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Rocky Mountain Forests

IT is stirring to stand at the feet of the Rocky Mountains and look upward and far away over the broken strata that pile and terrace higher and higher, until, at a distance of twenty-five or thirty miles, they stand a shattered and snowy horizon against the blue. The view is an inspiring one from the base, but it gives no idea that this mountain array is a magnificent wild hanging-garden. Across the terraced and verdure-plumed garden the eternal snows send their clear and constant streams, to leap in white cascades between crowning crags and pines. Upon the upper slopes of this garden are many mirrored lakes, ferny, flowery glens, purple forests, and crag-piled meadows.

If any one were to start at the foothills in Colorado, where one of the clear streams comes sweeping out of the mountains to go quietly across the wide, wide plains, and from this starting-place climb to the crest of this terraced land of crags, pines, ferns, and flowers, he would, in so doing, go through many life-zones and see numerous standing and moving life-forms, all struggling, yet seemingly all contented with life and the scenes wherein they live and struggle.

The broad-leaf cottonwood, which has accompanied the streams across the plains, stops at the foothills, and along the river in the foothills the narrow-leaf cottonwood (Populus angustifolia) crowds the water’s edge, here and there mingling with red-fruited hawthorns and wild plums (Prunus Americana). A short distance from the stream the sumac stands brilliant in the autumn, and a little farther away are clumps of grease-wood and sagebrush and an occasional spread of juniper. Here and there are some forlorn-looking red cedars and a widely scattered sprinkling of stunted yellow pines (Pinus scopulorum).

At an altitude of six thousand feet the yellow pine acquires true tree dignity and begins to mass itself into forests. When seen from a distance its appearance suggests the oak. It seems a trifle rigid, appears ready to meet emergencies, has a look of the heroic, and carries more character than any other tree on the Rockies. Though a slender and small-limbed tree in youth, after forty or fifty years it changes slowly and becomes stocky, strong-limbed, and rounded at the top. Lightning, wind, and snow break or distort its upper limbs so that most of these veteran pines show a picturesquely broken top, with a towering dead limb or two among the green ones. Its needles are in bundles of both twos and threes, and they vary from three to eight inches in length. The tree is rich in resin, and a walk through its groves on an autumn day, when the sun shines bright on its dean golden columns and brings out its aroma, is a walk full of contentment and charm. The bark is fluted and blackish-gray in youth, and it breaks up into irregular plates, which on old trees frequently are five inches or more in thickness. This bark gives the tree excellent fire-protection.


The yellow pine is one of the best fire-fighters and lives long. I have seen many of the pines that were from sixty to ninety feet high, with a diameter of from three to five feet. They were aged from two hundred and fifty to six hundred years. Most of the old ones have lived through several fires. I dissected a fallen veteran that grew on the St. Vrain watershed, at an altitude of eight thousand feet, that was eight-five feet high and fifty-one inches in diameter five feet from the ground. It showed six hundred and seventy-nine annual rings. During the first three hundred years of its life it averaged an inch of diameter growth every ten years. It had been through many forest fires and showed large fire-scars. One of these it received at the age of three hundred and thirty-nine years. It carried another scar which it received two hundred and sixteen years before its death; another which it received in 1830; and a fourth which it received fourteen years before it blew over in the autumn of 1892. All of these fire-scars were on the same quarter of the tree. All were on that part of the tree which over looked the down-sloping hillside.

Forest fires, where there is opportunity, sweep up the mountain-side against the lower side of the trees. The lower side is thus often scarred while the opposite side is scarcely injured; but wind blowing down the gulch at the time of each fire may have directed the flames against the lower side of this tree. In many places clusters of young trees were growing close to the lower side of the old trees, and were enabled to grow there by light that came in from the side. It may be that the heat from one of the blazing clusters scarred this old pine; then another young cluster may have grown, to be in time also consumed. But these scars may have resulted, wholly or in part, from other causes.

Yellow pine claims the major portion of the well-drained slopes, except those that are northerly, in the middle mountain-zone up to the lower lodge-pole margin. A few groves are found higher than nine thousand feet. Douglas spruce covers many of the northerly slopes that lie between six thousand and nine thousand feet.

