Thursday, May 05, 2011

`Stepping Up Stairs Through a Blaze of White Light'

On the way to school I pass a western yellow pine on the side of a hill, snapped at a point almost midway up the trunk. The top is still attached to the broken end of the upright stump and forms the hypotenuse of a right triangle. Intact, the tree stood more than one-hundred feet tall, stumpy by the standards of Ponderosa pines. One in Oregon tops two hundred sixty-eight feet. Its Latin name – Pinus ponderosa – makes schoolboys snort, though the pine moves Donald Culross Peattie to reverie in A Natural History of North American Trees:

“Of all western Pines this one seems to the beholder most full of light. Its needles, of a rich yellow green, are burnished like metal. When the shadowless summer winds come plowing through the groves, waving the supple arms and twigs, the long slender needles stream all one way in the current, and the sunlight—astronomically clear and constant—streaks up and down the foliage as from the edge of a flashing sword.”

Peattie’s prose gets a little plummy, but Ponderosas in sunlight and wind suggest the rippling grasses of a prairie. The bark is rusty-brown and cracked like the bed of a dried-up lake. I’m a deciduous man by birth and temperament – ever in flux – but the Ponderosa almost converts me. In Chapter 5 of The Yosemite, John Muir writes:

“Climbing these grand trees, especially when they are waving and singing in worship in wind-storms, is a glorious experience. Ascending from the lowest branch to the topmost is like stepping up stairs through a blaze of white light, every needle thrilling and shining as if with religious ecstasy.”

How many writers can speak authoritatively of climbing Ponderosa pines in a wind storm? With Muir, perhaps Thoreau, had he lived long enough to visit the western third of North America. Yvor Winters and Janet Lewis both wrote poems about Muir, the latter’s titled “For John Muir, a Century and More After His Time,” which concludes with these lines:

“…seasons strange
And dangerous moments on that stony range
That Muir was first to call the Range of Light;
Moments of wisdom and intenser sight.
And these I owe to one
Who built his campfire on the canyon rim,
Who woke at dawn, and felt surrounding him
The mind of God in every living thing,
And things unliving, from the snowy ring
Of peaks, to, near his bed, the smallest heather
Lifting a fragile head
to greet the sun.”

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