae, and finally forest-trees. Henceforward the obscuring changes are so manifold that the original lake-meadow can be unveiled and seen only by the geologist.

Generally speaking, glacier lakes vanish more slowly than the meadows that succeed them, because, unless very shallow, a greater quantity of material is required to fill up their basins and obliterate them than is required to render the surface of the meadow too high and dry for meadow vegetation. Furthermore, owing to the weathering to which the adjacent rocks are subjected, material of the finer sort, susceptible of transportation by rains and ordinary floods, is more abundant during the meadow period than during the lake period. Yet doubtless many a fine meadow favorably situated exists in almost prime beauty for thousands of years, the process of extinction being exceedingly slow, as we reckon time. This is especially the case with meadows circumstanced like the one we have described—embosomed in deep woods, with the ground rising gently away from it all around, the network of tree-roots in which all the ground is clasped preventing any rapid torrential washing. But, in exceptional cases, beautiful lawns formed with great deliberation are overwhelmed and obliterated at once by the action of land-slips, earthquake avalanches, or extraordinary floods, just as lakes are.

In those glacier meadows that take the places of shallow lakes which have been fed by feeble streams, glacier mud and fine vegetable humus enter largely into the composition of the soil; and on account of the shallowness of this soil, and the seamless, water-tight, undrained condition of the rock-basins, they are usually wet, and therefore occupied by tall grasses and sedges, whose coarse appearance offers a striking contrast to that of the delicate lawn-making kind described above. These shallow-soiled meadows are oftentimes still further roughened and diversified by partially buried moraines and swelling bosses of the bed-rock, which, with the trees and shrubs growing upon them, produce a striking effect as they stand in relief like islands in the grassy level, or sweep across in rugged curves from one forest wall to the other.

Throughout the upper meadow region, wherever water is sufficiently abundant and low in temperature, in basins secure from flood-washing, handsome bogs are formed with a deep growth of brown and yellow sphagnum picturesquely ruined with patches of kalmia and ledum which ripen masses of beautiful color in the autumn. Between these cool, spongy bogs and the dry, flowery meadows there are many interesting varieties which are graduated into one another by the varied conditions already alluded to, forming a series of delightful studies.


Another, very well-marked and interesting kind of meadow, differing greatly both in origin and appearance from the lake-meadows, is found lying aslant upon moraine-covered hillsides trending in the direction of greatest declivity, waving up and down over rock heaps and ledges, like rich green ribbons brilliantly illumined with tall flowers. They occur both in the alpine and subalpine regions in considerable numbers, and never fail to make telling features in the landscape. They are often a mile or more in length, but never very wide—usually from thirty to fifty yards. When the mountain or canon side on which, they lie dips at the required angle, and other conditions are at the same time favorable, they extend from above the timber line to the bottom of a canon or lake basin, descending in fine, fluent lines like cascades, breaking here and there into a kind of spray on large boulders, or dividing and flowing around on either side of some projecting islet. Sometimes a noisy stream goes brawling down through them, and again, scarcely a drop of water is in sight. They owe their existence, however, to streams, whether visible or invisible, the wildest specimens being found where some perennial fountain, as a glacier or snowbank or moraine spring sends down its waters across a rough sheet of soil in a dissipated web of feeble, oozing rivulets. These conditions give rise to a meadowy vegetation, whose extending roots still more obstruct the free flow of the waters, and tend to dissipate them out over a yet wider area. Thus the moraine soil and the necessary moisture requisite for the better class of meadow plants are at times combined about as perfectly as if smoothly outspread on a level surface. Where the soil happens to be composed of the finer qualities of glacial detritus and the water is not in excess, the nearest approach is made by the vegetation to that of the lake-meadow. But where, as is more commonly the case, the soil is coarse and bouldery, the vegetation is correspondingly rank. Tall, wide-leaved grasses take their places along the sides, and rushes and nodding carices in the wetter portions, mingled with the most beautiful and imposing flowers,—orange lilies and larkspurs seven or eight feet high, lupines, senecios, aliums, painted-cups, many species of mimulus and pentstemon, the ample boat-leaved veratrum alba, and the magnificent alpine columbine, with spurs an inch and a half long. At an elevation of from seven to nine thousand feet showy flowers frequently form the bulk of the vegetation; then the hanging meadows become hanging gardens.

In rare instances we find an alpine basin the bottom of which is a perfect meadow, and the sides nearly all the way round, rising in gentle curves, are covered with moraine soil, which, being saturated with melting snow from encircling fountains, gives rise to an almost continuous girdle of down-curving meadow vegetation that blends gracefully into the level meadow at the bottom, thus forming a grand, smooth, soft, meadow-lined mountain nest. It is in meadows of this sort that the mountain beaver (Haplodon) loves to make his home, excavating snug chambers beneath the sod, digging canals, turning the underground waters from channel to channel to suit his convenience, and feeding the vegetation.

Another kind of meadow or bog occurs on densely timbered hillsides where small perennial streams have been dammed at short intervals by fallen trees. Still another kind is found hanging down smooth, flat precipices, while corresponding leaning meadows rise to meet them.

There are also three kinds of small pot-hole meadows one of which is found along the banks of the main streams, another on the summits of rocky ridges, and the third on glacier pavements, all of them interesting in origin and brimful of plant beauty.



The coniferous forests of the Sierra are the grandest and most beautiful in the world, and grow in a delightful climate on the most interesting and accessible of mountain-ranges, yet strange to say they are not well known. More than sixty years ago David Douglas, an enthusiastic botanist and tree lover, wandered alone through fine sections of the Sugar Pine and Silver Fir woods wild with delight. A few years later, other botanists made short journeys from the coast into the lower woods. Then came the wonderful multitude of miners into the foot-hill zone, mostly blind with gold-dust, soon followed by "sheepmen," who, with wool over their eyes, chased their flocks through all the forest belts from one end of the range to the other. Then the Yosemite Valley was discovered, and thousands of admiring tourists passed through sections of the lower and middle zones on their way to that wonderful park, and gained fine glimpses of the Sugar Pines and Silver Firs along the edges of dusty trails and roads. But few indeed, strong and free with eyes undimmed with care, have gone far enough and lived long enough with the trees to gain anything like a loving conception of their grandeur and significance as manifested in the harmonies of their distribution and varying aspects throughout the seasons, as they stand arrayed in their winter garb rejoicing in storms, putting forth their fresh leaves in the spring while steaming with resiny fragrance, receiving the thunder-showers of summer, or reposing heavy-laden with ripe cones in the rich sungold of autumn. For knowledge of this kind one must dwell with the trees and grow with them, without any reference to time in the almanac sense.

The distribution of the general forest in belts is readily perceived. These, as we have seen, extend in regular order from one extremity of the range to the other; and however dense and somber they may appear in general views, neither on the rocky heights nor down in the leafiest hollows will you find anything to remind you of the dank, malarial selvas of the Amazon and Orinoco, with, their "boundless contiguity of shade," the monotonous uniformity of the Deodar forests of the Himalaya, the Black Forest of Europe, or the dense dark woods of Douglas Spruce where rolls the Oregon. The giant pines, and firs, and Sequoias hold their arms open to the sunlight, rising above one another on the mountain benches, marshaled in glorious array, giving forth the utmost expression of grandeur and beauty with inexhaustible variety and harmony.

The inviting openness of the Sierra woods is one of their most distinguishing characteristics. The trees of all the species stand more or less apart in groves, or in small, irregular groups, enabling one to find a way nearly everywhere, along sunny colonnades and through openings that have a smooth, park-like surface, strewn with brown needles and burs. Now you cross a wild garden, now a meadow, now a ferny, willowy stream; and ever and anon you emerge from all the groves and flowers upon some granite pavement or high, bare ridge commanding superb views above the waving sea of evergreens far and near.

One would experience but little difficulty in riding on horseback through the successive belts all the way up to the storm-beaten fringes of the icy peaks. The deep canons, however, that extend from the axis of the range, cut the belts more or less completely into sections, and prevent the mounted traveler from tracing them lengthwise.

This simple arrangement in zones and sections brings the forest, as a whole, within the comprehension of every observer. The different species are ever found occupying the same relative positions to one another, as controlled by soil, climate, and the comparative vigor of each species in taking and holding the ground; and so appreciable are these relations, one need never be at a loss in determining, within a few hundred feet, the elevation above sea-level by the trees alone; for, notwithstanding some of the species range upward for several thousand feet, and all pass one another more or less, yet even those possessing the greatest vertical range are available in this connection, in as much as they take on new forms corresponding with the variations in altitude.

Crossing the treeless plains of the Sacramento and San Joaquin from the west and reaching the Sierra foot-hills, you enter the lower fringe of the forest, composed of small oaks and pines, growing so far apart that not one twentieth of the surface of the ground is in shade at clear noonday. After advancing fifteen or twenty miles, and making an ascent of from two to three thousand feet, you reach the lower margin of the main pine belt, composed of the gigantic Sugar Pine, Yellow Pine, Incense Cedar, and Sequoia. Next you come to the magnificent Silver Fir belt, and lastly to the upper pine belt, which sweeps up the rocky acclivities of the summit peaks in a dwarfed, wavering fringe to a height of from ten to twelve thousand feet.

