Tag Archives: Bristlecone Pines

The Secret Pass to the Ruby Valley

I took this one last picture from the campground, and shortly afterward we left Lamoille and drove north and east and then south for several hours. The first hour and more were on gravel roads with miles of washboard bumps and billows of dust, but they all passed through spectacular expanses of wild country that shared some qualities of other arid lands, but were different in the shapes and colors of the mountains, and in the varieties of plants. Soon enough these lonely roads took us over the Secret Pass to the eastern side of the Ruby Mountains.

Ivy looked over the barbed wire fence at the view above and said, “It looks like wild horses should be running out there.” We had stopped our cars on the shoulder of the highway, and all six emerged to stretch our legs and look, and take pictures. But immediately Pippin said, “Oooh, the smell of the sagebrush….”

Broom Snakeweed

She had been riding with me, and I’d had the windows closed so we could hear each other talk; the sudden breaking into our senses of the warm and sweet aroma of the deserty plants, with the pungent dominance of Common Sagebrush… that was what I wanted more than any photograph, to put in a bottle and take home with me.

As we were standing there breathing and trying to take in everything, a big pickup appeared and stopped in the middle of the road, and a gray-haired man spoke to us through the window, with his engine running. “Welcome to the Ruby Valley,” he said. He told us that the little valley we were looking up at higher in the mountains, with splashes of yellow aspen, and some other plants turning red and orange, was named Joe Billy Basin, and his brother runs cattle up there.

He himself has a hay and grain business in the valley, and he hospitably invited us to “come back anytime.” We were still talking the next day about the unusual meeting and human warmth we had experienced in those few minutes — a person who loves his place and feels such ownership of it that he can spot a few souls who are kindred enough to be obviously appreciating what he also doesn’t take for granted.

This trip across Nevada might be called a Great Basin journey. The Great Basin is an area of the western United States most often defined hydrologically as in the map below, an area where the waterways do not flow to the ocean. We had now arrived on the other side, the east side of the Ruby Mountains, which, to answer Martha’s question from my last post, are said to be named after the garnets that early explorers found.

The family are camping in Great Basin National Park, and I have been staying 2,000 feet down the mountain in Baker, Nevada. My husband and I came to this place with our children when they were small, and I am thrilled to explore again with one of those children now that she is grown up and camping herself. The campground by Baker Creek has forests of wild roses, now covered with hips, and their leaves turning yellow and orange.

Jamie drew in his nature journal a picture of the rose hips, and a dragon making a meal of them. Ivy and I explored the creek, which runs right by the campsite. I collected sand for my collection in a snack bag, and while I was taking pictures of thistles she spotted a coyote by the creek.

Our day was mostly consumed by an experience I didn’t get in this park on our last visit, a hike to the Bristlecone Pines that have grown here for millennia, and to see a glacier! Other joys of the hike were various species of conifers that we adults are always trying to learn better and distinguish from one another, the local ones in this case being Limber Pines, Bristlecone Pines, Piñon Pines and Engelmann Spruce.

By the way, the Seek app we have found of no help, unless you are someone who is happy enough to be informed that the tree you are looking at is a Conifer. Here Pippin is holding a Piñon pine nut cone, in which all the nuts seem to have either not developed, or been eaten by some insect. She foraged through many cones and nuts under these trees but never found a good nut.

The talus below the active glacier, along the three mile trail that climbs up to the glacier, is the most colorful and lovely you could ever see. I may have to do a post of only rocks, to show you what variety there is. Pippin and I could not stop taking pictures of the marble-like slabs and blocks that came in blues, purples, orange and pink, often striped and patched with contrasting colors composing the most sublime abstract designs, not modern but as ancient as the mountains.

As we climbed up the rocky trail to over 10,000 feet elevation, we were surprised to see flowers still in bloom. Occasionally drops of rain began to fall on us but we didn’t actually get wet; some of the pretty rocks got prettier by the moisture. Below, the active glacier a the top of the moraine can be seen by the lines of white to the middle right of the picture.

