Press "Enter" to skip to content

Graced by Pines, by Alexandra Murphy

Review by Ed Quillen

Natural History – February 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

Graced by Pines: The Ponderosa Pine in the American West
by Alexandra Murphy, Illustrated by Robert Petty
Published in 1994 by Mountain Press Publishing Co.
ISBN 0-87842-307-9

SCRATCH THE BARK of a ponderosa pine, and you’ll smell vanilla. Scratch a little deeper, and you’ll find the inner cambium, home to a sweet sap that worked much like maple syrup for the Salish and Kootenai people of Montana.

Beneath the bark, there’s a clear straight-grained wood that formed the beams of the Anasazi structures of Chaco Canyon as well as the railroad ties and pit props that supported the mining industry of the West. Stand back to see the forest instead of the tree, and you’ll see the results, often dismal, of a century of fire-suppression and industrial timbering.

At all these levels, and many more, Alexandra Murphy explores the relationship between humans and landscapes, with Pinus ponderosa as the connection.

Ponderosa come in three subspecies — ours is the P.p. scopulorum, while P.p. ponderosa grows in the Northwest and P.p. arizonica in Mexico and adjacent parts of the United States. The needles are long, generally in bunches of three, and the bark is flaky, dark-colored in the tree’s youth but turning more golden after the first century.

The ponderosa is not a tree of deep, dark forests. It prefers to punctuate open savannas with big, old trees every few hundred feet.

The frequent small fires that occurred before white settlement eliminated the ponderosa’s competitors, while the thick bark protects the ponderosa from all but the worst blazes.

Murphy examines the ponderosa as part of the forest ecosystem (tassel-eared squirrels feed on the seeds, and goshawks on the squirrels), as part of cultural systems (Navajo ceremonies that relied on the tree), and as part of our economic system (a sash factory in Montana).

Why so much lore? According to her introduction, “Western America is still only sparsely reinvested with story. During its brief history of European settlement, it has been largely populated by explorers and exploiters who have used each place while its fortunes lasted, then moved on, leaving behind scarred and depleted land and taking with them their stories and experience and knowledge of that place. Just as soil without roots is vulnerable to erosion, so the West has suffered from the rootlessness of its human inhabitants. Its cities and towns and wild lands still lack the communal memory that renders a place valuable and sacred to humans. ‘No place,’ wrote Wallace Stegner, ‘is a place until things that have happened in it are remembered in history, ballads, yarns, legends, or monuments.’ Such remembrance requires stability and continuity and love of place that come from a long association akin to marriage.”

By gathering and propagating the lore of one species of tree, then, she hopes to help the West grow some roots of its own. Sometimes her musings stray too far into the Annie Dillard rhapsodic style to suit me, but in general, her writing is clear and straightforward. After this book, you’ll never see a ponderosa as just another tree.