[Thinking of this piece because of something I wrote that will show up soon at KCET. I wrote this about 20 years ago about a day that happened before even that. It first appeared in Terrain, the now-defunct publication of Berkeley’s Ecology Center, in a Sierra Nevada theme issue. I’ve edited it lightly from its original form as I’ve learned a few things about words in the interim.]
It’s the Third of July, and we’re enjoying the traditional Third of July picnic. The campground, “improved” by the Forest Service so you can back your 34-foot RV right into your wilderness campsite, is surprisingly uncrowded. Maybe it’s the mile of washboard between here and 395, easy to drive but with a chilling effect on the pilots of $90,000 campers like those lined up outside Mammoth Lakes. Or maybe it’s the name of the campground, commemorating some forgotten 19th-Century miner double-crossed by his business partner. Whatever the reason this place is nearly abandoned, we’re glad to have it mostly to ourselves. We’re not looking this gift horse in the mouth.
Zeke, tied with my bearbag rope to one of the abundant Jeffrey pines, loudly regrets that he’s just out of reach of the barbecue. Becky tosses him a piece of watermelon rind, which he devours with gusto. Every few minutes he spies a chipmunk testing the borders of our territory and he forgets the rope is there, lunging for the critter. He reaches the end of the rope, and a loud twang like the E string on Paul Bunyan’s pedal steel fills the quiet air as he flips backward. He doesn’t seem to mind much, and is on his feet and wagging his tail before the dust settles. Matthew tosses yet another piece of melon. A fragment breaks off in midair, landing a few feet out of the dog’s reach. A chipmunk spies it and grabs her windfall snack. Twang.
Though it’s a beautiful day, and we’re nearly alone here, I’m not in the best of moods. Tomorrow Matthew and I leave for a week of backpacking along the John Muir Trail. Perverse beast that I am, I dwell not on the wonders in store for us along the route, but rather on how much I’ll miss Becky while we’re gone. I’ll be out of touch for a week, there are very few phones in the high country, and anything could happen while I’m gone. What if a meteor hits Oakland? Matthew is amused but tolerant of my sentimental foolishness, and quietly makes himself scarce as Becky unties Zeke and we stroll up the pumice slope into the forest.
This is the largest Jeffrey pine forest in the world, stretching from near the Nevada line to just below the crest of the Sierra, from Long Valley to the shores of Mono Lake. It lies leeward of one of the lowest parts of the Sierra crest, the environs of Mammoth Mountain. While the tall peaks elsewhere in the Sierra catch most of the moisture blowing off the Pacific, here wet winds are funneled through the range to dampen the excellently-drained pumice soils. Though the humidity is similar to that of the west slope, the temperatures resemble that of Bishop or Reno. The result is an ideal nursery for Jeffrey pine. It’s no accident that the largest ski resort in the Eastern Sierra is nearby. The moisture that quenches Jeffrey’s thirst falls partly as fat white flakes. Mammoth gets more snow than most other places on the East Side. It is this convergence of soil and weather that makes the forest possible, here in the rainshadow of the Sierra.
Place a huge, healthy old-growth forest in a region of plains and low hills with mining and ranching nearby, and you find some of the trees will disappear, made into fenceposts, houses, flumes, and charcoal for smelters. Run a railroad and then an all-weather highway through the woods, and the timber companies show up to send the trees to exotic locales like Los Angeles. The forest here has been logged and logged again, enough that it’s likely the collapse of the old-growth ecosystem here cannot be prevented. It may have already collapsed, for all we know; ecological axioms that hold true in forests of the Pacific Slope may not hold for East Side forests. Where the ecology of the Redwood Forest is abundantly researched, from marbled murrelet above to mycorrhizae below, most of what we know about the East Side is how to grow a nice straight Jeffrey Pine. We know what birds you can find here, but we don’t know whether they depend on being here.