The regularity of tree-distribution over the mountains is to me a never-failing source of interest Though the various species of trees appear to be growing almost at random, yet each species shows a decided preference for peculiar altitude, soil, temperature, and moisture conditions. It is an interesting demonstration of tree adaptability to follow a stream which comes out of the west, in the middle mountain-zone, and observe how unlike the trees are which thrive on opposite sides. On the southerly slopes that come down to the water is an open forest of yellow pine, and on the opposite side, the south bank, a dense forest of Douglas spruce. If one be told the altitude, the slope, and the moisture conditions of a place on the Rockies, he should, if acquainted with the Rockies, be able to name the kinds of trees growing there. Some trees grow only in moist places, others only in dry places, some never below or above a certain altitude. Indeed, so regular is the tree-distribution over the Rockies that I feel certain, if I were to awaken from a Rip Van Winkle sleep in the forests on the middle or upper slopes of these mountains, I could, after examining a few of the trees around me, tell the points of the compass, the altitude above sea-level, and the season of the year.

At an altitude of about sixty-five hundred feet cottonwood, which has accompanied the streams from the foothills, begins to be displaced by as pen. The aspen (Populus tremuloides) is found growing in groups and groves from this altitude up to timber-line, usually in the moister places. To me the aspen is almost a classic tree, and I have met it in so many places that I regard it almost as an old friend. It probably rivals the juniper in being the most widely distributed tree on the North American continent. It also vies with the lodge-pole pine in quickness of taking possession of burned-over areas. Let a moist place be burned over and the aspen will quickly take possession, and soon establish conditions which will allow conifers to return. This the conifers do, and in a very short time smother the aspens that made it possible for them to start in life. The good nursery work of aspens is restricted pretty closely to damp places.

Besides being a useful tree, the bare-legged little aspen with its restless and childlike ways is a tree that it is good to know. When alone, these little trees seem lonely and sometimes to tremble as though just a little afraid in this big strange world. But generally the aspen is not alone. Usually you find a number of little aspens playing together, with their leaves shaking, jostling, and jumping, — moving all the time. If you go near a group and stop to watch them, they may, for an instant, pause to glance at you, then turn to romp more merrily than before. And they have other childlike ways besides bare legs and activity. On some summer day, if you wish to find these little trees, look for them where you would for your own child, — wading the muddiest place to be found. They like to play in the swamps. and may often be seen in a line alongside a brook with toes in the water, as though looking for the deepest place before wading in.

One day I came across a party of merry little aspens who were in a circle around a grand old pine, as though using the pine for a maypole to dance around. It was in autumn, and each little aspen wore its gayest colors. Some were in gowns of new-made cloth-of-gold. The grizzled old pine, like an old man in the autumn of his life, looked down as though honored and pleased with the happy little ones who seemed so full of joy. I watched them for a time and went on across the mountains; but I have long believed in fairies, so the next day I went back to see this fairyland and found the dear little aspens still shaking their golden leaves, while the old pine stood still in the sunlight.

Along the streams, between the altitudes of sixty-five hundred and eighty-five hundred feet, one finds the Colorado blue or silver spruce. This tree grows in twos or threes, occasionally forming a small grove, Usually it is found growing near a river or brook, standing closely to a golden-lichened crag, in surroundings which emphasize its beauty of form and color. With its fluffy silver-tipped robe and its garlands of cones it is the handsomest tree on the Rockies. It is the queen of these wild gardens. Beginning at the altitude where the silver spruce ceases is the beautiful balsam fir (Abies lasiocarpa). The balsam fir is generally found in company with the alders or the silver spruce near a brook. It is strikingly symmetrical and often forms a perfect slender cone. The balsam fir and the silver spruce are the evergreen poems of the wild. They get into one’s heart like the hollyhock. Several years ago the school-children of Colorado selected by vote a State flower and a State tree. Although more than fifty flowers received votes, two thirds of all the votes went to the Rocky Mountain columbine. When it came to selecting a tree, every vote was cast for the silver spruce.

Edwinia, with its attractive waxy white flowers, and potentilla, with bloom of gold, are shrubs which lend a charm to much of the mountain-section. Black birch and alder trim many of the streams, and the mountain maple is thinly scattered from the foothills to nine thousand feet altitude. Wild roses are frequently found near the maple, and gooseberry bushes fringe many a brook. Huckleberries flourish on the timbered slopes, and kinnikinick gladdens many a gravelly stretch or slope.