This general order of distribution, with reference to climate dependent on elevation, is perceived at once, but there are other harmonies, as far-reaching in this connection, that become manifest only after patient observation and study. Perhaps the most interesting of these is the arrangement of the forests in long, curving bands, braided together into lace-like patterns, and outspread in charming variety. The key to this beautiful harmony is the ancient glaciers; where they flowed the trees followed, tracing their wavering courses along canons, over ridges, and over high, rolling plateaus. The Cedars of Lebanon, says Hooker, are growing upon one of the moraines of an ancient glacier. All the forests of the Sierra are growing upon moraines. But moraines vanish like the glaciers that make them. Every storm that falls upon them wastes them, cutting gaps, disintegrating boulders, and carrying away their decaying material into new formations, until at length they are no longer recognizable by any save students, who trace their transitional forms down from the fresh moraines still in process of formation, through those that are more and more ancient, and more and more obscured by vegetation and all kinds of post-glacial weathering.

Had the ice-sheet that once covered all the range been melted simultaneously from the foot-hills to the summits, the flanks would, of course, have been left almost bare of soil, and these noble forests would be wanting. Many groves and thickets would undoubtedly have grown up on lake and avalanche beds, and many a fair flower and shrub would have found food and a dwelling-place in weathered nooks and crevices, but the Sierra as a whole would have been a bare, rocky desert.

It appears, therefore, that the Sierra forests in general indicate the extent and positions of the ancient moraines as well as they do lines of climate. For forests, properly speaking, cannot exist without soil; and, since the moraines have been deposited upon the solid rock, and only upon elected places, leaving a considerable portion of the old glacial surface bare, we find luxuriant forests of pine and fir abruptly terminated by scored and polished pavements on which not even a moss is growing, though soil alone is required to fit them for the growth of trees 200 feet in height.

THE NUT PINE (Pinus Sabiniana)

The Nut Pine, the first conifer met in ascending the range from the west, grows only on the torrid foothills, seeming to delight in the most ardent sun-heat, like a palm; springing up here and there singly, or in scattered groups of five or six, among scrubby White Oaks and thickets of ceanothus and manzanita; its extreme upper limit being about 4000 feet above the sea, its lower about from 500 to 800 feet.

This tree is remarkable for its airy, widespread, tropical appearance, which suggests a region of palms, rather than cool, resiny pine woods. No one would take it at first sight to be a conifer of any kind, it is so loose in habit and so widely branched, and its foliage is so thin and gray. Full-grown specimens are from forty to fifty feet in height, and from two to three feet in diameter. The trunk usually divides into three or four main branches, about fifteen and twenty feet from the ground, which, after bearing away from one another, shoot straight up and form separate summits; while the crooked subordinate branches aspire, and radiate, and droop in ornamental sprays. The slender, grayish-green needles are from eight to twelve inches long, loosely tasseled, and inclined to droop in handsome curves, contrasting with the stiff, dark-colored trunk and branches in a very striking manner. No other tree of my acquaintance, so substantial in body, is in its foliage so thin and so pervious to the light. The sunbeams sift through even the leafiest trees with scarcely any interruption, and the weary, heated traveler finds but little protection in their shade.

The generous crop of nutritious nuts which the Nut Pine yields makes it a favorite with Indians, bears, and squirrels. The cones are most beautiful, measuring from five to eight inches in length, and not much less in thickness, rich chocolate-brown in color, and protected by strong, down-curving hooks Which terminate the scales. Nevertheless, the little Douglas squirrel can open them. Indians gathering the ripe nuts make a striking picture. The men climb the trees like bears and beat off the cones with sticks, or recklessly cut off the more fruitful branches with hatchets, while the squaws gather the big, generous cones, and roast them until the scales open sufficiently to allow the hard-shelled seeds to be beaten out. Then, in the cool evenings, men, women, and children, with their capacity for dirt greatly increased by the soft resin with which they are all bedraggled, form circles around camp-fires, on the bank of the nearest stream, and lie in easy independence cracking nuts and laughing and chattering, as heedless of the future as the squirrels.

Pinus tuberculata

This curious little pine is found at an elevation of from 1500 to 3000 feet, growing in close, willowy groves. It is exceedingly slender and graceful in habit, although trees that chance to stand alone outside the groves sweep forth long, curved branches, producing a striking contrast to the ordinary grove form. The foliage is of the same peculiar gray-green color as that of the Nut Pine, and is worn about as loosely, so that the body of the tree is scarcely obscured by it.

At the age of seven or eight years it begins to bear cones, not on branches, but on the main axis, and, as they never fall off, the trunk is soon picturesquely dotted with them. The branches also become fruitful after they attain sufficient size. The average size of the older trees is about thirty or forty feet in height, and twelve to fourteen inches in diameter. The cones are about four inches long, exceedingly hard, and covered with a sort of silicious varnish and gum, rendering them impervious to moisture, evidently with a view to the careful preservation of the seeds.

No other conifer in the range is so closely restricted to special localities. It is usually found apart, standing deep in chaparral on sunny hill-and canon-sides where there is but little depth of soil, and, where found at all, it is quite plentiful; but the ordinary traveler, following carriage-roads and trails, may ascend the range many times without meeting it.

While exploring the lower portion of the Merced Canon I found a lonely miner seeking his fortune in a quartz vein on a wild mountain-side planted with this singular tree. He told me that he called it the Hickory Pine, because of the whiteness and toughness of the wood. It is so little known, however, that it can hardly be said to have a common name. Most mountaineers refer to it as "that queer little pine-tree covered all over with burs." In my studies of this species I found a very interesting and significant group of facts, whose relations will be seen almost as soon as stated:

1st. All the trees in the groves I examined, however unequal in size, are of the same age.

2d. Those groves are all planted on dry hillsides covered with chaparral, and therefore are liable to be swept by fire.

3d. There are no seedlings or saplings in or about the living groves, but there is always a fine, hopeful crop springing up on the ground once occupied by any grove that has been destroyed by the burning of the chaparral.

4th. The cones never fall off and never discharge their seeds until the tree or branch to which they belong dies.

A full discussion of the bearing of these facts upon one another would perhaps be out of place here, but I may at least call attention to the admirable adaptation of the tree to the fire-swept regions where alone it is found. After a grove has been destroyed, the ground is at once sown lavishly with all the seeds ripened during its whole life, which seem to have been carefully held in store with reference to such a calamity. Then a young grove immediately springs up, giving beauty for ashes.

SUGAR PINE (Pinus Lambertiana)

This is the noblest pine yet discovered, surpassing all others not merely in size but also in kingly beauty and majesty.

It towers sublimely from every ridge and canon of the range, at an elevation of from three to seven thousand feet above the sea, attaining most perfect development at a height of about 5000 feet.

Full-grown specimens are commonly about 220 feet high, and from six to eight feet in diameter near the ground, though some grand old patriarch is occasionally met that has enjoyed five or six centuries of storms, and attained a thickness of ten or even twelve feet, living on undecayed, sweet and fresh in every fiber.

In southern Oregon, where it was first discovered by David Douglas, on the head waters of the Umpqua, it attains still grander dimensions, one specimen having been measured that was 245 feet high, and over eighteen feet in diameter three feet from the ground. The discoverer was the Douglas for whom the noble Douglas Spruce is named, and many other plants which will keep his memory sweet and fresh as long as trees and flowers are loved. His first visit to the Pacific Coast was made in the year 1825. The Oregon Indians watched him with curiosity as he wandered in the woods collecting specimens, and, unlike the fur-gathering strangers they had hitherto known, caring nothing about trade. And when at length they came to know him better, and saw that from year to year the growing things of the woods and prairies were his only objects of pursuit, they called him "The Man of Grass," a title of which he was proud. During his first summer on the waters of the Columbia he made Fort Vancouver his headquarters, making excursions from this Hudson Bay post in every direction. On one of his long trips he saw in an Indian's pouch some of the seeds of a new species of pine which he learned were obtained from a very large tree far to the southward of the Columbia. At the end of the next summer, returning to Fort Vancouver after the setting in of the winter rains, bearing in mind the big pine he had heard of, he set out on an excursion up the Willamette Valley in search of it; and how he fared, and what dangers and hardships he endured, are best told in his own journal, from which I quote as follows:

