Forests are beautiful, even if you don’t see them come of age

By Jayson Jacoby January 22, 2010 05:27 pm

I went snowshoeing Sunday in the ponderosa pine woods near Phillips Reservoir and managed a brief bout of melancholy despite being surrounded all the while by beauty.

This is one of my skills.

And it is one I would happily trade for any of a whole roster of abilities, among them a decent vertical leap and a mastery of basic carpentry techniques.

It was as I mentioned a fine winter day.

A heavy snow was falling. The flakes were fat and slushy, more like snow in the Cascades than the powdery sort that frequents our mountains. I never got more than a mile and a half from the highway but the snow muffled sounds and the hum of traffic was distant and unimportant.

There was little wind and the temperature was mild for the season, perhaps a degree or two above freezing.

I parked beside the Powder River and climbed a thousand feet to a plateau that plunges off its east flank to California Gulch.

I saw a white-tail deer running across a draw, wending its way between the red-barked pines, its graceful gait so different from the bounds of the mule deer.

The Forest Service thinned the second-growth forests around here about 15 years ago. The silviculturists’ goal is to give the remaining pines plenty of room to stretch their roots.

This seems to me a sound practice, scientifically speaking.

Eventually, the experts say, these woods will look much as they did 150 years ago — a parkland of grass and mature ponderosas, their boles so wide that a couple could sit side-by-side and rest their backs against the bark.

I want very much to see that forest.

I want to stroll through its shade on a soft day in spring when the grass widows are in bloom and the duff still moist with snowmelt.

I want to pry off a slice of sun-warmed bark in summer and smell the unique aroma of cinnamon and vanilla.

But I fear that my life, which is a trifling interval against the span of a healthy pine, will not last so long as to allow me these indulgences.

I’d be flouting the actuarial tables to expect any more than half a century. And I don’t know that that’s enough.

As I crunched along through the ice-crusted snow I thought, and not for the first time, that life would be more joyful if trees grew faster and children more slowly.

I negotiated a gap in the rimrock and got up on the plateau. The snow was deeper there, with no trees to intercept the flakes. The crust would no longer bear my weight and I floundered. It was hard going. The fatigue, combined with my lament about the likelihood that I would never see that magnificent forest of the future, made me angry as well as sad.

Even the snowflakes began to annoy me. Instead of relishing the way they cooled my sweaty cheeks, I focused on the occasional flake that lodged on my neck and trickled a cold drop down my back.

Yet after five minutes or so of this fruitless fuming I came to see how silly it was for me to complain, how childish and how selfish.

Why should I presume to hold the inalienable right to hike through an old forest whenever, and wherever, I choose?

Forests, after all, are subject to the vagaries of time just as all living things are; and a young forest is no less natural, no less right, as it were, than an elderly one.

These days, of course, the age of forests is as much a political matter as a philosophical one. Perhaps more so.

Quite a lot of people contend that a forest in its later years is more desirable than one in its adolescence.

In some ways this is a true, or at least a substantive, statement — certain animals, for instance, thrive in mature forests but shun immature stands.

But it seems to me that some of these same people sacrifice their credibility by insisting that old forests are not merely valuable, but actually irreplaceable.

I don’t doubt that the people who say this believe it’s true.

But what they really mean, I think, even if they don’t realize it, is that a young forest won’t become an old one in time for them to share its peaceful silence.

This is quite a distance from “irreplaceable.”

Still and all, I can empathize with the feeling that compels people to reach such a fallacious conclusion.

That feeling is the very same selfishness that temporarily intruded on my otherwise pleasant snowshoeing trip Sunday.

I don’t expect that I’ll ever silence that particular emotion. But I’m going to strive to muzzle it whenever it tries to spoil a serene day in the woods.

The odds that I’ll still be around at 89 probably favor the house. That I would be able at that age to get around in snowshoes is a considerably dicier proposition.

But about one thing I’m certain.

If I can, in that fantastically futuristic-sounding year of 2060, haul myself up those slopes that rise north of the Powder, I hope I’ll have gained enough wisdom to appreciate the simple and solid goodness of a stand of pines.

A tape measure is a useful tool if you’re putting together a bookshelf. And dendrology is an interesting science.

But neither can tell you what a ponderosa smells like in the afternoon of an August day.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.