Notes from Westwater & Beyond
When I was a teenager, my family moved into my great-grandparents’ farmhouse in north central Kansas.
The two ancient red cedars which flanked the front porch seemed dark and foreboding, and every time the wind howled through their branches, I shuddered.
Years later, after we moved to San Juan County, my brother took us exploring in a juniper and pinyon forest.
“I’ve grown to love the desert even more than the mountains,” he told me.
I looked under the trees at the cacti, sage, and orange ground, thinking he’d lost his senses. The junipers reminded me too much of the eerie cedars at home.
It took time for me to appreciate junipers, but on my walks in Westwater, one tree drew my attention because it towered above the White Rocks area and seemed to hold the morning light in its branches.
When I finally investigated, I found it growing in a cleft between boulders rather than on top and much taller than I expected.
Split to the ground, the trunk leaned against the west boulder.
Half of the branches showed healthy green leaves, half were bare, and as I peered upward, sap oozed out, pure gold in the sunlight.
The tree with its shredded bark and riven trunk is no doubt an ancient titan since some Utah junipers live 700 years.
Its dead limbs demonstrate a remarkable strategy which cuts off food supply to struggling branches, so the entire tree can survive.
Junipers also survive, according to the National Park system, because two-thirds of their structure exist underground in their massive root system with tap roots thrusting down 25 feet or more through what often seems like sheer rock.
However, the roots don’t work alone. An underground web of beneficial fungi, first discovered in the 1990s by Dr. Suzanne Simard in British Columbia, forms a symbiotic relationship with the trees, creating a system dubbed the “wood wide web.”
Using then modern technology, Dr. Simard could see the transmission of carbon between trees, which she compared to “neurotransmitters firing in our own neural networks.”
Peter Wohlleben, a German forester and author of “The Hidden Life of Trees,” says, “These fungi operate like fiber-optic Internet cables...
“The fungal connections transmit signals from one tree to the next, helping the trees exchange news about insects, drought, and other dangers.”
Not surprisingly, the Southwest desert fungi weave together pinyon and juniper trees.
Since the time of the Ancestral Puebloans, San Juan County residents have used juniper trees for a variety of purposes.
According to one friend, the juniper is the Tree of Life for the Navajo.
They use the wood, at least in part, to make cradleboards, hogans, and caskets; the berries, which are the female cones, for healing and jewelry; and the ashes, which are mixed into bread dough and blue corn meal mush, for nutrition and flavor.
In fact, recent analysis has shown the ashes contain more calcium than a cup of milk, create a more complete protein, and enrich the corn with essential minerals.
The White Mesa Utes also use junipers in a myriad of ways, but flute-making is my favorite.
In the San Juan School District Media Center’s booklet, “Aldean Learns to Make Flutes,” Aldean Ketchum tells the story of how his grandfather taught him to create an instrument from “a mature tree that would not mind if they took part of it for a flute.”
As Aldean’s grandfather carved the wood, he told him, “The flute is a healing instrument...
“Healing first begins inside. After we heal the inner spirit, we can heal the physical part of our bodies.”
When my friend Helen Shumway suffered a stroke, she and her husband Conney moved to Provo.
They enjoyed being with their children and grandchildren, but they yearned for San Juan County.
Conney especially loved a tiny juniper perched atop a gigantic boulder along Highway 95.
When he later became terminally ill, he asked his son to photograph it, drawing strength from its tenacity.
Not too long after Conney’s death, my husband and I drove home along Highway 95 after a day of hiking.
Much to our surprise, the little juniper had died, showing, as mysterious as it seems, what Eckhart Tolle calls an underlying intelligence that connects all things on a deep level.
Who knows what healing the twisted tree provided for a dying man and his family.
Healing is something the juniper trees themselves need now. Thousands are dying in our area.
Dr. L. Kay Shumway believes the larvae of a bark beetle are girdling the trees and eating the phloem.
He says 10-year-old trees as well as those 400-500 years old are dying.
Because of Dr. Shumway’s efforts to publicize the problem, he has drawn the attention of the BLM, Park Service, Forest Service, and University of Utah.
These experts are investigating, but the cause of the widespread death is still not certain.
Researchers from Northern Arizona University believe a healthy fungal network might be one thing that will help the pinyon and juniper survive.
Warm weather is arriving sporadically in San Juan County.
With runoff from snow and ice, hail, and rain, water cascades off the sides of Westwater, and miniature wildflowers bloom.
As Oggie and I walk the trails, I scan the trees.
Some of the yellowing pinyons are showing tender new growth at their tips, but I can’t discern a revival in the impacted junipers.
Nevertheless, after this winter of miracles, I listen with my “third ear,” for the music that heals the inner spirit and watch the regeneration spring brings to the desert I have grown to love.