A long, low ridge borders our neighborhood, about a kilometer distant. Dry and grassy, with scattered pines here and there, it is fortunately too steep to build houses on. From the leisurely perspective of a backyard evening I scan this hillside, and speculate on a fundamental duality of Okanagan nature: trees and grass. Forest and grassland. The tree that grows here is the hardy Ponderosa, which reaches farther out into dry grasslands than any other tree.
On the ridge’s lower slope the three-dimensional bulk of each tree is visible, as well as the shadow it casts on the grass below. But the trees lined along the hill’s ridgeline are two-dimensional, seen only in profile. With evening light behind them, they are like the black and white illustrations in old forestry textbooks. A few have the classic Christmas tree shape, but most are funky and asymmetrical. There is the beanpole, the bonsai, and the lightbulb. Dead top, leaning left, Charlie Brown and windswept. Red attack, witches broom, schoolmarm crotch. Some an open filigree of branches, others a solid black blob. One perfectly triangular specimen is right next to a standing dead snag. Life on a dry, windy ridge does not make you pretty. It is a rogue’s gallery, a police lineup of deviant conifers. Some have branches all the way to the ground, others their yellow trunks are naked halfway up. Some look like they have stood since the glaciers; others appear new, temporary or even rudely invasive.
When the evenings are longer and supper is over, it is fun to sip another glass of wine and assign adjectives to certain trees on the ridgeline. Aspirational. Overbloated. Calligraphic. And so on.
Ponderosa is not my first iconic tree. As a kid living in Southern California, a large old pepper tree was my gymnasium, refuge, and friend. It’s sturdy trunk and spreading main branches were perfect for climbing. The long, weeping terminal branches with pinnate leaves hung vertically around the tree’s perimeter, creating a large, shaded canopy. It was a quiet, pepper-scented room, with a plush carpet of duff and pure adventure on the ceiling. On one of my more daring climbs I lost my grip and fell, landing flat on my back. Unconscious for a few seconds, I opened my eyes to the radiant canopy. Part of my mind struggled to comprehend what had just happened, while the rest fixed on the infinitely complex mosaic above me, delicate pinnate leaves shot through with light. It might have been a transformative moment.
Trees not only evoke memory, they contain it. Ponderosa remembers fire, and lives somewhere in the ambiguous realm of either withstanding it, or requiring it. Does it withstand fire so well, with its thick bark and progeny that germinate on burned ground, that it actually needs it? When its forests go a long time without fire, creating a dense canopy and cooler microclimate that allows the Douglas-firs to take over, is that a voluntary surrender, or a defeat? When First Nations added millenia of their own prescribed fires to the natural regime of lightning starts, and then when our white settler culture set about stopping all fires, does the Ponderosa even care? Fires and drought suppress trees, and favor grasses. Closed forest canopies suppress grasses. It is a pity the Okanagan didn’t come with an operating manual.
The long, graceful needles of the Ponderosa have a clear surface coating that reflects sunlight. If you are under a mature ponderosa on a mid-afternoon with a breeze, gaze upward through the foliage and you will see thousands of tiny moving points of light. While you sit there, it is also a good time to contemplate the relationship of trees, grass, humans and fire, in no particular order. One of those traditional Spanish leather wine skins, filled with an Okanagan Pinot Noir, would be a helpful asset.