October 26, 1826. Weather dull. Cold and cloudy. When my friends in England are made acquainted with my travels I fear they will think I have told them nothing but my miseries.... I quitted my camp early in the morning to survey the neighboring country, leaving my guide to take charge of the horses until my return in the evening. About an hour's walk from the camp I met an Indian, who on perceiving me instantly strung his bow, placed on his left arm a sleeve of raccoon skin and stood on the defensive. Being quite sure that conduct was prompted by fear and not by hostile intentions, the poor fellow having probably never seen such a being as myself before, I laid my gun at my feet on the ground and waved my hand for him to come to me, which he did slowly and with great caution. I then made him place his bow and quiver of arrows beside my gun, and striking a light gave him a smoke out of my own pipe and a present of a few beads. With my pencil I made a rough sketch of the cone and pine tree which I wanted to obtain, and drew his attention to it, when he instantly pointed with his hand to the hills fifteen or twenty miles distant towards the south; and when I expressed my intention of going thither, cheerfully set out to accompany me. At midday I reached my long-wished-for pines, and lost no time in examining them and endeavoring to collect specimens and seeds. New and strange things seldom fail to make strong impressions, and are therefore frequently over-rated; so that, lest I should never see my friends in England to inform them verbally of this most beautiful and immensely grand tree, I shall here state the dimensions of the largest I could find among several that had been blown down by the wind. At 3 feet from the ground its circumference is 57 feet 9 inches; at 134 feet, 17 feet 5 inches; the extreme length 245 feet.... As it was impossible either to climb the tree or hew it down, I endeavored to knock off the cones by firing at them with ball, when the report of my gun brought eight Indians, all of them painted with red earth, armed with bows, arrows, bone-tipped spears, and flint-knives. They appeared anything but friendly. I explained to them what I wanted, and they seemed satisfied and sat down to smoke; but presently I saw one of them string his bow, and another sharpen his flint knife with a pair of wooden pincers and suspend it off the wrist of his right hand. Further testimony of their intentions was unnecessary. To save myself by flight was impossible, so without hesitation I stepped back about five paces, cocked my gun, drew one of the pistols out of my belt, and holding it in my left hand and the gun in my right, showed myself determined to fight for my life. As much as possible I endeavored to preserve my coolness, and thus we stood looking at one another without making any movement or uttering a word for perhaps ten minutes, when one at last, who seemed to be the leader, gave a sign that they wished for some tobacco; this I signified that they should have if they fetched a quantity of cones. They went off immediately in search of them, and no sooner were they all out of sight than I picked up my three cones and some twigs of the trees and made the quickest possible retreat, hurrying back to the camp, which I reached before dusk.... I now write lying on the grass with my gun cocked beside me, and penning these lines by the light of my Columbian candle, namely, an ignited piece of rosin-wood.

This grand pine discovered under such, exciting circumstances Douglas named in honor of his friend Dr. Lambert of London.

The trunk is a smooth, round, delicately tapered shaft, mostly without limbs, and colored rich purplish-brown, usually enlivened with tufts of yellow lichen. At the top of this magnificent bole, long, curving branches sweep gracefully outward and downward, sometimes forming a palm-like crown, but far more nobly impressive than any palm crown I ever beheld. The needles are about three inches long, finely tempered and arranged in rather close tassels at the ends of slender branchlets that clothe the long, outsweeping limbs. How well they sing in the wind, and how strikingly harmonious an effect is made by the immense cylindrical cones that depend loosely from the ends of the main branches! No one knows what Nature can do in the way of pine-burs until he has seen those of the Sugar Pine. They are commonly from fifteen to eighteen inches long, and three in diameter; green, shaded with dark purple on their sunward sides. They are ripe in September and October. Then the flat scales open and the seeds take wing, but the empty cones become still more beautiful and effective, for their diameter is nearly doubled by the spreading of the scales, and their color changes to a warm yellowish-brown; while they remain swinging on the tree all the following winter and summer, and continue effectively beautiful even on the ground many years after they fall. The wood is deliciously fragrant, and fine in grain and texture; it is of a rich cream-yellow, as if formed of condensed sunbeams. Retinospora obtusa, Siebold, the glory of Eastern forests, is called "Fu-si-no-ki" (tree of the sun) by the Japanese; the Sugar Pine is the sun-tree of the Sierra. Unfortunately it is greatly prized by the lumbermen, and in accessible places is always the first tree in the woods to feel their steel. But the regular lumbermen, with their saw-mills, have been, less generally destructive thus far than the shingle-makers. The wood splits freely, and there is a constant demand for the shingles. And because an ax, and saw, and frow are all the capital required for the business, many of that drifting, unsteady class of men so large in California engage in it for a few months in the year. When prospectors, hunters, ranch hands, etc., touch their "bottom dollar" and find themselves out of employment, they say, "Well, I can at least go to the Sugar Pines and make shingles." A few posts are set in the ground, and a single length cut from the first tree felled produces boards enough for the walls and roof of a cabin; all the rest the lumberman makes is for sale, and he is speedily independent. No gardener or haymaker is more sweetly perfumed than these rough mountaineers while engaged in this business, but the havoc they make is most deplorable.

The sugar, from which the common name is derived, is to my taste the best of sweets—better than maple sugar. It exudes from the heart-wood, where wounds have been made, either by forest fires, or the ax, in the shape of irregular, crisp, candy-like kernels, which are crowded together in masses of considerable size, like clusters of resin-beads. When fresh, it is perfectly white and delicious, but, because most of the wounds on which it is found have been made by fire, the exuding sap is stained on the charred surface, and the hardened sugar becomes brown. Indians are fond of it, but on account of its laxative properties only small quantities may be eaten. Bears, so fond of sweet things in general, seem never to taste it; at least I have failed to find any trace of their teeth in this connection.

No lover of trees will ever forget his first meeting with the Sugar Pine, nor will he afterward need a poet to call him to "listen what the pine-tree saith." In most pine-trees there is a sameness of expression, which, to most people, is apt to become monotonous; for the typical spiry form, however beautiful, affords but little scope for appreciable individual character. The Sugar Pine is as free from conventionalities of form and motion as any oak. No two are alike, even to the most inattentive observer; and, notwithstanding they are ever tossing out their immense arms in what might seem most extravagant gestures, there is a majesty and repose about them that precludes all possibility of the grotesque, or even picturesque, in their general expression. They are the priests of pines, and seem ever to be addressing the surrounding forest. The Yellow Pine is found growing with them on warm hillsides, and the White Silver Fir on cool northern slopes; but, noble as these are, the Sugar Pine is easily king, and spreads his arms above them in blessing while they rock and wave in sign of recognition. The main branches are sometimes found to be forty feet in length, yet persistently simple, seldom dividing at all, excepting near the end; but anything like a bare cable appearance is prevented by the small, tasseled branchlets that extend all around them; and when these superb limbs sweep out symmetrically on all sides, a crown sixty or seventy feet wide is formed, which, gracefully poised on the summit of the noble shaft, and filled with sunshine, is one of the most glorious forest objects conceivable. Commonly, however, there is a great preponderance of limbs toward the east, away from the direction of the prevailing winds.

No other pine seems to me so unfamiliar and self-contained. In approaching it, we feel as if in the presence of a superior being, and begin to walk with a light step, holding our breath. Then, perchance, while we gaze awe-stricken, along comes a merry squirrel, chattering and laughing, to break the spell, running up the trunk with no ceremony, and gnawing off the cones as if they were made only for him; while the carpenter-woodpecker hammers away at the bark, drilling holes in which to store his winter supply of acorns.

Although so wild and unconventional when full-grown, the Sugar Pine is a remarkably proper tree in youth. The old is the most original and independent in appearance of all the Sierra evergreens; the young is the most regular,—a strict follower of coniferous fashions,—slim, erect, with leafy, supple branches kept exactly in place, each tapering in outline and terminating in a spiry point. The successive transitional forms presented between the cautious neatness of youth and bold freedom of maturity offer a delightful study. At the age of fifty or sixty years, the shy, fashionable form begins to be broken up. Specialized branches push out in the most unthought-of places, and bend with the great cones, at once marking individual character, and this being constantly augmented from year to year by the varying action of the sunlight, winds, snow-storms, etc., the individuality of the tree is never again lost in the general forest.

The most constant companion of this species is the Yellow Pine, and a worthy companion it is.

The Douglas Spruce, Libocedrus, Sequoia, and the White Silver Fir are also more or less associated with it; but on many deep-soiled mountain-sides, at an elevation of about 5000 feet above the sea, it forms the bulk of the forest, filling every swell and hollow and down-plunging ravine. The majestic crowns, approaching each other in bold curves, make a glorious canopy through which the tempered sunbeams pour, silvering the needles, and gilding the massive boles, and flowery, park-like ground, into a scene of enchantment.

On the most sunny slopes the white-flowered fragrant chamoebatia is spread like a carpet, brightened during early summer with the crimson Sarcodes, the wild rose, and innumerable violets and gilias. Not even in the shadiest nooks will you find any rank, untidy weeds or unwholesome darkness. On the north sides of ridges the boles are more slender, and the ground is mostly occupied by an underbrush of hazel, ceanothus, and flowering dogwood, but never so densely as to prevent the traveler from sauntering where he will; while the crowning branches are never impenetrable to the rays of the sun, and never so interblended as to lose their individuality.

