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Granite Crags (1884) by Constance Gordon-Cumming



It strikes me that, while I have told you a good deal about Sequoias, I have never said a word about all the other noble and beautiful pines, firs, spruces, and cedars which compose nineteen-twentieths of these glorious forests, and which, each by turn, so fascinate me, that I never can decide which is most majestic.

They were beautiful in the early spring, when tipped with light-green shoots; and some, such as the Silver Spruce, were powdered over with a bluish bloom. But they are more beautiful now, when bending beneath the weight of their wealth of ripening cones,—of all sizes, from the little round cedar-cone to the splendid cone of the sugar-pine.1

[1Pinus Lambertiana.]

The stately Sugar-Pine, true queen of the Sierras! Whatever claims to masculine grandeur any other trees may possess, she at least stands unrivalled in grace and loveliness. I never see one of these tall, smooth, tapering shafts,—reaching up to the blue heaven, and thence outstretching its crown of long, slender branches—clothed in tender green, and expanding in faultless symmetrical curves,—without receiving the same sort of impression as (alas, how rarely!) is derived from the presence of a gracious and lovely woman.

Even the youngest sugar-pines are things of beauty—fair daughters of a noble house—and full of the promise of ever-increasing loveliness, when (after a strictly well-regulated youth of some sixty years, during which they adhere to the conventional forms of graceful, lady-like young sugar-pines) they may begin to strike out an independent line of their own, and in the course of three or four hundred years, when they have attained a height of about two hundred feet, and a girth of from eighteen to twenty feet, may boldly venture to throw out free irregular branches forty or fifty feet in length, sweeping in most graceful curves, and rarely dividing into secondary boughs unless just at the extreme tip, where perhaps a delicate branchlet may diverge from the main arm.

Each branch is fringed with tassels of long fine needles; and from the tips of these slender pensile boughs hang the most beautiful cones that exist in the whole pine kingdom,—cones which are rarely less than fifteen, and often grow to eighteen inches in length, averaging nine inches in circumference. They act as weights to draw down the tips of the branches.

As the cones attain maturity, their delicate green changes to a rich purply hue, and then to a golden brown, which becomes yellowish as the opening scales reveal their inner sides; and long after the wingëd seeds have flown from their snug niches in the core, these rich golden cones still cling to the boughs, and mingle their mellow colouring with the green crop of the following year. But the sweet sunlit grass is all strewn with the great yellow cones which in former years have dropped to the ground, but seem in no hurry to decay.

They ripen in September, when the seeds are carefully collected by men, who have found them to be a profitable article of trade, for the pine-growers of distant lands. But the pine-growers of Britain are unable to supply the altitude most dear to the sugar-pine, ranging from 3000 to 7000 feet; and moreover, many a generation will come and go ere artificially reared trees can hope to approach the natural beauty of these free children of the mountains, some of which (with a circumference of about thirty-five feet) are supposed to have already braved six hundred winters, yet show no symptom of decay, nor any reason why they should not survive six hundred more, if only they can escape the ruthless saw of the lumberer, or the still more cruel axe of the shingle-splitter.

Unfortunately, the wood splits so readily that it finds especial favour with these men, to whom a tree represents only so many cubic feet of timber; and so the loveliest creation of nature are hewn down, solely to be reduced to shingles for building and roofing the most abject of huts. But where this sad fate has been averted, the majestic tree still reigns supreme,—a queen without a rival.

Its warm brown stem is generally studded with golden lichen, which also hangs in long beard-like fringes from every bough. And not only do the pine-needles fill the air with resiny fragrance, but the wood itself has a pleasant smell,—chiefly perceptible, alas! when the wood-cutter has sealed its doom.

The generous tree not only perfumes the clothes of the destroyer, but also gives him delicious white sugar, which, by many persons, is preferred to that of the sugar-maple. Wherever the tree is wounded, either by fire or axe, there the sweet sap exudes, like the gum on our own cherry-trees. Though naturally white, it so often flows from a wound charred by fire, that it is apt to assume a rich golden colour, like barley-sugar. Though pleasant to the taste, it cannot be eaten with impunity by all persons, being somewhat medicinal in its effects. It is curious that the bears, which have so keen a talent for scenting out honey and other sweet things, seem to avoid this natural sugar by instinct, and are never known to touch it; but it is said to be useful as a cough-lozenge, and a remedy in lung disease.

