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[woodcut of John Muir] John Muir Writings

Steep Trails, by John Muir (1918)

Chapter 13
Nevada Forests 17

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When the traveler from California has crossed the Sierra and gone a little way down the eastern flank, the woods come to an end about as suddenly and completely as if, going westward, he had reached the ocean. From the very noblest forests in the world he emerges into free sunshine and dead alkaline lake-levels. Mountains are seen beyond, rising in bewildering abundance, range beyond range. But however closely we have been accustomed to associate forests and mountains, these always present a singularly barren aspect, appearing gray and forbidding and shadeless, like heaps of ashes dumped from the blazing sky.

But wheresoever we may venture to go in all this good world, nature is ever found richer and more beautiful than she seems, and nowhere may you meet with more varied and delightful surprises than in the byways and recesses of this sublime wilderness — lovely asters and abronias on the dusty plains, rose-gardens around the mountain wells, and resiny woods, where all seemed so desolate, adorning the hot foothills as well as the cool summits, fed by cordial and benevolent storms of rain and hail and snow; all of these scant and rare as compared with the immeasurable exuberance of California, but still amply sufficient throughout the barest deserts for a clear manifestation of God’s love.

Though Nevada is situated in what is called the “Great Basin,” no less than sixty-five groups and chains of mountains rise within the bounds of the State to a height of about from eight thousand to thirteen thousand feet above the level of the sea, and as far as I have observed, every one of these is planted, to some extent, with coniferous trees, though it is only upon the highest that we find anything that may fairly be called a forest. The lower ranges and the foothills and slopes of the higher are roughened with small scrubby junipers and nut pines, while the dominating peaks, together with the ridges that swing in grand curves between them, are covered with a closer and more erect growth of pine, spruce, and fir, resembling the forests of the Eastern States both as to size and general botanical characteristics. Here is found what is called the heavy timber, but the tallest and most fully developed sections of the forests, growing down in sheltered hollows on moist moraines, would be regarded in California only as groves of saplings, and so, relatively, they are, for by careful calculation we find that more than a thousand of these trees would be required to furnish as much timber as may be obtained from a single specimen of our Sierra giants.

The height of the timberline in eastern Nevada, near the middle of the Great Basin, is about eleven thousand feet above sea level; consequently the forests, in a dwarfed, storm-beaten condition, pass over the summits of nearly every range in the State, broken here and there only by mechanical conditions of the surface rocks. Only three mountains in the State have as yet come under my observation whose summits rise distinctly above the treeline. These are Wheeler’s Peak, twelve thousand three hundred feet high, Mount Moriah, about twelve thousand feet, and Granite Mountain, about the same height, all of which are situated near the boundary line between Nevada and Utah Territory.

In a rambling mountaineering journey of eighteen hundred miles across the state, I have met nine species of coniferous trees, — four pines, two spruces, two junipers, and one fir, — about one third the number found in California. By far the most abundant and interesting of these is the Pinus Fremontiana 18 , or nut pine. In the number of individual trees and extent of range this curious little conifer surpasses all the others combined. Nearly every mountain in the State is planted with it from near the base to a height of from eight thousand to nine thousand feet above the sea. Some are covered from base to summit by this one species, with only a sparse growth of juniper on the lower slopes to break the continuity of these curious woods, which, though dark-looking at a little distance, are yet almost shadeless, and without any hint of the dark glens and hollows so characteristic of other pine woods. Tens of thousands of acres occur in one continuous belt. Indeed, viewed comprehensively, the entire State seems to be pretty evenly divided into mountain ranges covered with nut pines and plains covered with sage — now a swath of pines stretching from north to south, now a swath of sage; the one black, the other gray; one severely level, the other sweeping on complacently over ridge and valley and lofty crowning dome.

The real character of a forest of this sort would never be guessed by the inexperienced observer. Traveling across the sage levels in the dazzling sunlight, you gaze with shaded eyes at the mountains rising along their edges, perhaps twenty miles away, but no invitation that is at all likely to be understood is discernible. Every mountain, however high it swells into the sky, seem utterly barren. Approaching nearer, a low brushy growth is seen, strangely black in aspect, as though it had been burned. This is a nut pine forest, the bountiful orchard of the red man. When you ascend into its midst you find the ground beneath the trees, and in the openings also, nearly naked, and mostly rough on the surface — a succession of crumbling ledges of lava, limestones, slate, and quartzite, coarsely strewn with soil weathered from the. Here and there occurs a bunch of sage or linosyris, or a purple aster, or a tuft of dry bunch-grass.