View the forest from beneath or from some commanding ridge-top; each tree presents a study in itself, and proclaims the surpassing grandeur of the species.

YELLOW, OR SILVER PINE (Pinus ponderosa)

The Silver, or Yellow, Pine, as it is commonly called, ranks second among the pines of the Sierra as a lumber tree, and almost rivals the Sugar Pine in stature and nobleness of port. Because of its superior powers of enduring variations of climate and soil, it has a more extensive range than any other conifer growing on the Sierra. On the western slope it is first met at an elevation of about 2000 feet, and extends nearly to the upper limit of the timber line. Thence, crossing the range by the lowest passes, it descends to the eastern base, and pushes out for a considerable distance into the hot volcanic plains, growing bravely upon well-watered moraines, gravelly lake basins, arctic ridges, and torrid lava-beds; planting itself upon the lips of craters, flourishing vigorously even there, and tossing ripe cones among the ashes and cinders of Nature's hearths.

The average size of full-grown trees on the western slope, where it is associated with the Sugar Pine, is a little less than 200 feet in height and from five to six feet in diameter, though specimens may easily be found that are considerably larger. I measured one, growing at an elevation of 4000 feet in the valley of the Merced, that is a few inches over eight feet in diameter, and 220 feet high.

Where there is plenty of free sunshine and other conditions are favorable, it presents a striking contrast in form to the Sugar Pine, being a symmetrical spire, formed of a straight round trunk, clad with innumerable branches that are divided over and over again. About one half of the trunk is commonly branchless, but where it grows at all close, three fourths or more become naked; the tree presenting then a more slender and elegant shaft than any other tree in the woods. The bark is mostly arranged in massive plates, some of them measuring four or five feet in length by eighteen inches in width, with a thickness of three or four inches, forming a quite marked and distinguishing feature. The needles are of a fine, warm, yellow-green color, six to eight inches long, firm and elastic, and crowded in handsome, radiant tassels on the upturning ends of the branches. The cones are about three or four inches long, and two and a half wide, growing in close, sessile clusters among the leaves.

The species attains its noblest form in filled-up lake basins, especially in those of the older yosemites, and so prominent a part does it form of their groves that it may well be called the Yosemite Pine. Ripe specimens favorably situated are almost always 200 feet or more in height, and the branches clothe the trunk nearly to the ground, as seen in the illustration.

The Jeffrey variety attains its finest development in the northern portion of the range, in the wide basins of the McCloud and Pitt rivers, where it forms magnificent forests scarcely invaded by any other tree. It differs from the ordinary form in size, being only about half as tall, and in its redder and more closely furrowed bark, grayish-green foliage, less divided branches, and larger cones; but intermediate forms come in which make a clear separation impossible, although some botanists regard it as a distinct species. It is this variety that climbs storm-swept ridges, and wanders out among the volcanoes of the Great Basin. Whether exposed to extremes of heat or cold, it is dwarfed like every other tree, and becomes all knots and angles, wholly unlike the majestic forms we have been sketching. Old specimens, bearing cones about as big as pineapples, may sometimes be found clinging to rifted rocks at an elevation of seven or eight thousand feet, whose highest branches scarce reach above one's shoulders.

I have oftentimes feasted on the beauty of these noble trees when they were towering in all their winter grandeur, laden with snow—one mass of bloom; in summer, too, when the brown, staminate clusters hang thick among the shimmering needles, and the big purple burs are ripening in the mellow light; but it is during cloudless wind-storms that these colossal pines are most impressively beautiful. Then they bow like willows, their leaves streaming forward all in one direction, and, when the sun shines upon them at the required angle, entire groves glow as if every leaf were burnished silver. The fall of tropic light on the royal crown of a palm is a truly glorious spectacle, the fervid sun-flood breaking upon the glossy leaves in long lance-rays, like mountain water among boulders. But to me there is something more impressive in the fall of light upon these Silver Pines. It seems beaten to the finest dust, and is shed off in myriads of minute sparkles that seem to come from the very heart of the trees, as if, like rain falling upon fertile soil, it had been absorbed, to reappear in flowers of light.

This species also gives forth the finest music to the wind. After listening to it in all kinds of winds, night and day, season after season, I think I could approximate to my position on the mountains by this pine-music alone. If you would catch the tones of separate needles, climb a tree. They are well tempered, and give forth no uncertain sound, each standing out, with no interference excepting during heavy gales; then you may detect the click of one needle upon another, readily distinguishable from their free, wing-like hum. Some idea of their temper may be drawn from the fact that, notwithstanding they are so long, the vibrations that give rise to the peculiar shimmering of the light are made at the rate of about two hundred and fifty per minute.

When a Sugar Pine and one of this species equal in size are observed together, the latter is seen to be far more simple in manners, more lithely graceful, and its beauty is of a kind more easily appreciated; but then, it is, on the other hand, much less dignified and original in demeanor. The Silver Pine seems eager to shoot aloft. Even while it is drowsing in autumn sun-gold, you may still detect a skyward aspiration. But the Sugar Pine seems too unconsciously noble, and too complete in every way, to leave room for even a heavenward care.

DOUGLAS SPRUCE (Pseudotsuga Douglasii)

This tree is the king of the spruces, as the Sugar Pine is king of pines. It is by far the most majestic spruce I ever beheld in any forest, and one of the largest and longest lived of the giants that flourish throughout the main pine belt, often attaining a height of nearly 200 feet, and a diameter of six or seven. Where the growth is not too close, the strong, spreading branches come more than halfway down the trunk, and these are hung with innumerable slender, swaying sprays, that are handsomely feathered with the short leaves which radiate at right angles all around them. This vigorous spruce is ever beautiful, welcoming the mountain winds and the snow as well as the mellow summer light, and maintaining its youthful freshness undiminished from century to century through a thousand storms.

It makes its finest appearance in the months of June and July. The rich brown buds with which its sprays are tipped swell and break about this time, revealing the young leaves, which at first are bright yellow, making the tree appear as if covered with gay blossoms; while the pendulous bracted cones with their shell-like scales are a constant adornment.

The young trees are mostly gathered into beautiful family groups, each sapling exquisitely symmetrical. The primary branches are whorled regularly around the axis, generally in fives, while each is draped with long, feathery sprays, that descend in curves as free and as finely drawn as those of falling water.

In Oregon and Washington it grows in dense forests, growing tall and mast-like to a height of 300 feet, and is greatly prized as a lumber tree. But in the Sierra it is scattered among other trees, or forms small groves, seldom ascending higher than 5500 feet, and never making what would be called a forest. It is not particular in its choice of soil—wet or dry, smooth or rocky, it makes out to live well on them all. Two of the largest specimens I have measured are in Yosemite Valley, one of which is more than eight feet in diameter, and is growing upon the terminal moraine of the residual glacier that occupied the South Fork Canon; the other is nearly as large, growing upon angular blocks of granite that have been shaken from the precipitous front of the Liberty Cap near the Nevada Fall. No other tree seems so capable of adapting itself to earthquake taluses, and many of these rough boulder-slopes are occupied by it almost exclusively, especially in yosemite gorges moistened by the spray of waterfalls.

INCENSE CEDAR (Libocedrus decurrens)

The Incense Cedar is another of the giants quite generally distributed throughout this portion of the forest, without exclusively occupying any considerable area, or even making extensive groves. It ascends to about 5000 feet on the warmer hillsides, and reaches the climate most congenial to it at about from 3000 to 4000 feet, growing vigorously at this elevation on all kinds of soil, and in particular it is capable of enduring more moisture about its roots than any of its companions, excepting only the Sequoia.

The largest specimens are about 150 feet high, and seven feet in diameter. The bark is brown, of a singularly rich tone very attractive to artists, and the foliage is tinted with a warmer yellow than that of any other evergreen in the woods. Casting your eye over the general forest from some ridge-top, the color alone of its spiry summits is sufficient to identify it in any company.

In youth, say up to the age of seventy or eighty years, no other tree forms so strictly tapered a cone from top to bottom. The branches swoop outward and downward in bold curves, excepting the younger ones near the top, which aspire, while the lowest droop to the ground, and all spread out in flat, ferny plumes, beautifully fronded, and imbricated upon one another. As it becomes older, it grows strikingly irregular and picturesque. Large special branches put out at right angles from the trunk, form big, stubborn elbows, and then shoot up parallel with the axis. Very old trees are usually dead at the top, the main axis protruding above ample masses of green plumes, gray and lichen-covered, and drilled full of acorn holes by the woodpeckers. The plumes are exceedingly beautiful; no waving fern-frond in shady dell is more unreservedly beautiful in form and texture, or half so inspiring in color and spicy fragrance. In its prime, the whole tree is thatched with them, so that they shed off rain and snow like a roof, making fine mansions for storm-bound birds and mountaineers. But if you would see the Libocedrus in all its glory, you must go to the woods in winter. Then it is laden with myriads of four-sided staminate cones about the size of wheat grains,—winter wheat,—producing a golden tinge, and forming a noble illustration of Nature's immortal vigor and virility. The fertile cones are about three fourths of an inch long, borne on the outside of the plumy branchlets, where they serve to enrich still more the surpassing beauty of this grand winter-blooming goldenrod.