Next in beauty to the sugar-pine, I think I must rank the Williamson Spruce.1 Indeed, Mr John Muir, whose loving reverence for the Sierras, and intimate acquaintance with every tree that grows here, entitles him to a strong vote, gives it the place of honour above all others. He considers it more delicate in its beauty and more enduring in its strength than any of its graceful kindred—in short, he declares it to be the very loveliest tree in the forests.

[1Abies Williamsonii.]

It is not so luxuriant in growth as many others—rarely, if ever, exceeding a hundred feet in height, and from four to five feet in diameter. Yet while it possesses all the elegance and delicate curves of the sugar-pine, it has strength to withstand the rudest storms, and grows best on frosty northern slopes, at an altitude of 6000 to 8000 feet, where the snow lies so deep in winter as altogether to bury it. For so gently does this yielding tree droop beneath the gradually increasing weight of snow, that not only the boughs, but even the slender main stem bends like a reed, till it forms a perfect arch; and as the snow falls deeper and deeper, the whole grove is literally buried—not an indication of a tree-top is to be seen.

Thus sheltered from the wintry blasts, this graceful spruce lies hidden till the return of warm spring melts the frozen snows, and the long-prisoned boughs, elastic as before, spring back to their accustomed position, and the beautiful tree reappears as fresh and green as ever, having thus survived the long winter without the loss of one slender branchlet or one drooping cone. Its cones are small, not more than two inches in length, and of a purple colour.

Large groves of the Williamsonii are found on all the higher ranges, and Mr Muir tells of lovely groups which have rejoiced him while exploring the sources of the main streams of the Sierras—the Merced, the San Joaquin, and the Tuolumne rivers.

Very beautiful, too, is the Douglas Spruce,1 which, like the sugar-pine, attains a height of 200 feet, and a circumference of from 20 to 25 feet. It looked its best in the early summer, when each spray was edged with a fringe of lovely fresh yellow-green needles, seeming as if the sunlight were flickering among its branches. There are some beautiful specimens of this spruce in the Yō-semité.

[1Abies Douglasii.]

Two of the loveliest trees of the Sierras are those silver firs which botanists distinguish as the “Lovely” and the “Grand,”2 but which, to the Californians, are simply Red Fir and White Fir, from the general colouring of their stem. Both species grow to a height of about 200 feet, in tall, beautifully tapering spires. Some even overtop their fellows by an additional 40 or 50 feet, and the stems attain to a circumference of from 15 to 20 feet. The white fir bears greyish cones about four inches in length, which it carries upright; whereas those of the red fir are of a bronzed-purple tint. They are about six inches in length, and adorn the upper and under side of the boughs with equal impartiality.

[2Picea amabilis and Picea grandis.]

The average lifetime of these noble trees is estimated at from two hundred to two hundred and fifty years. Wherever they find a desirable situation and suitable soil on ancient moraines, there they flourish, forming lovely groves even at a height of 7000 or 8000 feet above the sea.

These, however, are but as it were children among the trees of the Sierras, some of which, such as the Mountain Pine,1 weather a thousand years, and attain their greatest perfection at an elevation of 10,000 feet. More beautiful, and quite as hardy as the mountain pine, is the Yellow Pine, which is also called the Silver Pine,2 and which is the Mark Tapley of the Sierras. No matter how bare the rock-ledge, or how unsheltered the spot, on the bleakest crags, 8000 feet above the sea, it contrives to exist, and rears a brave evergreen head: though dwarfed and stunted, it is always eminently picturesque, throwing out gnarled and twisted boughs. Through long centuries these much-enduring trees have done ceaseless battle with adverse circumstances, struggling with the ungenial rock for a niggardly subsistence, and battered by the winds and tempests.

[1Pinus monticolo.]

[2Pinus ponderosa.]

But while bravely making the best of difficulties, no tree more fully appreciates the good things of life, as shown by its luxuriant growth when living a cheery family life with its brethren in the forests, on good nutritious soil, and in an equable climate. Under these favourable circumstances it becomes almost as majestic as the Williamsonii or the Lambertiana. It covers a very large range of elevation, extending over plains considerably less than 2000 feet above the sea; but its favourite homes are in such sheltered valleys as the Yō-semité, where it is seen in perfection.