Between the altitudes of eight thousand and ten thousand feet there are extensive forests of the indomitable lodge-pole pine. This borders even more extensive forests of Engelmann spruce. Lodge-pole touches timber-line in a few places, and Engelmann spruce climbs up to it in every canon or moist depression. Along with these, at timber-line, are flexilis pine, balsam fir, arctic willow, dwarf black birch, and the restless little aspen. All timber-line trees are dwarfed and most of them distorted. Conditions at timber-line are severe, but the presence, in places, of young trees farthest up the slopes suggests that these severe conditions may be developing hardier trees than any that now are growing on this forest frontier. If this be true, then timber-line on the Rockies is yet to gain a higher limit.

A Grove of Silver Spruce

Since the day of “Pike’s Peak or bust,” fires have swept over more than half of the primeval forest area in Colorado. Some years ago, while making special efforts to prevent forest fires from starting, I endeavored to find out the cause of these fires. I regretfully found that most of them were the result of carelessness, and I also made a note to the effect that there are few worse things to be guilty of than carelessly setting fire to a forest. Most of these forest fires had their origin from camp-fires which the departing campers had left unextinguished. There were sixteen fires in one summer, which I attributed to the following causes: campers, nine; cigar, one; lightning, one; locomotive, one; stockmen, two; sheep-herders, one; and sawmill, one.

Fires have made the Rocky Mountains still more rocky. In many places the fires burn their way to solid rock. In other places the humus, or vegetable mould, is partly consumed by fire, and the remainder is in a short time blown away by wind or washed away by water. Fires often leave only blackened granite rock behind, so that in many places they have not only consumed the forests, but also the food upon which the new forests might have fed. Many areas where splendid forests grew, after being fire-swept, show only barren granite. As some of the granite on the Rockies disintegrates slowly, it will probably re quire several hundred years for Nature to resoil and reforest some of these fire-scarred places. However, upon thousands of acres of the Rockies millions of young trees are just beginning to grow, and if these trees be protected from fire, a forest will early result.

I never see a little tree bursting from the earth, peeping confidently up among the withered leaves, without wondering how long it will live or what trials or triumphs it will have. I always hope that it will find life worth living, and that it will live long to better and to beautify the earth. I hope it will love the blue sky and the white clouds passing by. I trust it will welcome all seasons and ever join merrily in the music, the motion, and the movement of the elemental dance with the winds. I hope it will live with rapture in the flower-opening days of spring and also enjoy the quiet summer rain. I hope it will be a home for the birds and hear their low, sweet mating-songs. I trust that when comes the golden peace of autumn days, it will be ready with fruited boughs for the life to come. I never fail to hope that this tree is cut down, it may be used for a flag pole to keep our glorious banner in the blue above, or that it may be built into a cottage where love will abide; or if it must be burnt, that it will blaze on the hearthstone in a home where children play in the firelight on the floor.

In many places the Rockies rise more than three thousand feet above the heights where live the highest struggling trees at timber-line, but these steep alpine slopes are not bare. The rocks are tinted with lichens. In places are miles of grassy slopes and miniature meadows, covered with coarse sedges and bright tender flowers. Among the shrubs the Betula glandulosa is probably commonest, while Dasiphora fruticosa and Salix chlorophylla are next in prominence. Here and there you will see the golden gaillardia, the silver and blue columbines, splendid arrays of sedum, many marsh-marigolds, lungworts, paint-brushes of red and white and yellow green, beds of purple primroses, sprinklings of alpine gentians, many clusters of live-forever, bunches of honey-smelling valerian, with here and there standing the tall stalks of fraseria, or monument-plant. There are hundreds of other varieties of plants, and the region above timber-line holds many treasures that are dear to those who love flowers and who appreciate them especially where cold and snow keep them tiny.

Above timber-line are many bright blossoms that are familiar to us, but dwarfed to small size. One needs to get down and lie upon the ground and search carefully with a magnifying-glass, or he will overlook many of these brave bright but tiny flowers. Here are blue gentians less than half an inch in height, bell-flowers only a trifle higher, and alpine willows so tiny that their catkins touch the ground. One of the most attractive and beautiful of these alpine flowers is the blue honeysuckle or polemonium, about an inch in height. I have found it on mountain-tops, in its fresh, clear coloring, at an altitude of fourteen thousand feet, as serene as the sky above it.

A climb up the Rockies will develop a love for nature, strengthen one’s appreciation of the beautiful world outdoors, and put one in tune with the Infinite. It will inspire one with the feeling that the Rockies have a rare mountain wealth of their own. They are not to be compared with the Selkirks or the Alps or any other unlike range of mountains. The Rockies are not a type, but an individuality, singularly rich in mountain scenes which stir one’s blood and which strengthen and sweeten life.

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