WHITE SILVER FIR (Abies concolor)

We come now to the most regularly planted of all the main forest belts, composed almost exclusively of two noble firs—A. concolor and A. magnifica. It extends with no marked interruption for 450 miles, at an elevation of from 5000 to nearly 9000 feet above the sea. In its youth A. concolor is a charmingly symmetrical tree with branches regularly whorled in level collars around its whitish-gray axis, which terminates in a strong, hopeful shoot. The leaves are in two horizontal rows, along branchlets that commonly are less than eight years old, forming handsome plumes, pinnated like the fronds of ferns. The cones are grayish-green when ripe, cylindrical, about from three to four inches long by one and a half to two inches wide, and stand upright on the upper branches.

Full-grown trees, favorably situated as to soil and exposure, are about 200 feet high, and five or six feet in diameter near the ground, though larger specimens are by no means rare.

As old age creeps on, the bark becomes rougher and grayer, the branches lose their exact regularity, many are snow-bent or broken off, and the main axis often becomes double or otherwise irregular from accidents to the terminal bud or shoot; but throughout all the vicissitudes of its life on the mountains, come what may, the noble grandeur of the species is patent to every eye.


This is the most charmingly symmetrical of all the giants of the Sierra woods, far surpassing its companion species in this respect, and easily distinguished from it by the purplish-red bark, which is also more closely furrowed than that of the white, and by its larger cones, more regularly whorled and fronded branches, and by its leaves, which are shorter, and grow all around the branchlets and point upward.

In size, these two Silver Firs are about equal, the magnifica perhaps a little the taller. Specimens from 200 to 250 feet high are not rare on well-ground moraine soil, at an elevation of from 7500 to 8500 feet above sea-level. The largest that I measured stands back three miles from the brink of the north wall of Yosemite Valley. Fifteen years ago it was 240 feet high, with a diameter of a little more than five feet.

Happy the man with the freedom and the love to climb one of these superb trees in full flower and fruit. How admirable the forest-work of Nature is then seen to be, as one makes his way up through the midst of the broad, fronded branches, all arranged in exquisite order around the trunk, like the whorled leaves of lilies, and each branch and branchlet about as strictly pinnate as the most symmetrical fern-frond. The staminate cones are seen growing straight downward from the under side of the young branches in lavish profusion, making fine purple clusters amid the grayish-green foliage. On the topmost branches the fertile cones are set firmly on end like small casks. They are about six inches long, three wide, covered with a fine gray down, and streaked with crystal balsam that seems to have been poured upon each cone from above.

Both the Silver Firs live 250 years or more when the conditions about them are at all favorable. Some venerable patriarch may often be seen, heavily storm-marked, towering in severe majesty above the rising generation, with a protecting grove of saplings pressing close around his feet, each dressed with such loving care that not a leaf seems wanting. Other companies are made up of trees near the prime of life, exquisitely harmonized to one another in form and gesture, as if Nature had culled them one by one with nice discrimination from all the rest of the woods.

It is from this tree, called Red Fir by the lumberman, that mountaineers always cut boughs to sleep on when they are so fortunate as to be within its limits. Two rows of the plushy branches overlapping along the middle, and a crescent of smaller plumes mixed with ferns and flowers for a pillow, form the very best bed imaginable. The essences of the pressed leaves seem to fill every pore of one's body, the sounds of falling water make a soothing hush, while the spaces between the grand spires afford noble openings through which to gaze dreamily into the starry sky. Even in the matter of sensuous ease, any combination of cloth, steel springs, and feathers seems vulgar in comparison.

The fir woods are delightful sauntering-grounds at any time of year, but most so in autumn. Then the noble trees are hushed in the hazy light, and drip with balsam; the cones are ripe, and the seeds, with their ample purple wings, mottle the air like flocks of butterflies; while deer feeding in the flowery openings between the groves, and birds and squirrels in the branches, make a pleasant stir which enriches the deep, brooding calm of the wilderness, and gives a peculiar impressiveness to every tree. No wonder the enthusiastic Douglas went wild with joy when he first discovered this species. Even in the Sierra, where so many noble evergreens challenge admiration, we linger among these colossal firs with fresh love, and extol their beauty again and again, as if no other in the world could henceforth claim our regard.

It is in these woods the great granite domes rise that are so striking and characteristic a feature of the Sierra. And here too we find the best of the garden meadows. They lie level on the tops of the dividing ridges, or sloping on the sides of them, embedded in the magnificent forest. Some of these meadows are in great part occupied by Veratrumalba, which here grows rank and tall, with boat-shaped leaves thirteen inches long and twelve inches wide, ribbed like those of cypripedium. Columbine grows on the drier margins with tall larkspurs and lupines waist-deep in grasses and sedges; several species of castilleia also make a bright show in beds of blue and white violets and daisies. But the glory of these forest meadows is a lily—L. parvum. The flowers are orange-colored and quite small, the smallest I ever saw of the true lilies; but it is showy nevertheless, for it is seven to eight feet high and waves magnificent racemes of ten to twenty flowers or more over one's head, while it stands out in the open ground with just enough of grass and other plants about it to make a fringe for its feet and show it off to best advantage.

A dry spot a little way back from the margin of a Silver Fir lily garden makes a glorious campground, especially where the slope is toward the east and opens a view of the distant peaks along the summit of the range. The tall lilies are brought forward in all their glory by the light of your blazing camp-fire, relieved against the outer darkness, and the nearest of the trees with their whorled branches tower above you like larger lilies, and the sky seen through the garden opening seems one vast meadow of white lily stars.

In the morning everything is joyous and bright, the delicious purple of the dawn changes softly to daffodil yellow and white; while the sunbeams pouring through the passes between the peaks give a margin of gold to each of them. Then the spires of the firs in the hollows of the middle region catch the glow, and your camp grove is filled with light. The birds begin to stir, seeking sunny branches on the edge of the meadow for sun-baths after the cold night, and looking for their breakfasts, every one of them as fresh as a lily and as charmingly arrayed. Innumerable insects begin to dance, the deer withdraw from the open glades and ridge-tops to their leafy hiding-places in the chaparral, the flowers open and straighten their petals as the dew vanishes, every pulse beats high, every life-cell rejoices, the very rocks seem to tingle with life, and God is felt brooding over everything great and small.

BIG TREE (Sequoia gigantea)

Between the heavy pine and Silver Fir belts we find the Big Tree, the king of all the conifers in the world, "the noblest of a noble race." It extends in a widely interrupted belt from a small grove on the middle fork of the American River to the head of Deer Creek, a distance of about 260 miles, the northern limit being near the thirty-ninth parallel, the southern a little below the thirty-sixth, and the elevation of the belt above the sea varies from about 5000 to 8000 feet. From the American River grove to the forest on King's River the species occurs only in small isolated groups so sparsely distributed along the belt that three of the gaps in it are from forty to sixty miles wide. But from King's River southward the Sequoia is not restricted to mere groves, but extends across the broad rugged basins of the Kaweah and Tule rivers in noble forests, a distance of nearly seventy miles, the continuity of this part of the belt being broken only by deep canons. The Fresno, the largest of the northern groves, occupies an area of three or four square miles, a short distance to the southward of the famous Mariposa Grove. Along the beveled rim of the canon of the south fork of King's River there is a majestic forest of Sequoia about six miles long by two wide. This is the northernmost assemblage of Big Trees that may fairly be called a forest. Descending the precipitous divide between the King's River and Kaweah you enter the grand forests that form the main continuous portion of the belt. Advancing southward the giants become more and more irrepressibly exuberant, heaving their massive crowns into the sky from every ridge and slope, and waving onward in graceful compliance with the complicated topography of the region. The finest of the Kaweah section of the belt is on the broad ridge between Marble Creek and the middle fork, and extends from the granite headlands overlooking the hot plains to within a few miles of the cool glacial fountains of the summit peaks. The extreme upper limit of the belt is reached between the middle and south forks of the Kaweah at an elevation of 8400 feet. But the finest block of Big Tree forest in the entire belt is on the north fork of Tule River. In the northern groves there are comparatively few young trees or saplings. But here for every old, storm-stricken giant there are many in all the glory of prime vigor, and for each of these a crowd of eager, hopeful young trees and saplings growing heartily on moraines, rocky ledges, along watercourses, and in the moist alluvium of meadows, seemingly in hot pursuit of eternal life.