Unfortunately for this forest Timber Harvest Plans make no provision for untested ecological hypotheses. The burden of proof is on the forest dwellers; if they can’t prove sufficient harm, they get evicted. And so the logging continues to this day, carving the heart out of this queen of the Jeffrey Pine forests.
The trees here, though, are as yet unmolested, and they give welcome shade as we follow Deadman Creek, a fork of the Owens River, upstream. The banks are lined with wild rose and an incongruous hedge of Artemisia tridentata, Big Basin sagebrush, which I’ve never before seen near fresh water. The creek is narrow — Zeke can easily put two feet on either side — but the water is filled with 8-inch rainbow trout. We’re without tackle, so my thoughts of fish steamed in bitter Artemisia go unrealized. The fish are hatchery stock, planted in season by the Department of Fish and Game. The DF&G truck plops thousands of fish into the creek here each year. Being hatchery trout, they’re much stupider than wild trout, and all of them tend to stay pretty much where they’re planted. Of course, even stupid trout are smart compared to fish in general; while catching these guys may be, literally, a picnic, it isn’t exactly easy.
There is some evidence of tree-cutting here, though it may be due only to the efforts of campfire-builders. Becky runs to a four-foot-wide Jeff pine, sticking her nose between the plates of bark, and savors the vanilla smell of the tree’s resins: her favorite East Side pastime. Zeke finds a baseball-bat sized branch and worries it, tossing it in the air, raising a big cloud of pumice dust. His coyote-colored fur makes him look like he belongs here. I lean against a downed tree and gaze toward the crest, at the line where the grey-green of Jeffrey pine gives way to the darker shade of red fir. If I were one of the fish in Deadman Creek, I’d forsake my fellow hatchery graduates and swim upstream to the Owens River headwaters. There, under the protective gaze of Two Teats and San Joaquin Peak I’d eat the small, drab fir seed moths as they emerge from the red fir cones and flutter onto the dark cool forest waters. Let the other fish fall for Velveeta and Power Bait.
That red fir forest, in the San Joaquin Roadless area, is little-traveled considering its location. Next to Reno-Tahoe, this is the most crowded spot on the East Slope, but people tend to stick to the roads and well-known trails. The red firs are seen mostly by chickarees, also known as Douglas squirrels, who eat the scales of the cones and heap sciurid calumny on the few passersby. There are pine martens there too. They feed on the more unwary portion of the chickaree population. Porcupines eat the bark of the few western white pines scattered through the forest. Fishers eat the porcupines. Until recently, only a few humans have hiked off-trail into the forest. The approach is too steep for logging trucks, and red fir isn’t the most valuable of timber. Campers tend to avoid red fir forests too. Red firs are prone to branch dieback, and dead branches will plummet to earth at the slightest wind. I’ve seen the falling branches described both as “windowmakers” and as “widowmakers”, depending, I guess, on whether or not one sleeps in a tent.
Lately, though, more humans have been visiting. The local Sierra Club chapter has led groups of hikers into the Roadless Area, so that people can gain a more intimate knowledge of this special place. Surveyors have been here, too, plotting the layout of a proposed Alpine ski resort, which is why the Sierra Club has become interested in publicizing the charms of the area in its pristine state. The resort, with its roads, clear-cut runs, garbage, and loud groups of skiers, would disrupt the forest and disturb the reclusive furbearing animals. But local environmentalists are hampered by the reluctance of their West Side counterparts to notice the problem. It’s as if activists in the Golden Gate drainage had arbitrarily decided that Tuolumne Meadows lay on the edge of the world. Drop down behind the “Sierra Curtain” and you cease to exist.
Night falls; it’s time to plan for our strenuous day tomorrow. There are sleeping bags to fluff, water to drink, carbos to load. Coyotes yip from the Inyo Craters a mile to the south; Zeke bristles and stares into the blackness. Matthew tends the fire, which reflects in Becky’s dark eyes. The excitement of the pending hike builds in me. After a century of abuse the World’s Largest Stand of Jeffrey Pines is still a beautiful place.