Above, one of the weathered Bristlecones that are thousands of years old. I wrote about my visit with my late husband to see these trees in the White Mountains ten years ago; here in the national park is the only other place in the Great Basin where trails have made viewing of them possible.

My back and knees are a bit strained from the various exertions of the last few days, but I’m eager for the mountain adventures yet to come, and grateful also for my readers’ vicarious enjoyment with me. I hope to be back soon with more!

Xerophytes

GL P1020377
manzanita

 

Xerophytes are plants that are xerophilous, which means they have special features that enable them to survive in very dry environments. One of my favorite xerophytes is the Bristlecone Pine, which I wrote about some years ago, calling them Gnarly Patriarchs.

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gnarly patriarch

Some of the plants in my home landscape are considered to be xerophilous, though to maintain a xeriscape such as I have it is not necessary to have nothing but xerophytes. A xeriscape, in addition to featuring drought-tolerant plants, uses deep mulches and other means of conserving water besides those that are built into the plants themselves.

In a patch by my driveway, enclosed on all sides by concrete, Mexican Evening Primrose blooms and thrives all summer with a little water once a month or so. It thrives so well that such an enclosed space as it lives in here is usually the best spot for this plant, unless you are okay with it taking over the whole garden.

Mexican Evening Primrose
Mexican Evening Primrose
IMG_0280 toadflax w warrigal
toadflax – Linaria vulgaris, with warrigal

The picture at right is of warrigal or New Zealand Spinach, an edible green, growing alongside a yellow mystery flower [since discovered to be toadflax], both of which I consider quite xerophilous, as they lived in my back yard for months last summer with no water, and never so much as wilted.

That root xeros comes from the Greek, for dry. My current project is to incorporate more of these unthirsty friends into a plan for my front yard, and I hope to have them planted by the fall.

 

 

Trees live all over the world.

The oaks were of noble bearing: they did not trail their branches on the ground like willows, nor did their leaves have the dishevelled appearance of certain poplars, which can look from close-up as though they have been awoken in the middle of the night and not had time to fix their hair. Instead they gathered their lower branches tightly under themselves while their upper branches grew in small orderly steps, producing a rich green foliage in an almost perfect circle — like an archetypal tree drawn by a child.

It’s surprising how often the subject of trees comes up in Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel. The description above is from his visit to the Lake District in England, but while he is France he also notices trees with the help of Van Gogh’s paintings. I like the word pictures the artist himself painted when he was working on a series of sketches of cypresses, words that tell us about the trees and about Van Gogh, too:

They are constantly occupying my thoughts….it astonishes me that they have not yet been done as I see them. The cypress is as beautiful of line and proportion as an Egyptian obelisk. And the green has a quality of such distinction. It is a splash of black in a sunny landscape, but it is one of the most interesting black notes, and the most difficult to hit off exactly.

Van Gogh was with his cypresses for quite a while, getting to know them. I have felt close to some particular trees over the course of my life, starting with a pear tree outside my back door, which for some reason made enough of an impression on my five-year-old  mind that it remained the only thing I remember from that house’s yard.

We moved to another place with a significant tree, a huge oak that grew even bigger till it threatened the house in which I spent the remainder of my youth. So I can’t help loving oaks, and I do think trees in general worth a whole post from this book on travel, even if they aren’t that big a part of the book.

But, see here, Van Gogh couldn’t leave out the trees when he wrote about his house:

My house here is painted the yellow colour of fresh butter on the outside with glaringly green shutters, and it stands in the full sunlight in a square which has a green garden with plane trees, oleanders and acacias. And it is completely whitewashed inside, and the floor is made of red bricks. And over it is the intensely blue sky. In this I can live and breathe, meditate and paint.

