The Story of a Tree


The Story of a Tree


At 143 years of age, some may consider me to be an old-timer. Well maybe, but old is a relative term. From my lofty and solitary perch, I can look down on an entire valley of 300-year old monarchs! I guess that makes me just middle-aged.


Along with thousands of siblings, I was born in 1866 just after the Civil War ended. In that spring I took shape deep in the conework of a Douglas fir tree. All that season I was nourished by the sap and sugars produced in the green needles of my mother tree. I still don’t understand how a tiny green needle can combine sunshine from above with moisture and nutrients from below to make cellulose and stuff. Photosynthesis the scientists call it, but they cannot duplicate the process in the lab either. Anyhow, back to me.


I was but one seed set inside a cone high up in a Douglas fir tree. As I developed, I sprouted a paper-thin wing that I would use to flutter gently to the ground someday. A kernel of a seed took shape to store the energy I would need to survive those first few months. Protected deep inside the cone, I was content to wait out the summer months, to wait for my coming-out party.


By September the forest was hot and dry. The cone—my nursery—began to dry and the cone scales opened. I was poised to take flight from 200 feet above the ground. With each passing day, with each low humidity breeze, my avenue to escape opened wider. Soon, I was teetering on the brink of freedom waiting only for a gentle nudge.  


One day in late October, a cool day provided the stiff breeze that shook my nursery to the core. With nary a good-bye to my mother tree, I was fluttering through the air in a descent to the earth. All I had to do was find a moist, fertile spot where I could put down roots and grow. But the wind pummeled and rushed me far down the ridge to a rocky pinnacle. I was slammed into a rock wall and I skittered down the sheer face until I found myself wedged in a small crack.  


The small crevice was certainly not the ideal place for me to begin life. I knew other seeds from my cone would take root in some deep and fertile soil to become monarchs; some seeds would fall to the earth, take root and die because there was too much shade or not enough water or the ground was too hard. Still other seeds might be eaten by chipmunks and pine squirrels, but I was lucky, I guess. No rodent would find me on this cliff. No other tree would crowd me out of existence. I was alone and could survive—if only there was some rain, if I could force roots into the crack, if I could find some nutrients to combine with sunlight. That first winter the snow came to blanket me from the frigid cold and I waited for the next growing season.


Spring can come early on a cliff. The old rock begins to warm melting the snow as it does. The melted snow trickled into my tiny crevice and I could feel myself begin to swell. With a few more degrees of heat, I pushed a single root into the detritus of years—the dust, dirt, ash, needles, moss, lichens, bug carcasses—that had accumulated in the crack. There was enough “stuff” here to feed me and I wrapped tiny root hairs around the particles to draw out the nutrients. There was moisture, too, as I sent a tiny stem skyward to find the sunlight. With each passing day, millimeter by millimeter, I pushed upward and downward to strengthen myself.


It was not easy. As the crevice narrowed into solid rock, I sent out roots to explore in all directions. I forced my roots into tiny cracks, even enlarging them to tap moisture that found its way there. And I found more weathered minerals to draw upon. My tiny stem lengthened. Two needles became four, then eight, and then a branch grew, too. I was a tree—a seedling—but I was a tree.


By late summer the sun had baked the cliff dry. I contented myself to rest, to become dormant and wait for another spring season. I was in no hurry. I was not going anywhere.


And so it continued every season, every year. Some years were better than others and I added inches to my stature. Other years were hot and dry, and I could barely nourish what had already grown. Then one year, about 1914 or so, a fire raced through the forest below me to incinerate all the trees around the pinnacle. Somehow I was spared from the carnage and survived unscathed.


Throughout the decades a nearby trail provided me with amusement while I struggle to survive. After the snows melted, there was a regular parade of hikers up and down the trail. There were young kids and old adults, the serious hiker with boots and packboard, and the novice with cutoffs and tennis shoes out for a day hike. Of course there were dogs, and even a few pack hoses to carry supplies and gear. Deer and elk hunters used the trail to pack their gear in, and sometimes to pack their meat out. But the strangest sight I ever saw was just a decade ago. Up the trail came a young hiker leading a strange pack animal. Not a horse, and certainly not a mule or burro but bigger than any dog, the saucer-eyed critter carried a small pack and walked softly behind the hiker. It was the only such critter I had ever seen, and I still don’t know what it was.


Deer, elk, cougar, bear.  Squirrels, chipmunks, grouse—all have used the trail. By late November I am again alone atop my rocky perch and I wait for spring to return. I will sleep dormant through the winter until I can resume my growth with the coming of spring. If the winter winds don’t snap me in two and if the summer lightning doesn’t find me, I will stay right here. I may never grow as large as the monarchs in the valley, but the view is just fine. After all, I am still a spry youngster of 143 years of age. I’ve got a lot of living left to do!