Thursday, August 16, 2018

Dancing with pines...(not for hoi polloi)

I have observed that when I post pictures on Social Media, the response is in direct proportion to the amount of color: the brighter, the more hits. Simple as that! One might call it the Butchart syndrome, if one were to be a tad cruel to that splendiferous garden, where color is done so lavishly. And well...I hasten to add! Although I have to admit the only time in my life I've ever had a color headache was wandering through a courtyard there with hanging baskets of begonias in electric candy colors, columns swathed in more electric floral flesh, and the ground layer--impatiens, I think, and more begonias...pretty soon, pound, pound, pound--my arteries and veins were pulsing and my head hurt. No mean feat for a man whose had the same bottle of aspirin virtually his whole adult life (and it's still pretty much full).

Larry Jackel, far left. Kevin Williams, center and Gavin Culbertson on the right

Enough grousing about the world as it is! I'd rather celebrate the world as it should be: where character is rewarded with longevity and grace. Namely, the innumerable character pines that crowd the Rocky Mountains. Over a hundred of these were moved from Ironclad Ridge to Denver Botanic Gardens exactly forty years ago by a small team of Japanese Bonsai masters--one of whom (Larry Jackel) brought us back to see where the Botanic Gardens' pines originated.
 Ironclad ridge is  Forest Service land, and I hasten to say that permits were pulled way back then for all the trees that were removed. I also aver that you would never guess any had been taken: there are thousands of rugged Ponderosa pines still dwarfed and thriving on domes of rocks around the area. I was enchanted with them (as were my colleagues who were along on the trip: we were filming a segment for an upcoming documentary concerning conifers). A lovelier day would be hard to imagine. I suspect we were at nearly 9000'--the air was cool all day, with occasional clouds scudding along (so some of the pictures will be taken in overcast light--you can compare: especially the first and last).

Of course, I love color as much as the next schlemiel: but one of the subtle by-products of a lifetime in horticulture as we come to recognize that form and texture are every bit as important. It's that form and textural department where these gnarly pines excel.

Hillock after hillock of granite dome was covered with a veritable company of venerable trees (say that sentence ten times quickly!)... Larry Jackel has studied these at length (and even written a book about them available at Denver Botanic Gardens gift shop! Or mail order if you click the previous link). Walking the ridge with Larry and Jerry Morris at times, and my two other observant and appreciative colleagues was a genuine delight.

There is a vast arena of discourse that arises on gentle hikes like this: speculating not just about the age of trees, and why they grow the way they do, but speculating on adversity and struggle, as opposed to the life of complacency, convenience and comfort that most humans seem to want.

We observe that most of the character pines have trunks that are torqued, as opposed to the straight trees in the lusher hollows in between....People have thought wind, but Jerry insists it's drought stress that causes it. I tend to believe what Jerry tells me.

I'm sure that if I tried I could come up with all manner of anthropomorphic speculation, or perhaps some pseudoscientific ponderings. Hardly seems worthwhile, when you look at these gentle behemoths.

Usually crowning the hills with the best view--you figure these trees know how to live in style!

 I have taken no end of pictures of them: here are just a few. Take a minute to savor the astonishing variety of form and habit that they have. No two (like snowflakes) are alike by any means!

We will be revisiting this one again, and yet again!

This one was plum tuckered out! Lying supine (or is it prone?) doesn't seem to have slowed it down.

Are the crowns mimicking the clouds or vice versa? Only Chuang Tzu would know for sure...or would the butterfly?

It's a miracle some still had any life in them--these near snag has a healthy branch on the right side!

Of course, as an herbaceous plant lover, I had to look down: and everywhere I found this miniscule form of Artemisia ludoviciana. I keep wondering, would one of these stay dwarf? (I've tried them before and they grow enormous in a garden setting).

Yet another mat of tiny Louisiana sage...should I or shouldn't I?

There was quite a bit of color in the meadows. OK, it was mostly yellow daisies! It didn't hurt our visit at all that they'd had a good rain the night before and everything was fresh and fragrant. Didn't hurt at all!

Asplenium septentrionale
 Always a treat to find the grass fern: I last saw this growing everywhere in the Greater and Lesser Caucasus. And I've seen it in Central Asia as well...but not yet in Europe where I know it's abundant: something to look forward to.

I'd never noticed before how flaky the bark is on the ponderosas: here on roots for Heaven's sake! What's that all about?

Pseudotsuga menziesii
Is there a person on this planet who wouldn't be charmed by the cones on Douglas fir? If so, let's send them to Mars to test its livability.

I'd like to send Mars-ward the gun lubbers who littered the ground everywhere with "clay" pidgeon target shards. I would like to insert a nasty little diatribe about America's gun culture. But I won't. I suspect 99% of those who read this far get it, and the 1%...well...let them fantasize!

While I'm at it, just imagine the rich invective I would like to pepper this post with about the infernal roadsters that were stirring up clouds of dust and making a hideous racket during most of our time on the Ridge. I would so dearly love to export vast chunks of popular culture to Mars and test its viability in zero gravity. But let us remember that the best remedy for most things on the planet is a walk with friends among the pines.

Before I'm accused of terminal cynicism and cumudgeonliness, allow me to confess that I have hope. My two colleagues pictured here (photographing the tree that starts and ends this blog) represent so much that fills me with delight and hope: I am more and more convinced that their generation will right the stupidities that have deluded or eluded us boomers.

Let's not be too hard on the boomers: Larry Jackel is one, and a finer colleague I could never hope for. I believe he was the only non-Japanese member of the Bonsai club to help with those initial transplants, and he has continued to share his experience and knowledge across the country as Denver Botanic Gardens' Bonsai master.

And self-described tree hugger! Thank you Larry for a magical and unforgettable day!

And thanks to the Arboreal Deity who grants us the grace and elegance of character pines! I shall end with my favorite poem by Ezra Pound (a flawed talent if there ever was one--but here he hits a Homer, as 'twere!):


Be in me as the eternal moods
            of the bleak wind, and not
As transient things are –
            gaiety of flowers.
Have me in the strong loneliness
            of sunless cliffs
And of grey waters.
            Let the gods speak softly of us
In days hereafter,
            The shadowy flowers of Orcus
Remember Thee.


  1. This poem does suit your mood. I thoroughly enjoyed this walk. Thanks for taking us along. I can believe that drought causes these contortions. I also believe that the wind is the Master snipper. It is an encouraging thought that there are young people that appreciate what nature has to offer. I hope it overflows into life.

  2. Thank you. This post swept me away. And to end with beautiful old, and yes, flawed, Ezra was a surprise and a blessing.

  3. Thank you for a beautiful article, very inspiring, will be remembered.


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