It receives its name of silver pine because of the silvery gleam of its glossy needles, on which the sunbeams play in ten thousand shimmering points of light. Yet the name of yellow pine is more truly descriptive of the tree, whose needles are actually of a warm golden green, and its bark a reddish yellow. The latter is several inches thick, and is laid on in scales like armour. It is generally pierced by innumerable holes, drilled by the diligent woodpecker as store-houses for his winter supply of acorns. Its purplish-green cones are about four inches long, and grow in clusters among tassels of long, firm needles, each six or eight inches in length.

A full-grown Yellow Pine averages 200 feet in height and 18 in circumference, occasionally attaining to 25 feet in girth. It shoots heavenward as straight as a mast, and is, alas! greatly prized by the lumberers. Wherever a yellow pine stands alone on good soil, and with room to expand, its boughs feather down to the ground most gracefully; but, in general, the lower part of the stem is bare, and only the upper half forms a green spire.

One marked difference between this beautiful tree and the lovely Sugar-Pine is, that whereas the graceful branches of the latter sweep in undivided lines for thirty or forty feet, each bough of the yellow pine is divided and subdivided over and over again, forming a bushy tree.

To me the most uninteresting tree of the forest is the Tamarack Pine,1 sometimes called the two-leaved pine, from the peculiar growth of its needles, which are set in long tassels, bearing clusters of small cones, which in the spring-time are of a rich crimson hue—an ornamental feature, which, however, does not compensate for the sparseness of the foliage. It is a small pine compared with its neighbours, full-grown trees averaging fifty feet in height, and seven feet in circumference. Each tree is a slim, tapering spire, and a large grove affords little or no variety of form; only where the trees grow close together in sheltered hollows, they assume an exceedingly slender character.

[1Pinus contorta.]

The Tamarack overspreads large districts in the higher ranges, flourishing at a height of 9000 feet. Its presence appears to be favourable to the growth of succulent grasses, and the tamarack groves are dear to the shepherd, who therein finds the sweetest pastures for his flocks. They have the disadvantage, however, of being exceedingly liable to be swept by forest-fires, owing to the large quantity of resin which drips all over the bark; so that when, in the seasons of drought, a chance spark falls among the sun-dried cones and needles, and so runs along the ground to the foot of one of these resin-sprinkled trees, it straightway ignites, and in a moment the column of flame rushes up, only pausing, however, to consume the sap. For a few short seconds the beautiful pyramid of rose-tinted flame envelops the tree, then fades away, and passes on to enfold another and yet another in its deadly embrace; for though the fire runs on so swiftly that the trees are scarcely charred and not a twig burnt, they die all the same, and after a while their bark peels off, and the poor naked, bleached trees remain standing intact,—a weird, ghostly forest. In course of years the boughs drop off, and wind and storm gradually complete the work of destruction.

More provident with regard to fires is the little Hickory Pine,1 so called by the miners on account of the hardness and white colour of its wood. It is only found in certain localities on the lower hills, at an elevation of less than 3000 feet. It is a graceful little tree, rarely exceeding forty feet in height and one foot in diameter. Its branches are curved and slender, and its grey needles grow so sparsely as to cast little shadow.

[1Pinus tuberculata.]

Its peculiarity lies in the fact that its hard, glossy cones—or burs, as they are here called—grow in circles right up the main trunk and along the principal branches, instead of clustering on the lesser boughs. Stranger still is the fact that these cones never drop off till the tree dies, but adhere to the parent stem, accumulating an ever-increasing store of ripe seed.

Consequently, no young trees are ever found near a flourishing grove. Mr John Muir, who is an excellent authority on all these matters, has observed that wherever this strange pine exists, all the trees in a grove are of the same age, which he attributes to the fact that, as they invariably grow on dry hillsides clothed with inflammable scrub, which is liable to be swept by fire, the groves are periodically burnt, and with them all the cones borne by these trees throughout the whole course of their existence. Multitudes of these are merely charred, and the action of heat only bursts the hard scales, and leaves the seed free to sprout so soon as the ground cools and the rains moisten the soil. Thus, phoenix-like, a new forest springs into being so soon as the parent trees have been consumed.

These are some of the principal trees in the forests of the Sierras. I have spoken of others in writing from Yō-semité.1

[1In chapter iv. I had occasion to refer to the incense-cedar, Libocedrus decurrens; in chapter vii. to the nut-bearing pines, Pinus Sabiniana and Pinus Fremontiana; and in chapter ix. to Pinus Jeffreyi, Pinus Douglasii, and Juniperus occidentalis.]

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Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management