But though the area occupied by the species increases so much from north to south there is no marked increase in the size of the trees. A height of 275 feet and a diameter near the ground of about 20 feet is perhaps about the average size of full-grown trees favorably situated; specimens 25 feet in diameter are not very rare, and a few are nearly 300 feet high. In the Calaveras Grove there are four trees over 300 feet in height, the tallest of which by careful measurement is 325 feet. The largest I have yet met in the course of my explorations is a majestic old scarred monument in the King's River forest. It is 35 feet 8 inches in diameter inside the bark four feet from the ground. Under the most favorable conditions these giants probably live 5000 years or more, though few of even the larger trees are more than half as old. I never saw a Big Tree that had died a natural death; barring accidents they seem to be immortal, being exempt from all the diseases that afflict and kill other trees. Unless destroyed by man, they live on indefinitely until burned, smashed by lightning, or cast down by storms, or by the giving way of the ground on which they stand. The age of one that was felled in the Calaveras Grove, for the sake of having its stump for a dancing-floor, was about 1300 years, and its diameter, measured across the stump, 24 feet inside the bark. Another that was cut down in the King's River forest was about the same size, but nearly a thousand years older (2200 years), though not a very old-looking tree. It was felled to procure a section for exhibition, and thus an opportunity was given to count its annual rings of growth. The colossal scarred monument in the King's River forest mentioned above is burned half through, and I spent a day in making an estimate of its age, clearing away the charred surface with an ax and carefully counting the annual rings with the aid of a pocket-lens. The wood-rings in the section I laid bare were so involved and contorted in some places that I was not able to determine its age exactly, but I counted over 4000 rings, which showed that this tree was in its prime, swaying in the Sierra winds, when Christ walked the earth. No other tree in the world, as far as I know, has looked down on so many centuries as the Sequoia, or opens such impressive and suggestive views into history.

So exquisitely harmonious and finely balanced are even the very mightiest of these monarchs of the woods in all their proportions and circumstances there never is anything overgrown or monstrous-looking about them. On coming in sight of them for the first time, you are likely to say, "Oh, see what beautiful, noble-looking trees are towering there among the firs and pines!"—their grandeur being in the mean time in great part invisible, but to the living eye it will be manifested sooner or later, stealing slowly on the senses, like the grandeur of Niagara, or the lofty Yosemite domes. Their great size is hidden from the inexperienced observer as long as they are seen at a distance in one harmonious view. When, however, you approach them and walk round them, you begin to wonder at their colossal size and seek a measuring-rod. These giants bulge considerably at the base, but not more than is required for beauty and safety; and the only reason that this bulging seems in some cases excessive is that only a comparatively small section of the shaft is seen at once in near views. One that I measured in the King's River forest was 25 feet in diameter at the ground, and 10 feet in diameter 200 feet above the ground, showing that the taper of the trunk as a whole is charmingly fine. And when you stand back far enough to see the massive columns from the swelling instep to the lofty summit dissolving in a dome of verdure, you rejoice in the unrivaled display of combined grandeur and beauty. About a hundred feet or more of the trunk is usually branchless, but its massive simplicity is relieved by the bark furrows, which instead of making an irregular network run evenly parallel, like the fluting of an architectural column, and to some extent by tufts of slender sprays that wave lightly in the winds and cast flecks of shade, seeming to have been pinned on here and there for the sake of beauty only. The young trees have slender simple branches down to the ground, put on with strict regularity, sharply aspiring at the top, horizontal about half-way down, and drooping in handsome curves at the base. By the time the sapling is five or six hundred years old this spiry, feathery, juvenile habit merges into the firm, rounded dome form of middle age, which in turn takes on the eccentric picturesqueness of old age. No other tree in the Sierra forest has foliage so densely massed or presents outlines so firmly drawn and so steadily subordinate to a special type. A knotty ungovernable-looking branch five to eight feet thick may be seen pushing out abruptly from the smooth trunk, as if sure to throw the regular curve into confusion, but as soon as the general outline is reached it stops short and dissolves in spreading bosses of law-abiding sprays, just as if every tree were growing beneath some huge, invisible bell-glass, against whose sides every branch was being pressed and molded, yet somehow indulging in so many small departures from the regular form that there is still an appearance of freedom.

The foliage of the saplings is dark bluish-green in color, while the older trees ripen to a warm brownish-yellow tint like Libocedrus. The bark is rich cinnamon-brown, purplish in young trees and in shady portions of the old, while the ground is covered with brown leaves and burs forming color-masses of extraordinary richness, not to mention the flowers and underbrush that rejoice about them in their seasons. Walk the Sequoia woods at any time of year and you will say they are the most beautiful and majestic on earth. Beautiful and impressive contrasts meet you everywhere: the colors of tree and flower, rock and sky, light and shade, strength and frailty, endurance and evanescence, tangles of supple hazel-bushes, tree-pillars about as rigid as granite domes, roses and violets, the smallest of their kind, blooming around the feet of the giants, and rugs of the lowly chamaebatia where the sunbeams fall. Then in winter the trees themselves break forth in bloom, myriads of small four-sided staminate cones crowd the ends of the slender sprays, coloring the whole tree, and when ripe dusting the air and the ground with golden pollen. The fertile cones are bright grass-green, measuring about two inches in length by one and a half in thickness, and are made up of about forty firm rhomboidal scales densely packed, with from five to eight seeds at the base of each. A single cone, therefore, contains from two to three hundred seeds, which are about a fourth of an inch long by three sixteenths wide, including a thin, flat margin that makes them go glancing and wavering in their fall like a boy's kite. The fruitfulness of Sequoia may be illustrated by two specimen branches one and a half and two inches in diameter on which I counted 480 cones. No other Sierra conifer produces nearly so many seeds. Millions are ripened annually by a single tree, and in a fruitful year the product of one of the northern groves would be enough to plant all the mountain-ranges of the world. Nature takes care, however, that not one seed in a million shall germinate at all, and of those that do perhaps not one in ten thousand is suffered to live through the many vicissitudes of storm, drought, fire, and snow-crushing that beset their youth.

The Douglas squirrel is the happy harvester of most of the Sequoia cones. Out of every hundred perhaps ninety fall to his share, and unless cut off by his ivory sickle they shake out their seeds and remain on the tree for many years. Watching the squirrels at their harvest work in the Indian summer is one of the most delightful diversions imaginable. The woods are calm and the ripe colors are blazing in all their glory; the cone-laden trees stand motionless in the warm, hazy air, and you may see the crimson-crested woodcock, the prince of Sierra woodpeckers, drilling some dead limb or fallen trunk with his bill, and ever and anon filling the glens with his happy cackle. The humming-bird, too, dwells in these noble woods, and may oftentimes be seen glancing among the flowers or resting wing-weary on some leafless twig; here also are the familiar robin of the orchards, and the brown and grizzly bears so obviously fitted for these majestic solitudes; and the Douglas squirrel, making more hilarious, exuberant, vital stir than all the bears, birds, and humming wings together.

As soon as any accident happens to the crown of these Sequoias, such as being stricken off by lightning or broken by storms, then the branches beneath the wound, no matter how situated, seem to be excited like a colony of bees that have lost their queen, and become anxious to repair the damage. Limbs that have grown outward for centuries at right angles to the trunk begin to turn upward to assist in making a new crown, each speedily assuming the special form of true summits. Even in the case of mere stumps, burned half through, some mere ornamental tuft will try to go aloft and do its best as a leader in forming a new head.

Groups of two or three of these grand trees are often found standing close together, the seeds from which they sprang having probably grown on ground cleared for their reception by the fall of a large tree of a former generation. These patches of fresh, mellow soil beside the upturned roots of the fallen giant may be from forty to sixty feet wide, and they are speedily occupied by seedlings. Out of these seedling-thickets perhaps two or three may become trees, forming those close groups called "three graces," "loving couples," etc. For even supposing that the trees should stand twenty or thirty feet apart while young, by the time they are full-grown their trunks will touch and crowd against each other and even appear as one in some cases.

It is generally believed that this grand Sequoia was once far more widely distributed over the Sierra; but after long and careful study I have come to the conclusion that it never was, at least since the close of the glacial period, because a diligent search along the margins of the groves, and in the gaps between, fails to reveal a single trace of its previous existence beyond its present bounds. Notwithstanding, I feel confident that if every Sequoia in the range were to die to-day, numerous monuments of their existence would remain, of so imperishable a nature as to be available for the student more than ten thousand years hence.

In the first place we might notice that no species of coniferous tree in the range keeps its individuals so well together as Sequoia; a mile is perhaps the greatest distance of any straggler from the main body, and all of those stragglers that have come under my observation are young, instead of old monumental trees, relics of a more extended growth.

Again, Sequoia trunks frequently endure for centuries after they fall. I have a specimen block, cut from a fallen trunk, which is hardly distinguishable from specimens cut from living trees, although the old trunk-fragment from which it was derived has lain in the damp forest more than 380 years, probably thrice as long. The time measure in the case is simply this: when the ponderous trunk to which the old vestige belonged fell, it sunk itself into the ground, thus making a long, straight ditch, and in the middle of this ditch a Silver Fir is growing that is now four feet in diameter and 380 years old, as determined by cutting it half through and counting the rings, thus demonstrating that the remnant of the trunk that made the ditch has lain on the ground more than 380 years. For it is evident that to find the whole time, we must add to the 380 years the time that the vanished portion of the trunk lay in the ditch before being burned out of the way, plus the time that passed before the seed from which the monumental fir sprang fell into the prepared soil and took root. Now, because Sequoia trunks are never wholly consumed in one forest fire, and those fires recur only at considerable intervals, and because Sequoia ditches after being cleared are often left unplanted for centuries, it becomes evident that the trunk remnant in question may probably have lain a thousand years or more. And this instance is by no means a rare one.

