Ponderosa Pines

Ponderosa Pines along the Mogollon Rim.


Sometimes, when bearing all the burdens of life becomes overwhelming, I drive north and seek refuge among the pines. People with scientific knowledge give them such names as pinus ponderosa var.scopulorum and pinus strobiformis, but underneath loads of linguistic luggage, they are pine trees.

Ponderosa pines, mostly. Majestic ponderosa pines nourish the land and the souls of those who find solitude among their branches. They grow all over the west, but the area stretching east from near Flagstaff along the Mogollon Rim to the White Mountains contains the largest ponderosa pine forest on the North American continent. 

It’s something we Arizonans brag about, particularly those among us who have spent time in the forests, creating a personal refuge and refreshing ourselves in the solitude, or walked across a bed of fallen needles and listened to the hushed sound it creates. We compare the aroma to a sort of woodsy smell that we can’t actually describe. Kind of like fresh pine bark, even though that’s redundant. 

And the sound of footsteps upon a forest floor is reminiscent of those impressed upon newly fallen snow. But the whisper of a gentle breeze caressing the tree tops can be neither defined nor delineated by the utterings of mortals. Mere words are inadequate. Nothing else smells like a pine forest. Nothing else feels like a pine forest. Nothing else sounds like a pine forest.

The trees themselves do not grow. Not in the common botanical sense. They reach for the sky. They soar to towering heights. They stand well over two hundred feet in some instances if loggers and fires let them achieve their potential. And their lifespans, if allowed, can easily surpass five hundred years - some even longer.

One in Washington was estimated to be 907 years old. One in Idaho measured 69.5 meters tall. That’s almost 275 feet of ponderosa pine shooting skyward. The pines survive in the face of human intervention, lightning, fires, infestations, clear-cutting, housing developments and questionable forest management practices.

With the equipment now available, botanists and arborists can trace the entire history of a tree, from seedling to decomposing hulk. They can study an old tree and tell if there was adequate rainfall or drought during its lifetime. Or if any acid rain fell. Or if anything important happened to it the year Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated for the first time.

All that makes little difference for the rest of us who go to the pine forests to look, sense, and feel like we belong there. And hope nobody else ever comes to violate the sanctity we find among the stately pines.

But eventually, their time as sentinels of the forest will end. We wonder about that. Wonder how anything as big as that tree could die. Lesser things die. Things as big as that tree shouldn’t die. Their size should give them immortality. What force could possibly bring down something so magnificent as a ponderosa pine? Besides axes and chain saws, of course.

Nature, probably.

Nature and old age.

The lifetime of a fallen tree somehow takes on importance. Humans look at it and agree that it is old. Older than any of them, probably older than most of them put together. So, age becomes a topic for discussion, like we’re trying to pay homage to it by debating its duration in the forest.

Was it there when Washington crossed the Delaware? Maybe.

When Lee surrendered at Appomattox? Probably.

When Babe Ruth hit sixty home runs? Most definitely.

In a non-scientific manner, we establish only that the tree is dead and that the probable cause is old age. That settles the issue for most, and it’s incidental, anyway. The only certainty is that the tree stood in the forest for a long time. It grew straight and tall; it provided shade and shelter. And on many days, it was an instrument of the wind that played a melody while drifting through the treetops and haunting those who listened.

For years after its actual death, the giant remained upright, pointing directly to the sky, although stripped of its foliage but always dedicated to its task of directing the eyes of mortals to the firmament.

Then the day comes when the old tree can no longer withstand the forces that govern it, and the vigil ends. Weakened by time and the elements, the tree crashes to the ground. 

Only the forest witnesses the demise, and the forest accepts it without comment. The tree’s needles, discarded over the years, cushion the fall and soften the noise. Since these things happen regularly and play an integral part in a long-established cycle, the actual cause of death may never be studied. The untrained eye will look at a rotted stump and thousands of miniature tunnels crisscrossing beneath the remaining bark fragments and say it was time for the tree to die. Of old age and disease. Or maybe insects. But nothing conclusive, and it makes little difference. A giant has fallen.

For a while, the tree lies in state. Its naked branches turn and twist in a frenzied dance that is a direct contrast to the trunk, which refused to yield to the wind except to sing its song. Gradually, the former titan of the wilderness will dissolve into the earth, returning the elements that made it a woodland entity to the forest floor.

The tree will join others that have fallen and await others that will fall. As their time on earth ends, they will provide life to others. To insects. Toadstools. Seedlings. Soon, in geologic years, another giant of equal stature will take its place. And the forest will remain a place where humanity will have a direct connection to the sky, nature, and the inner self.

— Sam Lowe is a former Valley newspaperman who now writes about his travels across Arizona, the U.S. and the globe.