Early July 2020
It’s a first day of our retreat in The White Mountains of Arizona…”Let’s go for a walk, not too far. This thin air is 10000, feet above sea level. First day pushes can make a person quite ill.”
Curiosity beckons. Across the vast field bordering our chosen campsite, is a dark band across the bottom of the white bark trunks of a grove of white aspen. It is a dark line and we want to investigate its origin. What is causing such a consistent line?
We are in an alpine wilderness. We’re away from most anybody. We journeyed the rough little route that crosses another similar open space, then through a gate. Eventually, the Forest Service road turned into a 4×4 pile of chunky volcanic rock, where few will venture. Perhaps a fellow hiker, but more likely we’d be found by an errant quad or ATV and just a couple of times in a day. This is slightly further away from that shabby trail. We have camped in place with a vast sense of freedom.
Toe shoes on, we grab a couple of cameras and a bottle of water. We high step carefully, not to stub into the lichen covered volcanic rock that is littering the whole of it all. These and the grasses nurture the small plants, which are ready to flower when the now very tardy monsoon rains begin. I glance out at the phenomena, again. It occurs to me as I turn to DF, “Perhaps a snow line. Up here, snow drifts go high.” Perhaps that is the line where the snows buried the trees. It is such a consistent line, like a dirty bathtub ring.
As we arrive, we notice a collection of black spots and nicks in the aspen’s white bark that has been causing the dark line which we noticed in the distance.
There is a garden of what will be purple iris blanketing the floor. It’s green, contrasting beautifully with the white aspen bark.
Everywhere, there is fallen wood of all kinds. The obstacles require more leg lifts, stepping over log after log. Sometimes it is best to just walk along the conveyance, using it like a bridge.
We begin to examine the bark, discovering that it is a mass of what have to be scratch marks. I don’t know what, or who causes this. If any of you do, please, leave a comment. Could it be a bear’s mark, or a mass of elk honing their antlers?
The familiar “all seeing eyes,” the typical black spots on white aspen where the branches fall off, are everywhere. The watchful scars are apparent, but these are something else.
The field and particularly this spot have been filled with elk scat in all stages of decay. They seem to have made this a gathering spot at times. One of the reasons that I chose our campsite is the view across the field, which appears to be nearly a mile across in some spots. I have a vision I my mind of a herd of elk listing cautiously along in front of me, as I sit at my camp, my eyes wide, then glancing away to quickly grab my camera.
We find the scratching on the other types of trees, as well. Pines are the minority here. Down the way, they have their claim of dominance. A bug crawls out of the slit in one of the black scars. Could it be that these are made to get at that parasitic protein? Bark falls off from bug eaters and woodpeckers. But, these marks all end at a consistent height.
The freshness varies. There is a yellow hue here and orange one there, but mostly old black scars.
This thicket of white trunks is all one tree. These are suckers from the root system of grandpa and grandma Aspen. We begin looking for the oldest amongst this forest. One thick one has a barren area around it. Could it have been where the original circle, now gone, began to expand out?
One dead tree has fresh growth at its base. As I mentioned before, deadfall is ever-present, scattered in crisscrossing lengths. We have to adjust our walk. It is a maze to navigate.
Deadfall that hasn’t reached the ground also crisscrosses. These lean-too structures must have helped our ancients to figure out how to build shelters easily. A cross-beam and branches laid across it. All that they had to do was fill it all in and wait for elk, or whoever roamed the neighborhood back in that day. Were they naked and afraid? Did they feel like we do today, enmeshed in the wonder and beauty of it all?
DF feels for the energy of this place. She smiles delightedly and pulls out her tree meditation notes. She is here now 100% amongst the life of this place of white bark against dark green contrasts. The aspen make an especially unique world.
These aspen are mostly populating just the edge of the field. The ecological succession of time continues, as I explore deeper into the woods. Now, spruce and red pines, with some others darken the air of the forest. I have left DF to her meditation. I look back. She sits on a log that she had spotted. She needs to be all to herself.
When it is time, she rejoins me.
We discover a road-like spot with tread marks. Someone has been here through the forest and stopped at the meadow. That pair of wheel wells will lead to an exploration on another day.
We make our way around the field’s perimeter. The terrain begins to slope down. Could there be water? I see a rich fluorescent green through the trees and there is a path to it.
We find a healthy garden of mullein, the distinct plant with its velvety fuzzy leaves that generously gives us a delicious tea and nourishment. We now know where the best tea in the neighborhood is to be found.
Nearby, there is one of those rotten to drive mountain trail/roads. We decide to see if it is the one that I saw from the satellite photos that may lead back toward our camp. With no rain, there is a fine soft powder the color of pine needles.
Each step brings a puff of smoke-like dust around our feet. It hovers in place, as we continue moving our feet.
The road leads off into the forest. Once again one thing leads to another for us, wandering and one natural discovery after another.
Time and weather has sculpted wood into flowing art.
We are entertained, but where this route leads is inconclusive.
With our original plan in mind, we backtrack to the landmark of mullein and the path, to continue our exploration of the perimeter of the vast field.
Our short walk to the mystery of the aspen grove has become two hours of naturism. After setting up the tent, squatting with a rubber mallet, hammering at over thirty stakes, and the leg lifting to stop from stubbing a toe on those thousands of rocks, I’m happy to see the new bell tent ahead in the trees. It looks like a white temple with its system of arched windows around the base, or maybe a flying saucer.
We’ll be the two monks at the temporary temple. The real temple is this vast wilderness. The meditation was to become one with the trees and everything, quieting the mind. The nature of our world has been brought into the heart and we are awash in gratitude and awe.
Who, or what is whacking at the bark of the local trees, still, has us pondering.
I have been quite busy coordinating and remolding the new house. My apologies that my post may be slightly erratic in their timing. The goal is once each week. We should be beginning a series in a remote area in the Galiuro Mountains of Arizona.
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