But admitting that upon those areas supposed to have been once covered with Sequoia every tree may have fallen, and every trunk may have been burned or buried, leaving not a remnant, many of the ditches made by the fall of the ponderous trunks, and the bowls made by their upturning roots, would remain patent for thousands of years after the last vestige of the trunks that made them had vanished. Much of this ditch-writing would no doubt be quickly effaced by the flood-action of overflowing streams and rain-washing; but no inconsiderable portion would remain enduringly engraved on ridge-tops beyond such destructive action; for, where all the conditions are favorable, it is almost imperishable. Now these historic ditches and root bowls occur in all the present Sequoia groves and forests, but as far as I have observed, not the faintest vestige of one presents itself outside of them.

We therefore conclude that the area covered by Sequoia has not been diminished during the last eight or ten thousand years, and probably not at all in post-glacial times.

Is the species verging to extinction? What are its relations to climate, soil, and associated trees?

All the phenomena bearing on these questions also throw light, as we shall endeavor to show, upon the peculiar distribution of the species, and sustain the conclusion already arrived at on the question of extension.

In the northern groups, as we have seen, there are few young trees or saplings growing up around the failing old ones to perpetuate the race, and in as much as those aged Sequoias, so nearly childless, are the only ones commonly known, the species, to most observers, seems doomed to speedy extinction, as being nothing more than an expiring remnant, vanquished in the so-called struggle for life by pines and firs that have driven it into its last strongholds in moist glens where climate is exceptionally favorable. But the language of the majestic continuous forests of the south creates a very different impression. No tree of all the forest is more enduringly established in concordance with climate and soil. It grows heartily everywhere—on moraines, rocky ledges, along watercourses, and in the deep, moist alluvium of meadows, with a multitude of seedlings and saplings crowding up around the aged, seemingly abundantly able to maintain the forest in prime vigor. For every old storm-stricken tree, there is one or more in all the glory of prime; and for each of these many young trees and crowds of exuberant saplings. So that if all the trees of any section of the main Sequoia forest were ranged together according to age, a very promising curve would be presented, all the way up from last year's seedlings to giants, and with the young and middle-aged portion of the curve many times longer than the old portion. Even as far north as the Fresno, I counted 536 saplings and seedlings growing promisingly upon a piece of rough avalanche soil not exceeding two acres in area. This soil bed is about seven years old, and has been seeded almost simultaneously by pines, firs, Libocedrus, and Sequoia, presenting a simple and instructive illustration of the struggle for life among the rival species; and it was interesting to note that the conditions thus far affecting them have enabled the young Sequoias to gain a marked advantage.

In every instance like the above I have observed that the seedling Sequoia is capable of growing on both drier and wetter soil than its rivals, but requires more sunshine than they; the latter fact being clearly shown wherever a Sugar Pine or fir is growing in close contact with a Sequoia of about equal age and size, and equally exposed to the sun; the branches of the latter in such cases are always less leafy. Toward the south, however, where the Sequoia becomes more exuberant and numerous, the rival trees become less so; and where they mix with Sequoias, they mostly grow up beneath them, like slender grasses among stalks of Indian corn. Upon a bed of sandy flood-soil I counted ninety-four Sequoias, from one to twelve feet high, on a patch, of ground once occupied by four large Sugar Pines which lay crumbling beneath them,—an instance of conditions which have enabled Sequoias to crowd out the pines.

I also noted eighty-six vigorous saplings upon a piece of fresh ground prepared for their reception by fire. Thus fire, the great destroyer of Sequoia, also furnishes bare virgin ground, one of the conditions essential for its growth from the seed. Fresh ground is, however, furnished in sufficient quantities for the constant renewal of the forests without fire, viz., by the fall of old trees. The soil is thus upturned and mellowed, and many trees are planted for every one that falls. Land-slips and floods also give rise to bare virgin ground; and a tree now and then owes its existence to a burrowing wolf or squirrel, but the most regular supply of fresh soil is furnished by the fall of aged trees.

The climatic changes in progress in the Sierra, bearing on the tenure of tree life, are entirely misapprehended, especially as to the time and the means employed by Nature in effecting them. It is constantly asserted in a vague way that the Sierra was vastly wetter than now, and that the increasing drought will of itself extinguish Sequoia, leaving its ground to other trees supposed capable of nourishing in a drier climate. But that Sequoia can and does grow on as dry ground as any of its present rivals, is manifest in a thousand places. "Why, then," it will be asked, "are Sequoias always found in greatest abundance in well-watered places where streams are exceptionally abundant?" Simply because a growth of Sequoias creates those streams. The thirsty mountaineer knows well that in every Sequoia grove he will find running water, but it is a mistake to suppose that the water is the cause of the grove being there; on the contrary, the grove is the cause of the water being there. Drain off the water and the trees will remain, but cut off the trees, and the streams will vanish. Never was cause more completely mistaken for effect than in the case of these related phenomena of Sequoia woods and perennial streams, and I confess that at first I shared in the blunder.

When attention is called to the method of Sequoia stream-making, it will be apprehended at once. The roots of this immense tree fill the ground, forming a thick sponge that absorbs and holds back the rains and melting snows, only allowing them to ooze and flow gently. Indeed, every fallen leaf and rootlet, as well as long clasping root, and prostrate trunk, may be regarded as a dam hoarding the bounty of storm-clouds, and dispensing it as blessings all through the summer, instead of allowing it to go headlong in short-lived floods. Evaporation is also checked by the dense foliage to a greater extent than by any other Sierra tree, and the air is entangled in masses and broad sheets that are quickly saturated; while thirsty winds are not allowed to go sponging and licking along the ground.

So great is the retention of water in many places in the main belt, that bogs and meadows are created by the killing of the trees. A single trunk falling across a stream in the woods forms a dam 200 feet long, and from ten to thirty feet high, giving rise to a pond which kills the trees within its reach. These dead trees fall in turn, thus making a clearing, while sediments gradually accumulate changing the pond into a bog, or meadow, for a growth of carices and sphagnum. In some instances a series of small bogs or meadows rise above one another on a hillside, which are gradually merged into one another, forming sloping bogs, or meadows, which make striking features of Sequoia woods, and since all the trees that have fallen into them have been preserved, they contain records of the generations that have passed since they began to form.

Since, then, it is a fact that thousands of Sequoias are growing thriftily on what is termed dry ground, and even clinging like mountain pines to rifts in granite precipices; and since it has also been shown that the extra moisture found in connection with the denser growths is an effect of their presence, instead of a cause of their presence, then the notions as to the former extension of the species and its near approach to extinction, based upon its supposed dependence on greater moisture, are seen to be erroneous.

The decrease in the rain- and snow-fall since the close of the glacial period in the Sierra is much less than is commonly guessed. The highest post-glacial watermarks are well preserved in all the upper river channels, and they are not greatly higher than the spring floodmarks of the present; showing conclusively that no extraordinary decrease has taken place in the volume of the upper tributaries of post-glacial Sierra streams since they came into existence. But in the mean time, eliminating all this complicated question of climatic change, the plain fact remains that the present rain- and snow-fall is abundantly sufficient for the luxuriant growth of Sequoia forests. Indeed, all my observations tend to show that in a prolonged drought the Sugar Pines and firs would perish before the Sequoia, not alone because of the greater longevity of individual trees, but because the species can endure more drought, and make the most of whatever moisture falls.

Again, if the restriction and irregular distribution of the species be interpreted as a result of the desiccation of the range, then instead of increasing as it does in individuals toward the south where the rainfall is less, it should diminish.

If, then, the peculiar distribution of Sequoia has not been governed by superior conditions of soil as to fertility or moisture, by what has it been governed?

In the course of my studies I observed that the northern groves, the only ones I was at first acquainted with, were located on just those portions of the general forest soil-belt that were first laid bare toward the close of the glacial period when the ice-sheet began to break up into individual glaciers. And while searching the wide basin of the San Joaquin, and trying to account for the absence of Sequoia where every condition seemed favorable for its growth, it occured to me that this remarkable gap in the Sequoia belt is located exactly in the basin of the vast ancient mer de glace of the San Joaquin and King's River basins, which poured its frozen floods to the plain, fed by the snows that fell on more than fifty miles of the summit. I then perceived that the next great gap in the belt to the northward, forty miles wide, extending between the Calaveras and Tuolumne groves, occurs in the basin of the great ancient mer de glace of the Tuolumne and Stanislaus basins, and that the smaller gap between the Merced and Mariposa groves occurs in the basin of the smaller glacier of the Merced. The wider the ancient glacier, the wider the corresponding gap in the Sequoia belt.

