Eight Trees

by Morgan Hite

We got into camp just as darkness closed in last night. It didn't really "fall," as darkness is said to do; it just sort of slowly gathered and piled up in the cracks between the boulders in the wash. We saw that we had less than fifteen minutes to locate water before we would need headlamps, so Katie went up one drainage and I another. Mine turned out to be terrace after terrace of wet sand laughing at me, but no water. Wet sand says: water was been here but you came too late. Katie found a small pool though, well on its way to becoming wet sand, yet enough to sustain us for a couple days. We are at the bottom of a very deep, cliff-bound canyon and we spent all day finding a way down in.

There are eight trees here, three pinon pines and five junipers. They stand in a sacred grove, about fifteen yards from the wash. They are old. The junipers are shaggy and the pines are bent and forked. None are more than eleven feet tall but they are sheltering and wise. In the bed of needles at their base occasional tufts of yellow grass stand at respectful distances from the trunks.

One juniper, I notice, is leaning backwards as if in holy astonishment. I think it has seen something unbelievable. The bark fissure which might be its mouth seems to hang open and speechless. The two main branches are spread wide in a disarmed gesture. How long ago this shock occurred I cannot tell. Perhaps on a quiet day it saw God here. Perhaps it has been struck dumb and frozen by a spell cast by a passing, mischievous dryad. Who knows. I call it the Surprised Juniper.

One of the pines has stiff, dried out branches that hang down like calcite cave formations, angled, knobby and alien. These branches hover a few feet above the ground as if they were a former root system promoted now to incongruity in the world of air. They have no needles. One branch runs straight out, a foot above the ground, like the streak left by a drop of Chinese ink blown across paper. I call this the Stone Pine.

Another juniper has a very busy base, four trunks leaving the ground in various directions. Bark shreds and tufts drip from the lower branches, giving the tree the look of being dressed in a fringed buckskin jacket. There is a burly knot held carefully in one low branch which looks suspiciously like an old injury. If this tree were in a children's book it would have alligators around it and pythons in it. Instead there is a tiny Douglas Fir growing up beneath it. One of the four trunks is tall, vertical, and straight; it wishes to be used as a roof beam in a stone house built by Indians in this canyon. I call this the Swamp Juniper.

One pine has branches on only one side. It seems to be leaning in spiritual disrepair towards the wash. Its empty side faces a juniper to which it seems to have taken unaddressable offense. No branches have been put out there and none are being considered. This tree is enveloped in its own sadness. I call it the Hurt Pine.

The offending juniper however does not notice; it is totally consumed in its own identity. It seems to have burst from the Earth already at high speed, rising skyward. Its branches grow upwards with the single-mindedness of fire. Every line in it is shooting headlong into heaven without considering any other future. The small Mormon Tea plant growing beneath it seems sucked up in the firestorm and it grows foolishly tall and slim. I call this the Flaming Juniper.

Another juniper has met with an accident long ago. Its trunk is split open and folded over at the base, as if a huge rock cracked off from one of the cliffs above and crushed it Fifty years gone by now? One hundred? I look around at scattered nearby boulders and wonder which one of them harbors a special, unpublicized past relationship with this tree. Mobile beings like ourselves can barely imagine the feelings that must surround an event such as the accidental physical contact between a tree and a rock. Stone has a long memory. Like a first love, was it a savored, wistful incident? Or was it a misunderstanding best forgotten? It was certainly violent. Ever since then the tree has grown in unsteady, unsure circles. I call this the Splintered Juniper.

One pine stands at the far end of the grove and I have not gotten to know it well. It comes tall and straight from the ground, but it is headed not upwards but at an angle towards the near cliff. It does not seem in good conspiracy with the other trees. Its branches start higher and sprout more seldom. Its bark is blackish, as if there might be disease present. It grows too tall: surely there is a secret pocket of water underground that this tree has failed to share with others. It is uncomfortable, a eucalyptus spirit in a pinon. I call it the Gawky Pine.

But there is one last juniper, and this tree is different. If the other trees are disciples, this is the master. It stands unflamboyantly in perfect balance between the Surprised Juniper and the Gawky Pine. This tree's trunk is thick and shaggy, almost muscled, every inch solid and perfected. This tree holds court. To stand next to it, with my head in its crown and its boughs around me, is to stand in the center of the universe. I can see, in its swirling left fork and its spiraling right fork, a sculpture of the underlying physics of the universe, the twisting tracks of rising particles in a canyon-sized cloud chamber. This tree has the charisma of an oak and the peace of a willow. It may in fact be the reason for the entire canyon being here. Naturally, it has no name.

So we found them: the mad junipers, the overly reflective pines. Eight trees in a canyon in Utah, and last night we slept under them.


- West Fork of Salt Creek, Utah, 11/90

 © Copyright 1990, Morgan Hite