De Botton notices some trees by a stream on another occasion in the Lake District, while he sits on a bench enjoying a chocolate bar, “a scene so utterly suited to a human sense of beauty and proportion.” But he didn’t pay attention to them for very long, and seemed to forget them entirely when his trip was over. But one day he was in a traffic jam and mentally stressed by the cares of everyday life, and

…the trees came back to me, pushing aside a raft of meetings and unanswered correspondence, and asserting themselves in consciousness. I was carried away from the traffic and the crowds and returned to trees whose names I didn’t know, but which I could see as clearly as if they stood before me. These trees provided a ledge against which I could rest my thoughts, they protected me from the eddies of anxiety and, in a small way that afternoon, contributed a reason to be alive.

I’m sad to realize that in my travels I’ve not spent enough time alone in one place to take proper note of foreign trees, but I do love them. And when we visited the Bristlecone Pines a year ago, I suppose it was the fact that they were the focal point of the place that enabled me to concentrate on them more than is typical for me. But instead of drawing them, I philosophized about them.

John Ruskin tells us, “Your art is to be the praise of something that you love.” Perhaps my first adult drawing effort will be of a tree.

California Mountains – Tiny Finds and Large Views

My husband called to me as I was lagging behind on the loop trail, “Why do you keep looking at the ground?! Look up at the mountains, and the trees!”

We were in the Patriarch Grove of the Bristlecone Pines, at 11,000 feet, in the White Mountains, with dolomite rock as far as the eye could see, as in the photo above. One might well wonder why I would look down at it.

But if you click on that photo to enlarge it you will see that there are vague greenish splotches all over the place. Those are clumps of wildflowers, hugging the ground in mats barely taller than my living room carpet.

I was finding whole worlds of flower gardens tucked under rocks, where several species of the most diminutive blooms would pack themselves together in a jumble. I noticed them, but the sun was so bright, and they were so little, that I couldn’t actually see them very well, or know if my photo was decent.

And I didn’t want to make us too late for dinner in Lee Vining that night, a few hours’ drive down the mountain and up the highway. But now I wish I had taken more pictures.

Lewisia, I think…

I’m home, and the photos are uploaded to the computer where I can zoom in on them and reveal more details, but usually I find that they are overexposed and/or a bit blurry from the wind, and identification is hard. The plants seem to be stunted variations of more common forms, likely resulting from living where there is so much sun and wind, but little warmth and moisture. In this high place the temperature rarely gets above 70° even in midsummer, and frost can happen any night of the year.

milkvetch and an old cone

The purple milkvetch pictured (in the Astragalus family), for example, is a shy and minimalist version of other forms that grow above treeline; technically, we are not above treeline or alpine here, because the Bristlecones are of course trees, but all the wildflowers in this area are listed in the Alpine section of my guide, and the conditions are similar to those in the Sierras above 11, 500 feet.

Pippin sent me to a link from an area in Utah where more Bristlecones grow, and to the Table Cliff Milkvetch that looks pretty similar. But from my poor photo, I’m not confident to claim a perfect match.

Maybe it’s even a version of the Whitney’s Locoweed (Astragalus whitneyi) I saw in the lower grove. That one (below) was past flowering and was showing its crazily colorful pods, and this one 1,000 feet higher doesn’t have any pods yet.

Whitney’s Locoweed and Dwarf Alpine Daisy

Mr. Glad was trying to figure out which White Mountain peaks were which; on the way up to the Bristlecones we’d done a lot of that kind of thing when we stopped at Sierra View Point. Here is a movie I found online, showing what we saw across the Owens Valley: the eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada. We had been over there somewhere as little hiker specks just the day before.

The starting image of the movie looks similar to the still shot Mr. G took, but not quite as nice, so I posted his version at the bottom of this post.

Another view that was a quiet and calming feast for the eyes was of these sagebrush-covered slopes, as we traveled that gravel road. The total effect was so much more green and lively-looking than what we saw going west up from Bishop. Maybe it’s a different species of sagebrush?

After this day with the Bristlecones and their tiny ground-hugging companions, we went back over the mountains and then north for the last hilly adventure of our July vacation.

View of Sierras from White Mountains