Finally, pursuing my investigations across the basins of the Kaweah and Tule, I discovered that the Sequoia belt attained its greatest development just where, owing to the topographical peculiarities of the region, the ground had been most perfectly protected from the main ice-rivers that continued to pour past from the summit fountains long after the smaller local glaciers had been melted.

Taking now a general view of the belt, beginning at the south, we see that the majestic ancient glaciers were shed off right and left down the valleys of Kern and King's rivers by the lofty protective spurs outspread embracingly above the warm Sequoia-filled basins of the Kaweah and Tule. Then, next northward, occurs the wide Sequoia-less channel, or basin, of the ancient San Joaquin and King's River mer de glace; then the warm, protected spots of Fresno and Mariposa groves; then the Sequoia-less channel of the ancient Merced glacier; next the warm, sheltered ground of the Merced and Tuolumne groves; then the Sequoia-less channel of the grand ancient mer de glace of the Tuolumne and Stanislaus; then the warm old ground of the Calaveras and Stanislaus groves. It appears, therefore, that just where, at a certain period in the history of the Sierra, the glaciers were not, there the Sequoia is, and just where the glaciers were, there the Sequoia is not.

What the other conditions may have been that enabled Sequoia to establish itself upon these oldest and warmest portions of the main glacial soil-belt, I cannot say. I might venture to state, however, in this connection, that since the Sequoia forests present a more and more ancient aspect as they extend southward, I am inclined to think that the species was distributed from the south, while the Sugar Pine, its great rival in the northern groves, seems to have come around the head of the Sacramento valley and down the Sierra from the north; consequently, when the Sierra soil-beds were first thrown open to preemption on the melting of the ice-sheet, the Sequoia may have established itself along the available portions of the south half of the range prior to the arrival of the Sugar Pine, while the Sugar Pine took possession of the north half prior to the arrival of Sequoia.

But however much uncertainty may attach to this branch of the question, there are no obscuring shadows upon the grand general relationship we have pointed out between the present distribution of Sequoia and the ancient glaciers of the Sierra. And when we bear in mind that all the present forests of the Sierra are young, growing on moraine soil recently deposited, and that the flank of the range itself, with all its landscapes, is new-born, recently sculptured, and brought to the light of day from beneath the ice mantle of the glacial winter, then a thousand lawless mysteries disappear, and broad harmonies take their places.

But although all the observed phenomena bearing on the post-glacial history of this colossal tree point to the conclusion that it never was more widely distributed on the Sierra since the close of the glacial epoch; that its present forests are scarcely past prime, if, indeed, they have reached prime; that the post-glacial day of the species is probably not half done; yet, when from a wider outlook the vast antiquity of the genus is considered, and its ancient richness in species and individuals; comparing our Sierra Giant and Sequoia sempervirens of the Coast Range, the only other living species of Sequoia, with the twelve fossil species already discovered and described by Heer and Lesquereux, some of which seem to have flourished over vast areas in the Arctic regions and in Europe and our own territories, during tertiary and cretaceous times,—then indeed it becomes plain that our two surviving species, restricted to narrow belts within the limits of California, are mere remnants of the genus, both as to species and individuals, and that they probably are verging to extinction. But the verge of a period beginning in cretaceous times may have a breadth of tens of thousands of years, not to mention the possible existence of conditions calculated to multiply and reextend both species and individuals. This, however, is a branch of the question into which I do not now purpose to enter.

In studying the fate of our forest king, we have thus far considered the action of purely natural causes only; but, unfortunately, man is in the woods, and waste and pure destruction are making rapid headway. If the importance of forests were at all understood, even from an economic standpoint, their preservation would call forth the most watchful attention of government. Only of late years by means of forest reservations has the simplest groundwork for available legislation been laid, while in many of the finest groves every species of destruction is still moving on with accelerated speed.

In the course of my explorations I found no fewer than five mills located on or near the lower edge of the Sequoia belt, all of which were cutting considerable quantities of Big Tree lumber. Most of the Fresno group are doomed to feed the mills recently erected near them, and a company of lumbermen are now cutting the magnificent forest on King's River. In these milling operations waste far exceeds use, for after the choice young manageable trees on any given spot have been felled, the woods are fired to clear the ground of limbs and refuse with reference to further operations, and, of course, most of the seedlings and saplings are destroyed.

These mill ravages, however, are small as compared with the comprehensive destruction caused by "sheepmen." Incredible numbers of sheep are driven to the mountain pastures every summer, and their course is ever marked by desolation. Every wild garden is trodden down, the shrubs are stripped of leaves as if devoured by locusts, and the woods are burned. Running fires are set everywhere, with a view to clearing the ground of prostrate trunks, to facilitate the movements of the flocks and improve the pastures. The entire forest belt is thus swept and devastated from one extremity of the range to the other, and, with the exception of the resinous Pinus contorta, Sequoia suffers most of all. Indians burn off the underbrush in certain localities to facilitate deer-hunting, mountaineers and lumbermen carelessly allow their camp-fires to run; but the fires of the sheepmen, or muttoneers, form more than ninety per cent. of all destructive fires that range the Sierra forests.

It appears, therefore, that notwithstanding our forest king might live on gloriously in Nature's keeping, it is rapidly vanishing before the fire and steel of man; and unless protective measures be speedily invented and applied, in a few decades, at the farthest, all that will be left of Sequoia gigantea will be a few hacked and scarred monuments.

TWO-LEAVED, OR TAMARACK, PINE (Pinus contorta, var.Marrayana)

This species forms the bulk of the alpine forests, extending along the range, above the fir zone, up to a height of from 8000 to 9500 feet above the sea, growing in beautiful order upon moraines that are scarcely changed as yet by post-glacial weathering. Compared with the giants of the lower zones, this is a small tree, seldom attaining a height of a hundred feet. The largest specimen I ever measured was ninety feet in height, and a little over six in diameter four feet from the ground. The average height of mature trees throughout the entire belt is probably not far from fifty or sixty feet, with a diameter of two feet. It is a well-proportioned, rather handsome little pine, with grayish-brown bark, and crooked, much-divided branches, which cover the greater portion of the trunk, not so densely, however, as to prevent its being seen. The lower limbs curve downward, gradually take a horizontal position about half-way up the trunk, then aspire more and more toward the summit, thus forming a sharp, conical top. The foliage is short and rigid, two leaves in a fascicle, arranged in comparatively long, cylindrical tassels at the ends of the tough, up-curving branchlets. The cones are about two inches long, growing in stiff clusters among the needles, without making any striking effect, except while very young, when they are of a vivid crimson color, and the whole tree appears to be dotted with brilliant flowers. The sterile cones are still more showy, on account of their great abundance, often giving a reddish-yellow tinge to the whole mass of the foliage, and filling the air with pollen.

No other pine on the range is so regularly planted as this one. Moraine forests sweep along the sides of the high, rocky valleys for miles without interruption; still, strictly speaking, they are not dense, for flecks of sunshine and flowers find their way into the darkest places, where the trees grow tallest and thickest. Tall, nutritious grasses are specially abundant beneath them, growing over all the ground, in sunshine and shade, over extensive areas like a farmer's crop, and serving as pasture for the multitude of sheep that are driven from the arid plains every summer as soon as the snow is melted.

The Two-leaved Pine, more than any other, is subject to destruction by fire. The thin bark is streaked and sprinkled with resin, as though it had been showered down upon it like rain, so that even the green trees catch fire readily, and during strong winds whole forests are destroyed, the flames leaping from tree to tree, forming one continuous belt of roaring fire that goes surging and racing onward above the bending woods, like the grass-fires of a prairie. During the calm, dry season of Indian summer, the fire creeps quietly along the ground, feeding on the dry needles and burs; then, arriving at the foot of a tree, the resiny bark is ignited, and the heated air ascends in a powerful current, increasing in velocity, and dragging the flames swiftly upward; then the leaves catch fire, and an immense column of flame, beautifully spired on the edges, and tinted a rose-purple hue, rushes aloft thirty or forty feet above the top of the tree, forming a grand spectacle, especially on a dark night. It lasts, however, only a few seconds, vanishing with magical rapidity, to be succeeded by others along the fire-line at irregular intervals for weeks at a time—tree after tree flashing and darkening, leaving the trunks and branches hardly scarred. The heat, however, is sufficient to kill the trees, and in a few years the bark shrivels and falls off. Belts miles in extent are thus killed and left standing with the branches on, peeled and rigid, appearing gray in the distance, like misty clouds. Later the branches drop off, leaving a forest of bleached spars. At length the roots decay, and the forlorn trunks are blown down during some storm, and piled one upon another encumbering the ground until they are consumed by the next fire, and leave it ready for a fresh crop.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5  6     Next Part
Home - Random Browse