I’ve just moved back to the Northeast, and before I did, as a sort of farewell present to myself, I took a trip to the Emigrant Wilderness, in the High Sierra. Coming back on CA 108, down the Sierra’s western slope, there’s turnoff used mostly by dirtbikers and horsecampers that I had for a while wanted to test my truck on because my Forest Service maps showed it leading, after twelve miles, to the Bennett Juniper, the world’s largest and oldest western juniper and to my knowledge the only western juniper that anyone has ever thought enough of to bother naming. Which I guess may not seem all that exciting. But in leaving California I was going to be saying goodbye, again, to a woman in Los Angeles, and whatever was going on between us it’s certainly the case that I had always been a notably poor gift-giver toward her over the years. She isn’t exactly what you’d call a tree person, but she has a special affection for junipers, and I decided that it was very important that I get her one of the berries from this particular tree.
The Bennett Juniper is not—in a state where many trees are named and where tourists are constantly caravanning up well-maintained mountain roads to see sequoias and redwoods—a tree that many people trouble to visit. Western Junipers are usually stunted little evergreens with deep-red and deeply furrowed bark that in this section of the Sierra Nevada tend to do best growing on rocky outcrops and sunny canyon slopes, away from the giant ponderosa pines and red firs that dominate the richer earth. They can be downright fat, and have ash-gray root structures that curl out above the rocks they cling to, dead limbs arching strangely over living tufts of green. They produce hard little berries, not cones, with a pretty powder-blue coating that rubs off on your fingers when you touch them. Over the course of a year I had camped under them and burned their bark in my fires. I learned through observation before I even knew what they were called what sorts of places they grew best and where they struggled. I had developed an intimacy with them—less because I thought them attractive than on grounds of personality. They’re my type of tree. I think ponderosas are beautiful, their golden leopard-print bark and in the way they tower up in such perfect proportions—the name “Ponderosa” itself implies a tree to be contemplated—but their beauty remains somewhat abstract for me, the same sort of aesthetic experience I have seeing a model at a party. I appreciate a Ponderosa, and I like to look at one, but the trees I want to touch tend to be a little messier.
In any case, I pulled my old pickup down Forest Service Road 5N01. The U.S.F.S. has always been a poor maintainer of roads, and a series of summer thunderstorms had left this one in almost unimaginably bad condition. I am dependent on my truck for income and am far from a financial position to be able to make any major repairs to it, much less replace it. I had to make two crossings of flooded streams, and twice I lost traction on an uphill and went sliding backwards nearly down off the ridge.
But I made it, and the tree stands on a hillside that has burned recently. It stands almost entirely alone, in a spot where no one would ever expect a juniper to have a chance, because that field should be dominated by ponderosas and sierra lodgepoles or red firs and it doesn’t take a ton of knowledge about the ecology of the Sierra to know that the tree has survived there for 4,000 years because it was a marginal tree. It’s 80 feet tall, which is big for a western juniper although for California still not terribly large or impressive. But in this place, for that species, it’s majestic, and if you happen to be the sort of person who has spent a great deal of time looking at western junipers you can see the marks of what it has withstood from the root structure all the way to the canopy. And it occurred to me later, getting drunk at a cowboy bar where the regulars are a bit like western junipers themselves, that the visual beauty—which is a real beauty—of the girl for whose sake I had risked life and truck was also almost entirely incidental to my experience of her. She was something of a marginal being herself, and she has always had a certain amount of trouble interacting with the ponderosas and red firs of the human world, and I sometimes had an overwhelming response to something as simple as seeing her dressed up for a Hollywood party—to seeing the organism I thought I knew prove the breadth of her range.
I looked for a fresh berry. The powder-blue coating had turned brown and ordinary-looking by the time I gave it to her. I think she appreciated it anyway.
James Pogue has written for N+1, The New Yorker, and other publications.
Photo © Peter Sutherland