The harshest mountainsides, hot and waterless, seem best adapted to the nut pine’s development. No slope is too steep, none too dry; every situation seems to be gratefully chosen, if only it be sufficiently rocky and firm to afford secure anchorage for the tough, grasping roots. It is a sturdy, thickset little tree, usually about fifteen feet high when full grown, and about as broad as high, holding its knotty branches well out in every direction in stiff zigzags, but turning them gracefully upward at the ends in rounded bosses. Though making so dark a mass in the distance, the foliage is a pale grayish green, in stiff, awl-shaped fascicles. When examined closely these round needles seem inclined to be two-leaved, but they are mostly held firmly together, as if to guard against evaporation. The bark on the older sections is nearly black, so that the boles and branches are clearly traced against the prevailing gray of the mountains on which they delight to dwell.

The value of this species to Nevada is not easily overestimated. It furnishes fuel, charcoal, and timber for the mines, and, together with the enduring juniper, so generally associated with it, supplies the ranches with abundance of firewood and rough fencing. Many a square mile has already been denuded in supplying these demands, but, so great is the area covered by it, no appreciable loss has as yet been sustained. It is pretty generally known that this tree yields edible nuts, but their importance and excellence as human food is infinitely greater than is supposed. In fruitful seasons like this one, the pine nut crop of Nevada is, perhaps, greater than the entire wheat crop of California, concerning which so much is said and felt throughout the food markets of the world.

The Indians alone appreciate this portion of Nature’s bounty and celebrate the harvest home with dancing and feasting. The cones, which are a bright grass-green in color and about two inches long by one and a half in diameter, are beaten off with poles just before the scales open, gathered in heaps of several bushels, and lightly scorched by burning a thin covering of brushwood over them. The resin, with which the cones are bedraggled, is thus burned off, the nuts slightly roasted, and the scales made to open. Then they are allowed to dry in the sun, after which the nuts are easily thrashed out and are ready to be stored away. They are about half an inch long by a quarter of an inch in diameter, pointed at the upper end, rounded at the base, light brown in general color, and handsomely dotted with purple, like birds’ eggs. The shells are thin, and may be crushed between the thumb and finger. The kernels are white and waxy-looking, becoming brown by roasting, sweet and delicious to every palate, and are eaten by birds, squirrels, dogs, horses, and man. When the crop is abundant the Indians bring in large quantities for sale; they are eaten around every fireside in the State, and oftentimes fed to horses instead of barley.

Looking over the whole continent, none of Nature’s bounties seems to me so great as this in the way of food, none so little appreciated. Fortunately for the Indians and wild animals that gather around Nature’s board, this crop is not easily harvested in a monopolizing way. If it could be gathered like wheat the whole would be carried away and dissipated in towns, leaving the brave inhabitants of these wilds to starve.

Long before the harvest time, which is in September and October, the Indians examine the trees with keen discernment, and inasmuch as the cones require two years to mature from the first appearance of the little red rosettes of the fertile flowers, the scarcity or abundance of the crop may be predicted more than a year in advance. Squirrels, and worms, and Clarke crows, make haste to begin the harvest. When the crop is ripe the Indians make ready their long beating-poles; baskets, bags, rags, mats, are gotten together. The squaws out among the settlers at service, washing and drudging, assemble at the family huts; the men leave their ranch work; all, old and young, are mounted on ponies, and set off in great glee to the nut lands, forming cavalcades curiously picturesque. Flaming scarfs and calico skirts stream loosely over the knotty ponies, usually two squaws astride of each, with the small baby midgets bandaged in baskets slung on their backs, or balanced upon the saddle-bow, while the nut baskets and water jars project from either side, and the long beating-poles, like old-fashioned lances, angle out in every direction.

Arrived at some central point already fixed upon, where water and grass is found, the squaws with baskets, the men with poles, ascend the ridges to the laden trees, followed by the children; beating begins with loud noise and chatter; the burs fly right and left, lodging against stones and sagebrush; the squaws and children gather them with fine natural gladness; smoke columns speedily mark the joyful scene of their labors as the roasting fires are kindled; and, at night, assembled in circles, garrulous as jays, the first grand nut feast begins. Sufficient quantities are thus obtained in a few weeks to last all winter.

The Indians also gather several species of berries and dry them to vary their stores, and a few deer and grouse are killed on the mountains, besides immense numbers of rabbits and hares; but the pine-nuts are their main dependence — their staff of life, their bread.

Insects also, scarce noticed by man, come in for their share of this fine bounty. Eggs are deposited, and the baby grubs, happy fellows, find themselves in a sweet world of plenty, feeding their way through the heart of the cone from one nut chamber to another, secure from rain and wind and heat, until their wings are grown and they are ready to launch out into the free ocean of air and light.

[Back to chapter 12]   •   [Forward to chapter 14]   •   [Contents]
Steep Trails

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