Fostering the pinyon’s tenacious hold on life

Despite a strong winter, some of the pinyons in Westwater have died with brown needles hanging on the branches or piled beneath.

Those trees will become nurslings – sometimes to baby flickers whose parents have drilled holes into the dead wood – sometimes to other plants as the branches and trunks slowly disintegrate into nourishing humus.

One pinyon strikes me though, as Oggie and I walk the trails. It’s mostly dead but a few long green needles cling to its branches.

Those needles, which can remain on the tree for nine years, once served as a dramatic contrast to the dried ones but they fade a little more each day.

The two-needle pinyons in our area grow slowly and often live 350 to 600 years, although some can survive up to 1,000 years.

Pinyons don’t bear cones until they’re at least 25, and the cones themselves need three years to mature.

The trees produce tasty nuts when they’re 75 to 100 years old, with an abundant harvest occurring every four to seven years.

The nuts, a source of important nutrition, are loved by humans, animals, and birds alike, with jays and nutcrackers caching the seeds for later feasting.

Despite the trees’ longevity, previous years of drought stressed the alpine desert forests, making the pinyons more susceptible to the pine engraver beetles.

According to one study, 40 to 80 percent of the pinyons in the Four Corners area died between 2002 and 2003.

About a month ago, Oggie and I paused beside the dying pinyon on our way south.

I had no idea of its real age, but it was over 15 feet tall and cones still hung from its branches, so I imagined the human life it had seen, the Native peoples, Anglo settlers, cowboys perhaps, students from the college, and those of us who walk, run, or bike the trails.

I wondered if other Westwater pinyons, those that were huge and thriving, saw the Ancient Puebloans walking the canyon, building homes and storage cysts and drawing water from the stream.

After pausing for a few moments, Oggie and I made our way to the southern trails, across the stream, around to the east side of the canyon, and down to the stream again.

As we each took our favorite seat, I thought about my Kansas family, especially my 93-year-old dad who was in crisis, a challenging reality in the midst of the Coronavirus lockdown.

My father suffers from dementia and vision loss, but until recently he’s been able to stay in his own home and remain fairly functional.

After he took a bad fall I made a lot of phone calls, mostly to family members but also to a social worker who wasn’t allowed yet to make home visits, hoping for some kind of intervention.

When I finally talked to Dad, I said, “I heard you had to go to the hospital. Are you okay?”

Dad, who has become almost Zen-like in his acceptance of difficult circumstances, said, “I’m fine. Last time I talked to my doctor he told me to keep doing what I’m doing, so that’s what I do. I still walk twice a day.”

“Are you all bandaged up?”

“Well, yes, a little, but, you know, that’s just the way life is.”

I didn’t tell him the last doctor he’d seen was in the emergency room, or that his family physician, the one who had given him the advice to keep doing what he was doing, retired five years ago.

Despite Dad’s limitations he has his own brand of resilience, modeled after his mother’s life. But he’s falling more often, so my brother did intervene and, despite the distance and the lockdown regulations, arranged for home health care to accompany Dad on his walks and help with his daily routine – a temporary solution until the virus subsided.

Oggie interrupted my thoughts by jumping up behind me on my rock and laying down with her back against mine.

I could hear the water flowing past us, a spotted towhee, several pinyon jays in the distance, and the echo of Dad’s words, “That’s just the way life is.”

Everything else was silent. I closed my eyes, wishing I could foster the tenacious grip he had on life.

When I opened my eyes, I glanced up at a nearby cottonwood tree. Somehow the sun caught the green buds at just the right angle, burnishing each one with light.

Beside the stream, the leaves on the olive trees, oakbrush, and willows had started unfurling.

I rose, brushed off my pants, and Oggie and I jumped the water. We clambered up the side of the canyon to the upper trail where common paintbrush bloomed along with phlox with its delicate white and violet blossoms.

Blue flax trembled in the wind, and hyssop pennyroyal, a tiny purple flower fit for fairies or bees, opened to the sun. Each day, as the weather warmed, more flowers bloomed: Claret cup cacti, fleabane, spreading daisy, yellow-eye cryptanth, twistflowers, and the fragrant cliffrose.

As we started toward home, I could hear the pinyon jays making their distinctive calls. The jays carry up to 40 unshelled seeds in their esophagi on their way to cache them.

Some of those seeds, thrust deep into earth, sprout and grow into baby pinyons, and some of those babies mature into forest elders like the dying pinyon I paused beside, knowing it would soon become a nursling, wishing I could foster its tenacious hold on life.

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