Friday, January 7, 2011

Pinus Ponderosa

            Every kid climbs trees. My favorite place to read was in the cradling arm of a live oak in our front yard. Eventually, my dad took me into the yard and showed me the crack in her bark where the arm was beginning to show the signs of her age and mine. I would sneak back into her embrace sometimes when no one was around, but it seemed my tree climbing days were numbered; we were both too old. At the age of 17, I picked up John Muir’s “My First Summer in the Sierra,” in which he recounts an exhilarating experience riding out a storm at the top of a tree. Among the many things Muir reminds us all of, the ability, and more importantly, the worth, of climbing a tree as an adult is one that often gets passed over. I had dismissed the desire to climb trees as overly nostalgic, and rather impractical in my early teens. After reading Muir, I decided that I should no longer ignore those impulses. It has taken a few years, but today I finally climbed a beautiful Ponderosa Pine, on the edge of one Wolf Mountain. 

            Wolf Mountain looks East to the snowy Sierra along I-80, South through the rolling foothills of the Mother Lode, and West  across the Great Central Valley to the Coast Mountains. The mountain reveals a more unique view today, with the Coast Ranges rising subtly above the ocean of fog consuming the whole valley. The Sutter Buttes erupt to the North-West, lonely and abrupt figures in a vast expanse of gentle waves and ripples. The waves of fog break and flow around the foothill mountains, creeping up canyons and reaching over the mountain saddles.

             I did not climb the tree for the view; the rocky outcrops mountainside offered much better views. It was from atop one of these rocky outcrops, leaning contentedly against the perfect rocky chair, worn by years of erosion, that I first saw the stout pine. I immediately noticed its branches reaching out only inches above the ground. I attributed it to the winds it experienced on such an exposed South West facing slope, and continued to take in the view. Lively conversation and the songs of frogs in the pond below carried on for nearly half an hour before I exclaimed “I’m such an idiot,” and hurried off to the base of aforementioned tree. I had noticed the low branches but not made the connection. Most tall conifers with branches sturdy enough to support a person’s weight lack branches low enough for a meager 5’4” girl to reach. Now, I barely had to lift my foot and I was in the tree’s lowest branches. I ascended slowly, breaking off the small dead branches cluttering the first 10 feet of the climb. As I got closer to the top, the bark grew as fresh layers with sharp tips. I reached the forked top and, though there was still another 8 to 10 feet of tree above me, I could go no further. I could feel it sway from my weight, and felt the butterflies stir. The wind barely swept the hair from my face, and I tried to imagine clinging to the tree’s spine in a storm. If I find so perfect a climbing tree during a storm, I shall have to climb it, for the sheer odds of finding myself in such a situation. I descended the tree and lamented the bits of bark broken off by my shoes. Looking down, I realized that the real danger of tree climbing is not so much the risk of falling, but the very real chances of impaling oneself on the small, hard branches jutting at awkward angles that make them practically invisible to even the most aware climber. She delivered me safely from her branches.

            Though there is no longer any American “frontier, the John Muir’s of my generation are still out discovering wildernesses. Our Wildernesses are the spaces between the backcountry roads, or the community garden and park at the top of some small hill in San Francisco. We seek out oases of nature in our otherwise developed lands. Living in the foothills is a tease. The beauty is all around us, but it is being consumed by the sprawl. The rolling hills are topped by less than modest ranches, or worse, subdivisions. The open fields are eaten by cattle and fenced off with no trespassing signs and barbed wire. Private ownership has made a simple walk in the woods a scavenger hunt. Where can I go to enjoy the trees and sunshine, where I don’t have to stay on a trail, without having to drive for miles and miles? Our wild places exist where people can’t live year round. So in January, when the Sierra are covered in snow and even a cloudless sunny day can be frigid, I have trouble finding a place to go for a sunny, warm walk in the woods. 

            The foothills in winter lack the colors of spring, but in the soft January light, nothing is so satisfying as the simple green hills, red dirt, and blue skies.  To enjoy them from our spot atop Wolf Mountain, we have to park by the radio tower, ignore freshly placed No Trespassing signs, and cower behind rocks as a strange man in a golf cart parks at a plateau on the mountain below us, and seemingly does nothing but look up at the rock we’re hiding behind. I woke this morning to more winter sun and decided all I wanted to accomplish today was to climb to the top of a mountain and play in the sun. Sure, I was able to drive to the top, and had to “trespass” just to see the sun, but I adapted. Despite the pressures of a growing population, I succeeded. 

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