While the Fourmile Fire was still burning, I started hunting through my photos. The fire was advancing toward—maybe had already passed through—Bald Mountain. Where were my photos of the ancient tree on its western slope? Just the day before the fire started (September 5), I’d hiked to the tree, feeling its smooth-rough bark and sniffing its aroma of butterscotch.
The ponderosa pine was old—eight hundred years old, said one naturalist. If true, the tree was a sapling while across the state the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde were being built by Ancestral Puebloans, and across the ocean Francis of Assissi was wandering the hills of Umbria.
What wisdom accumulates in the tissues of a tree that old? I felt awe every time I stopped next to its sturdy thick trunk, its craggy branches twisted this way and that through centuries of wind and fire.
Flexibility. Bending to wind. Sending roots deep. And of course its own ancestral wisdom, buried deep in what modern humans call its genetic code: the ponderosa pine’s ability to withstand fire.
A ponderosa forest, left to itself, works like this: young trees sprout, too thickly for the forest to sustain over time. Some need to be weeded out. Along comes fire every dozen years or so—fires of low intensity because the brush on the ground has accumulated for only a few years. The fires stimulate new plant and wildflower growth, taking out the trees too young to protect themselves and sending their nutrients, by way of more nitrogen in the soil, to the older, more established trees.
When fire passes through, the old trees know just what to do. Their bark is thick, insulating their delicate, juice-transporting inner cambium from the wildfire’s fierce heat. So they stand like torches while fire races up their trunks and devours their needles in a crackling blaze of fireworks. There is some evidence that even high-intensity fires do not harm the older trees. After being blackened by fire, their shells come to life again, sprouting new green needles along roasted limbs.
Which is why, when I hiked up to Bald Mountain last week, a month after the Fourmile Fire, I was shocked to see the old tree sawed to the ground.
That tree (as well as several others in the immediate area) was cut down by our forestry crew because it posed a threat to trail users since it was only a few feet away from the trail.
It is a policy of course I disagree with—a litigious society turning our public officials overprotective because a few people, through lawsuits, can hold others responsible for their own dubious choices. Besides, the tree was felled with its trunk toward the trail, and enormous as that trunk was, it still did not reach the trail.
While I am gazing at the sawed-off tree, I can’t escape the feeling that it is the chainsaw, not the fire, that killed it.
As far as I know, immediately after a fire there are no clear signs that a ponderosa is truly dead. Only time can finish that story. But time was not allowed to pass. We ended the tree’s reign, likely before the tree itself chose to do so.
And here’s the odd thing: in the presence of the tree, I find it impossible to feel sad.
I wander among its charred ruins snapping photos. In its center, some other lover of its life has already left an offering of white flowers:
Yes, the heart of the tree was gone. But this, I learn with a bit of reading, is not unusual for old ponderosas. Scarred innumerable times by fire, they form arches at the bases of their trunks where the bark has grown around burned cambium. As far back as the 1940s foresters were calling these “cat faces.”
The tree’s twisted limbs form fantastic shapes, as gnarled in death as they were in life:
And still its bark is stunning—blackened now but charged with a metallic sheen, like the most highly prized blackware pottery of the Southwest:
Up close, I see that the bark damage is only superficial. Even the outer layers are intact, their unique ponderosa patterns still perfectly etched upon the surface:
The fire on this side of the hill was intense. And yet the damage to the bark was minimal. I am amazed at this tree’s resilience. What a blazing torch it must have presented to the sky as the fire passed through!
I can’t stop gazing at the downed tree. Here, a play of light and dark along a burned-out limb:
Or is the denial stage itself something more than just denial—some certainty, born in our own resilient cells, that life continues into life, that nothing living is ever truly lost?
Of course the certainty does not last, and later the crying catches up with me, deep heaving sobs—
For the loss of this tree, for the current of life that flowed up its trunk, a current palpable to the touch.
For the act of the crew that cut it down, a tree story ended probably before its time.
For the mounds of ash just down the hill from this tree, each mound once a house sheltering generations of stories.
For my friend whose lifetime of keepsakes is now one of those ashen mounds.
For the sound of the helicopter tankers during the fire, whose hammering was so loud over my neighborhood—next to the life-giving lake—that every time one passed overhead, every ten minutes, the birds scattered in fright, the dogs cowered, and the houses quivered on their foundations.
For how strong and fragile and beautiful this tree’s life was. And all our lives are.
In the end, I email friends for pictures of the tree when it was alive. In my own files I can’t find a single one. A graphic designer helps me Photoshop a human out of the best shot. Even in death, the tree is working magic; it takes a small village to preserve its memory.
I think this tree’s story is not yet over. I want to find out more about its life, and the policies that led to its death—from fire suppression, which intensifies a burn, to the decision to cut this tree down. I will be contacting county commissioners and naturalists and anyone else who can fill in a piece of the story.
For more information:
- A 1940s article in the Journal of Forestry when ponderosa forest ecology was new to European-Americans.
- A study by a CU student of Boulder County ponderosa pines after fire.
- On the fire ecology of ponderosa pines.
- History and photos of ponderosa pines.
- To contact the Boulder County Commissioners.
- To contact Boulder County Parks & Open Space.