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The Josemite By John Muir

Chapter 6
The Forest Trees in General

For the use of the ever-increasing number of Yosemite visitors who make extensive excursions into the mountains beyond the Valley, a sketch of the forest trees in general will probably be found useful. The different species are arranged in zones and sections, which brings the forest as a whole within the comprehension of every observer. These species are always found as controlled by the climates of different elevations, by soil and by the comparative strength of each species in taking and holding possession of the ground; and so appreciable are these relations the traveler need never be at a loss in determining within a few hundred feet his elevation above sea level by the trees alone; for, notwithstanding some of the species range upward for several thousand feet and all pass one another more or less, yet even those species possessing the greatest vertical range are available in measuring the elevation; inasmuch as they take on new forms corresponding with variations in altitude. Entering the lower fringe of the forest composed of Douglas oaks and Sabine pines, the trees grow so far apart that not one-twentieth of the surface of the ground is in shade at noon. After advancing fifteen or twenty miles towards Yosemite and making an ascent of from two to three thousand feet you reach the lower margin of the main pine belt, composed of great sugar pine, yellow pine, incense cedar and sequoia. Next you come to the magnificent silver-fir belt and lastly to the upper pine belt, which sweep up to the feet of the summit peaks in a dwarfed fringe, to a height of from ten to twelve thousand feet. That this general order of distribution depends on climate as affected by height above the sea, is seen at once, but there are other harmonies that become manifest only after observation and study. One of the most interesting of these is the arrangement of the forest in long curving bands, braided together into lace-like patterns in some places and out-spread in charming variety. The key to these striking arrangements is the system of ancient glaciers; where they flowed the trees followed, tracing their courses along the sides of cañons, over ridges, and high plateaus. The cedar of Lebanon, said Sir Joseph Hooker, occurs upon one of the moraines of an ancient glacier. All the forests of the Sierra are growing upon moraines, but moraines vanish like the glaciers that make them. Every storm that falls upon them wastes them, carrying away their decaying, disintegrating material into new formations, until they are no longer recognizable without tracing their transitional forms down the Range from those still in process of formation in some places through those that are more and more ancient and more obscured by vegetation and all kinds of post-glacial weathering. It appears, therefore, that the Sierra forests indicate the extent and positions of ancient moraines as well as they do belts of climate.

One will have no difficulty in knowing the Nut Pine (Pinus Sabiniana), for it is the first conifer met in ascending the Range from the west, springing up here and there among Douglas oaks and thickets of ceanothus and manzanita; its extreme upper limit being about 4000 feet above the sea, its lower about from 500 to 800 feet. It is remarkable for its loose, airy, wide-branching habit and thin gray foliage. Full-grown specimens are from forty to fifty feet in height and from two to three feet in diameter. The trunk usually divides into three or four main branches about fifteen or twenty feet from the ground that, after bearing away from one another, shoot straight up and form separate summits. Their slender, grayish needles are from eight to twelve inches long, and inclined to droop, contrasting with the rigid, dark-colored trunk and branches. No other tree of my acquaintance so substantial in its body has foliage so thin and pervious to the light. The cones are from five to eight inches long and about as large in thickness; rich chocolate-brown in color and protected by strong, down-curving nooks which terminate the scales. Nevertheless the little Douglas Squirrel can open them. Indians climb the trees like bears and beat off the cones or recklessly cut off the more fruitful branches with hatchets, while the squaws gather and roast them until the scales open sufficiently to allow the hard-shell seeds to be beaten out. The curious little Pinus attenuata is found at an elevation of from 1500 to 3000 feet, growing in close groves and belts. It is exceedingly slender and graceful, although trees that chance to stand alone send out very long, curved branches, making a striking contrast to the ordinary grove form. The foliage is of the same peculiar gray-green color as that of the nut pine, and is worn about as loosely, so that the body of the tree is scarcely obscured by it. At the age of seven or eight years it begins to bear cones in whorls on the main axis, and as they never fall off, the trunk is soon picturesquely dotted with them. Branches also soon become fruitful. The average size of the tree is about thirty or forty feet in height and twelve to fourteen inches in diameter. The cones are about four inches long and covered with a sort of varnish and gum, rendering them impervious to moisture.

No observer can fail to notice the admirable adaptation of this curious pine to the fire-swept regions where alone it is found. After a running fire has scorched and killed it the cones open and the ground beneath it is then sown broadcast with all the seeds ripened during its whole life. Then up spring a crowd of bright, hopeful seedlings, giving beauty for ashes in lavish abundance.


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